Five Books

Someone recently asked me about the books I’ve been reading and for any recommendations. It’s always difficult to recommend a book, it’s much the same as with music. Your favourite album might just be a cipher in someone else’s collection or even fall on deaf ears. I have always been a voracious reader and have been reading prolifically of late, partly because since my move to London I have more time on my hands.

Every book I read is the best book I have ever read. I read mostly non-fiction, theology, philosophy, cultural theory, psychoanalytic writings, poetry, biography, I rarely read fiction. I judge books by their covers, they say you can’t, but that maxim emerged in the days when books were plainly bound and generally similar looking on the cover and spine, these days a cover can tell you an awful lot about the content inside.

Anyway, rather than recommend books, I’ll tell you about a few that have had major impact on my life, about some books that I have carried with me and returned to more than once. They are books that I have read and re-read and each time have found things that speak, inspire, provoke and challenge my thinking about life.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressell

Having just said that I rarely read fiction my first selection is a novel. It was first given to me by a friend’s father. He was a union man and lifelong socialist and I spent many an afternoon arguing politics with my friends at his home. The book was published posthumously in 1914, three years after the death of its author. It is regarded as a classic piece of working-class literature. It tells the story of a house-painter who is trying to stave off poverty and the workhouse. The original cover carried the sub-title, "Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell." Tressell’s real name was Robert Noonan, he chose the pen name in reference to the trestle table which was essential to his trade as a painter and decorator. The book is basically a scathing examination of the working-class and their employers.

This is the book that politicized me. It expressed many of the frustrations I felt decades later, growing up working-class, admittedly with a lot more than those in the novel, but nonetheless still struggling to fight against classism and the like. This is a book that is more than the sum total of its parts for me, it was a catalyst, it gave me language and a desire to take action and not just sit in passivity. The book’s critique of selfish capitalism has never left me. Every few years I buy a new copy and read it again. The world we live in feels a long way from Tressell’s and yet there are elements of the book that transcend time and space, which is perhaps what makes for good fiction, it still speaks, to a world unlike the one it was published into.

Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus.

This book! I have used it for many years in classes on theology and culture. It’s a book about a cultural moment I lived through, but Marcus gave me eyes to see it in a much more expansive way. It’s about punk, but punk in its larger sense. Punk was never really about a musical genre, it was always about more than that, it was about everything that happened outside of the dominant culture. Marcus tells the story through the surrealists, the situationists, the dadaists, the punks, he tells of an event that happened in a pre-mediatized world. For Marcus music has no potency, no power, no meaning if it doesn’t scream with politics and philosophy and ideas that exist outside of the mainstream environments those things usually swim in.

It’s a book I think everyone should read, not for tidbits about the Sex Pistols or the other bands referenced, but t understand the even that happened, to think about how it happened and how much of that still echoes around the fringes of culture, just waiting.

In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith by Walter Brueggemann

There are moments in ones life when you know change is coming to you or for you and you need new words, new language to give voice to your transition. Not necessarily to explain yourself to others, but for self-understanding. This book came along at such a time for me. It’s not one of Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann’s most widely read works. It was published in 1972 and is a product of its time. There is a large section about race but the general focus is on the neglected notion that the Bible affirms human culture, capability, and responsibility as a part of the biblical narrative and gospel story. Brueggemann hones in on the book of Proverbs and the wisdom traditions it contains that affirm the world and celebrate culture. There is a great section on King David and his counter-intuitive practice of holiness that I found incredibly liberating at the time. As someone who had found themselves in a bit of a cul-de-sac, caught up in what Brueggemann calls ‘culture-despising,’ I was struggling with my own inclinations and interests and feeling the pressure to conform to a version of Christianity that I found unhelpful and confining, This book helped me to open the doors to my own theological thinking and gave me an alphabet with which to begin the process of creating a way of speaking about life and culture and theology.

After Christianity by Gianni Vattimo

I’m a big fan of most things Italian—the country, the food, the art, the artists, the architecture, the philosophers and thinkers. There is something about the way they live, and particularly the way they write and think that just resonates with me. I think it has something to do with its Catholicism, in the sense that Southern Europe had a different relationship to the Enlightenment and Protestantism. I like the neo-Baroque-ness of contemporary Italian philosophy. Vattimo is an interesting figure, a philosopher, former member of the European parliament, and a lapsed Catholic-homosexual who found his way back to faith though Nietzsche. He has written a lot about belief, religion and Christianity in particular, in very novel and challenging ways. After Christianity is his view Christianity after the death of God. He addresses the uncertainty of belief, secularization as a fulfillment of the Christian mission and argues that this sets up the potential and possibility for a new mode of Christianity. This is no gentle re-framing of the old, it is an invitation to a new way of thinking about faith and its role in society today.

Central to this book is Vattimo’s theory of pensiero debole, weak thought, an idea that Jack Caputo has utilized in his work on weak theology. For Vattimo philosophy in the postmetaphysical age can only acknowledge, after Nietzsche, that all is interpretation, and that the "real" is always relative and not the hard and fast truth we once thought it to be. Contemporary thought must acknowledge its claims as "weak" as opposed to the "strong" foundationalist claims of the metaphysical past. Vattimo that this is what makes it possible for religion and God to become a serious topic for philosophy again, and that philosophy should now formally engage religion. The relationship between religion and philosophy is remarkably different than when he wrote this book in 2002. This book was another link in the chain for my own thinking. His contribution to contemporary theological discourse is under-utilized I think.

Six Memos For The Next Millennium by Italo Calvino

The novelist Italo Calvino died suddenly in 1985. He was scheduled to give a series of lectures on literature at Harvard in the fall of the same year. Six Notes, was published after his death and are basically his unfinished notes for the lectures. Given that they were written in 1985, they have an air of the prophetic about them. The categories: Lightness; quickness; exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and the final unfinished note on consistency, resonate still.

The Cuban born, Italian based Calvino is known mostly for his novels and short stories. Regarded as one of the earliest postmodern writers, his works are hard to categorize, he himself said that "My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language" which tells a lot about how he wrote but also what to expect when reading him.

I have returned to these notes on occasion and find myself still interested in what he offers for those who are now fully embedded in the new era that he sadly did not get to see.