An Anabaptist Jólabókaflóð: Joel Mathis can read again!


2017 was when I got my book-reading back.

A few years back I had a series of surgeries that saved my life, but left me broken. One way I was left injured: A clumping of conditions that, together, created rather severe sleep deprivation on my part. Book reading was impossible – I could never go more than a page at a time.

This year, I had a septoplasty. My nasal passages were broken, and the rough places made plain. The result? I can breathe. More importantly, I breathe when I sleep. Which means I sleep more. Which means I can read.

Oh, God, how good it feels to read again.

Here are some of the books I read with my re-acquired abilities this year:

A Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: This was a great TV show this year, apparently — I don’t know: I never watched. Instead, I was one of the many, many people who made this dystopian feminist novel the most-read book of the year at Amazon. It’s a reminder that when authoritarianism comes, it often crushes women most harshly.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders: I’ve been reading George Saunders’ short stories for years: His Man Booker Prize-winning first novel is typically brilliant. What Saunders does in his writing: Combines a highly formal, experimental approach with a deep, deep humanity. That’s tricky to pull off — innovation in literature can often feel cold, sterile, and stuffy. Saunders’ writing can challenge your brain and make you feel. It’s a tough combination to pull off.

How to Think by Alan Jacobs/Civility by Stephen L. Carter: These two books were written 20 years apart, and ostensibly about different topics. But they share a theme: We’re doing a lousy job of treating people with different ideas – bad ideas – as our neighbor. There’s a reason for that: It’s hard work! And right now, we’re so angry and polarized as a people it seems reasonable to wonder if we can ever back away from this permanent cultural firefight we seem embedded in. I think we can – we have to, if we want to survive as a people. These two books offer a good start in thinking about how to do that.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson: Ta-Nehisi Coates has made his name in recent years diagnosing the white supremacy that afflicts America; Dyson – literally writing in a sermon form here – builds on that diagnosis and offers something more: Thoughts about how white Americans can recognize their participation — and how to end it. Dyson is more congenial than Coates, but don’t misunderstand: There’s a lot of anger here, and a lot of reason for it.

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, by Rick Perlstein: All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.


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