What to Read Next (No. 187): What Are Books For?
Yesterday afternoon and early evening, I breezed through a delightful collection of CS Lewis’ philosophy of reading and writing called The Reading Life. The late Christian apologist and novelist was, by all accounts, one of the world’s great readers. The editors of this small volume write that reading was “one of the supreme pleasures of Lewis’ life.” He was absorbed in books for hours each day, spending more time in old works than new, but taking it all in regardless. Any reader could learn from his example—and also acknowledge the privilege of being able to spend that much time reading. 📚
In the opening essay of The Reading Life, Lewis gets to the heart of why readers read more accurately and soulfully than any other writer I’ve come across. He starts by observing something obvious, but which tends to escape our attention most of the time:
“Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself.”
Our entire worldview is infused with “our own psychology.”
From there, Lewis goes on to explain that the “good of literature” is that “it admits us to experiences other than our own”:
“My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. . . . I will see what others have invented.
. . .
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.”
I’ll leave you with one final word of inspiration from Lewis in regards to the reading life:
“We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own.”
The books featured today have helped me see with other eyes and, above all, feel with other hearts.
A Few Bookish Questions With Erik Rostad
Since 2017, Erik has been conducting a public reading project called Books of Titans. From his about page:
“I continue to set a yearly reading list in advance and move through the list one book at a time. I’ve completed books I’ve wanted to read for many years and have been amazed at what I’ve discovered.
This project is my experiment to figure out the best ways to read more and retain what I learn. I try different approaches to find out what works best for me. I’m flexible on the methods but always want to challenge myself to read and learn more. I find such delight in reading and making connections between a variety of types of books.”
I don’t remember how I found Erik, but it seems that readers always find readers. He was kind enough to answer a few bookish questions for me.
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
Published: 2017 | Pages: 338
I read this book on my wife’s recommendation and was utterly absorbed from the first few pages. It’s about a family—a very loving family made up of mom, dad, four boys who feel like boys, and one little boy who feels like a princess sometimes.
It’d be easy to assume that this book explodes into a family drama—that’s what many authors would do with this premise. Of course there’s some of that, but it’s actually a story about love and what happens when a family rallies around a boy who wants to be a girl and takes on a world that isn’t quite ready for what that means.
What I love most is simply how much kindness and support and empathy are found in these pages. Parents Penn and Rosie deeply love and like each other (something I seem to have a hard time finding in books), the kids fight and bicker but generally get along, and ultimately, everyone is just trying to do what’s best for everyone else.
I read this back in May, but have honestly struggled with how to write about it. It’s less about the plot than simply about parents Penn and Rosie trying, desperately, to understand their child and what to do for him as he becomes more and more her.
No book I’ve read has better or more beautifully described parenthood than This Is How It Always Is. Truly. The best way for me to share that with you, I think, is to do something a bit unique and simply give you a handful of my favorite lines and passages. Spend some extra time on the third one, especially:
“You can’t tell people what to be, I’m afraid. You can only love and support who they already are.”
“You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decision on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands. Who trusts you to know what's good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don't get to see the future. And if you screw up — if with your incomplete contradictory information you make the wrong call — nothing less than your child's entire future and happiness is at stake. It's impossible. It's heartbreaking. It's maddening. But there's no alternative."
“Such a tough life. This is not the easy way.”
"No," Penn agreed, "but I'm not sure easy is what I want for the kids anyway."
She looked up at him. "Why the hell not?"
"I mean, if we could have everything, sure. If we can have it all, yeah. I wish them easy, successful, fun-filled lives, crowned with good friends, attentive lovers, heaps of money, intellectual stimulation, and good views out the window. I wish them eternal beauty, international travel, and smart things to watch on TV. But if I can't have everything, if I only get a few, I'm not sure easy makes my wish list."
"Easy is nice. But it’s not as good as getting to be who you are or stand up for what you believe in," said Penn. "Easy is nice. But I wonder how often it leads to fulfilling work or partnership or being."
"Easy probably rules out having children," Rosie admitted.
"Having children, helping people, making art, inventing anything, leading the way, tackling the world's problems, overcoming your own. I don't know. Not much of what I value in our lives is easy. But there's not much of it I'd trade for easy either, I don't think.”
“I wish for my child, for all our children, a world where they can be who they are and become their most loved, blessed, appreciated selves.”
“How did you teach your small human that it’s what’s inside that counts when the truth was everyone was pretty preoccupied with what you put on over the outside too?”
“Rosie was also used to conflicting emotions, for she was a mother and knew every moment of every day that no one out in the world could ever love or value or nurture her children as well as she could and yet that it was necessary nonetheless to send them out into that world anyway.”
I loved this book.
The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War by Malcolm Gladwell
Published: 2021 | Pages: 206
“Revolutions are birthed in conversation, argument, validation, proximity, and the look in your listener’s eye that tells you you’re on to something.”
It had been a long time since I’d read any Gladwell, and jumping back in to his work was like visiting with an old friend. No matter what Gladwell is writing about—WWII history, in this case—it’s so damn readable and conversational that the pages go by with hardly any effort. I know there’s a lot of hot takes about Gladwell these days, but his narrative writing powers are just outstanding.
That out of the way, let me tell you a little bit about the story found in these pages.
It starts, as many great history books do, with the author’s passionate obsession with World War II. Specifically, Malcolm went to the aviation shelf of his collection and started to explore the military philosophy that undergirded the war’s bombing tactics.
For most of the war, blanket bombing was the norm. You’d flood the air with planes and bomb entire neighborhoods and towns off the map. The civilian toll on both sides was brutal. But one group of pilots, the so-called “Bomber Mafia,” wondered if another way was possible. This group put their focus on creating a bombsight that would allow for ultra-precise bombing which would reduce the human loss and cripple the enemy nonetheless. They searched for nothing less than a more ethical form of war that would bring a quick end to the fighting.
On the other side was General Curtis LeMay. He also wanted a shorter war, but with a different tactic: the total destruction of Japan’s major cities. And he was dang good at it. The bombing of Tokyo—along with many other population centers—was actually nearly as destructive as the nuclear bombs which came later, but of course those literally and figuratively overshadowed anything that had come before.
Ultimately, the question Gladwell explores is, “Was it worth it?”
Should morality play a part in war? What does morality in war even mean? How do you maintain course in the midst of the worst that human nature has to offer?
It’s a slim, quick-reading tale, but one that will stay with you for a long time. I’ve read a lot about WWII but had never read something focused on this particular story. As with all of Gladwell’s work, the real masterstroke is in his weaving together different plotlines and asking not only big questions, but questions that can apply to your life right now.
I really enjoyed The Bomber Mafia and even if you don’t think you enjoy history, there’s a good chance this one will suck you in.
Thanks so much for reading,