I was sick with a bad virus this past week, so my apologies for missing my usual posting day. My apologies also for this column, which is going to be a digression from my usual. I am on the mend, but I do not have it in me right now to delve into the greater mysteries of the universe, like death and life beyond death. And so I am going to write about books, specifically books that expand your mind, challenge your beliefs, and are good for your soul. This list is by no means exhaustive, as it is a list of the books of this sort that I know personally and can recommend without reservation, but it is a start.
“The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife,” and “The Amber Spyglass” by Philip Pullman (his Dark Materials Trilogy)
Philip Pullman is a genius and this trilogy is his magnum opus. Often touted as a treatise against the Catholic church, I cringe at that characterization of this work because the stories are highly original, engrossing, deeply spiritual, rich and complicated, and really about the nature and state of our souls. I am not a re-reader, but I have re-read these four times. Written at an older elementary school level, with a heroine who is about 11, they make outstanding read-alouds for everyone over the age of 10, and the audio version (on CD or download) is a full-cast masterpiece.
“The Stand” by Stephen King
I avoided this book for a lot of years, afraid of Stephen King’s reputation as the King of Horror. This book isn’t that sort, though. It is the ultimate tale of good vs. evil, and the master work of a master storyteller. The only thing horrifying about it is that we, as a people, have done all the things necessary to make it come true, in the 40 years since King wrote it. Epic in scope and length, it hooks you on the first page and moves at quite a clip, so it does not feel long in the end. If you don’t believe me, or don’t want to turn that many pages, the unabridged audio version (on CD or download) is spectacular.
“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel
This book is amazing because it seems that everyone who reads it, reads something different in it. It is profound, spiritually enlightening, and will leave you wanting to talk about it, so maybe buddy up to read it.
“The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver
A definitive work about what happens when you are well-intentioned without being well-informed. I cannot say enough good things about this book, and wish I had read it earlier in my life, to have more time to ponder the deeper truths presented in it. If I happened to be a high school English teacher, this would definitely be required reading for my students. An easy read with memorable characters and a lot to think about.
“The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell
One of the smartest books I have ever read. This book is classified as science fiction, but fairly unique in the genre, as there are no military-types in it, just a team of explorers who are sent off-world by Jesuits to communicate instead of to conquer. Rich and thought-provoking, this book has a sequel, “Children of God,” that is equally brilliant.
“Night” by Elie Wiesel
I made my book club read this a couple years ago, against many protests, because I hadn’t read it yet and discovered that most of them hadn’t either. An important and powerful work about the holocaust, I considered it a great shortcoming of mine that I hadn’t read it because I was too chicken. I needn’t have worried. Wiesel is a masterful writer, keenly aware of his audience and when he has said enough to make his point. His story is heartbreaking and unforgettable, but never overwhelms the reader.
“The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” by Julie Lane
I think this is the least Christmas-ey book about Saint Nick ever written. Less about holidays and more about being grateful for what you have and about the incredible impact your life can have when you share your talents with others. Excellent read for both believers and non-believers. Written for kids, the prose is lovely for all ages, from the very young to very old. Divided neatly into short chapters, it makes a great one-chapter-before-bed read-aloud. Do not confuse this work with others of the same name by other authors.
Thank you for indulging the detour off my usual topics. I should be right as rain in time for next week’s post, and will be back to writing about the great mysteries not held between the covers of a book.