What Should You Read in 2012? by Alissa Wilkinson

For years, I’ve spent some time at the beginning of the new year thinking about the books I’d like to read in the months ahead. Book lists help me order my reading. They let me dream about what I’ll do in the next year. And even when I end up copy-and-pasting half of last year’s list into this year’s, they help me remember who I want to be in the next twelve months.

My 2012 list is made, so what follows is a totally subjective, utterly non-comprehensive suggestion of ten books to add to your reading list for 2012. Five are fairly substantial works; five are small, slim books that you can bring on a weekend trip. All ten are worthy additions to your library.

Five Worth Your Time

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)

You’ve been collared by friends; you’ve seen the accolades. But this is the year when you finally settle into an armchair with a big cup of tea, snow falling softly outside, and sink into Robinson’s simple, lyrical letters from an old minister man to his young son. In the letters, John Ames recounts family history, muses on theology, and comes to terms with what it means to leave a family behind. It isn’t long, but its beauty slows you down and makes you take it all quietly into your soul. Oh, and did I mention it won the Pulitzer in 2005?

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Flannery O’Connor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970)

O’Connor’s short stories are among the best of our American literary heritage, and they continue to teach writers of faith how to grapple with the mysteries and brokenness of a world into which grace breaks unexpectedly. This book is her non-fiction; it includes her famous essay about her peacocks, as well as many musings on being a Catholic writer in the south in the mid-twentieth century. Her wit is sharp, and her observations are keen, but she’s also just a delight to read.

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, Robert Farrar Capon (Modern Library, 2002)

Would you think it strange for me to say that a cookbook changed my theological life? It did. Capon, an Episcopalian priest, wrote this strange, spectacular little book in the mid-1960s, and anyone who has read it will tell you that it’s the most wonderful melding of theology and cooking. In it, Capon offers a sort of impish, fully joyful reflection on God’s wondrous interventions into our lives of feasting and fasting. He also tries to talk about how to roast a leg of lamb, though he gets sidetracked a bit by poetry and delight.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann (Random House, 2009)

McCann’s National Book Award-winning novel uses eccentric French tightrope walker Philippe Petit (you’ll remember him from the documentary Man on Wire) as a thread through its sprawling, heartbreaking, sometimes-disturbing narrative that functions ultimately as a metaphor for 9-11, though much of it takes place in the 1970s. Characters speak in turn—from an Irish priest to an Upper East Side matron to a prostitute. Good fiction should put us inside the heads of those unlike us, and that is precisely what this novel does—even though the truth is sometimes difficult and unseemly.

Seven Days in the Art World
, Sarah Thornton (W.W. Norton, 2008)

The art world is a strange, confusing jungle, full of odd characters and institutions and objects; Thornton is out to make it a little more navigable. In this book—which is incredibly readable and interesting, even for those who have never worked in or around the art world—Thornton gives an ethnology of such strange creatures as the art auction, the graduate critique, the gallery, and the art magazine. She treats her subjects with respect, interest, and careful detail while keeping an anthropologist’s distance. All in thoroughly readable prose.

Small, but Meaningful

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work”
, Kathleen Norris (Pauline Press, 1998)

Norris, an award-winning poet, is perhaps best known for her beautiful spiritual memoirs, such as Dakota and The Cloister Walk. In this tiny book (88 pages), she explores the spirituality of the everyday—in her case, laundry and household chores. It’s reminiscent of a much older volume—Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God—but with a uniquely contemporary (yet timeless) spin.

Life Work, Donald Hall (Beacon Press, 2003)

Hall is one of our best-known poets, but he also writes beautiful memoir-history-criticism hybrids such as this 124-page masterpiece. In it, Hall pays tribute to work (as opposed to labor); he thinks on his family history and his own working life, and spends some time considering the Christian underpinnings of his understanding of the world. The book is arranged as a diptych, owing to something that happens halfway through. It grasps, through work, the beauty and sadness of our larger existence. Well worth your time.

Consulting the Faithful: What Christian Intellectuals Can Learn from Popular Religion, Richard Mouw (Eerdmans, 1994)

The tendency is all too strong among intellectuals, hipsters, and culturally-engaged Christians—especially these days—to discount popular Christianity, to privately make fun of it, to roll our eyes when bad CCM comes on the radio, to sighingly endure church when we “go home” for the holidays. In these 84 pages, Mouw (Professor of Christian Philosophy at and President of Fuller Theological Seminary and prolific author) gently reminds us that we have much to learn from those who approach Christian faith with perhaps a less intellectual bent than we might prefer. Convicting, and extremely readable.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (Eerdmans, 2009)

McEntyre’s beautiful little book is a meditation on the ways in which our language has been emptied of meaning, and an encouragement to take up the practices that help steward language and preserve its vitality instead. Her admonitions include things like “Love the Long Sentence,” “Pray,” “Stay in Conversation,” and “Read Poetry.” Writers will thoroughly appreciate the book, but anyone who cares about the state of public discourse or wishes to better use language will enjoy this small volume.

Sinners Welcome, Mary Karr (Harper, 2006)

Mary Karr is best known for her memoirs (The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit, a conversion narrative that rocked the best books lists in 2010). But she’s first and finally a poet, and Sinners Welcome is her book of conversion poetry. It is by turns snarky, witty, and piercingly heartfelt; it includes poems for former teachers, lovers, and her son, as well as a set of poems of “Descending Theology” that nail the incarnation in the most startling, beautiful way. There are no clean conversions, no easy answers, in Karr’s poetry—and that is what makes it searingly memorable.

You can order these books at Hearts and Minds Books. Mention Q Ideas when you order and receive 20% off.