This list contains the list of books I read on my own and outside of class during my freshman year of college. I summarize each piece and provide my favorite quote from each work. Credit is to be bestowed to Christopher Benson for giving me the idea to do this sort of explication of all my books I read my freshman year.
- The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is a novel that narrates the lives of the five people that suffer a tragic death by falling from a bridge at the moment it breaks. In this novel, Wilder explores faith, Providence, and love. The concluding lines of the novel impacted me the most:
Even now,” she thought, “almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers here Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a novel that tells the transformation of a prideful and greedy old man named Ebenezer Scrooge by the visitation of his dead work partner, Marley, and three other ghosts. The novel shows us that Scrooge’s life of lonely hatred is not worth his riches, that love is worth all the money in the world. One of the ghosts says this to Scrooge:
It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!
- A Room with a View by E.M. Forster is a novel about a young woman Lucy and her travels abroad, to Italy and almost to Greece, as well as her travels inside her soul to find freedom and to find love. Lucy finds a kind, yet blunt man in Italy named George Emerson that she clearly has some sort of love for. On her return to England, she becomes engaged to a scholarly and intelligent man named Cecil. However, he seems to just treat her as an object, a painting to be looked at. Also, after George and his father move to England, Lucy feels her love for George clarify and reemerge. She ends up breaking the engagement, about to flee to Greece, but is convinced to follow her deep love and marry George.
…If she was too great for this society, she was too great for all society, and had reached the stage where personal intercourse would alone satisfy her. A rebel she was, but not of the kind [Cecil] understood—a rebel who desired, not a wider dwelling-room, but equality beside the man she loved. For Italy was offering her the most priceless of all possessions—her own soul.
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy is a novella/short story that maps the life of Ivan Ilych and his goal of “freeing himself more and more from these unpleasentnesses” of life. In doing this, he hurts himself decorating his apartment for his family, and this ultimately leads to his death. As he decays to death, he grows more and more sour towards his family, especially his wife. But at the very end, he discovers what truly matters, and Ivan Ilyich undergoes a transformation from selfish materialism to selfless love. On the last page of the novella, Tolstoy says these beautiful words about Ivan Ilych:
And suddenly it became clear to him that what was tormenting him and would not be resolved was suddenly all resolved at once, on two sides, on ten sides, on all sides. He was sorry for [his family], he had to act so that it was not painful for them. To deliver them and deliver them and deliver himself from these sufferings. “How good and how simple,” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What’s become of it? Where are you, pain?”…Instead of death there was light.
- The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a short story narrating the life of a man named Owen Warland, whose sole aim is beauty. The town in which he lives is plagued by a preoccupation with “usefulness.” Yet, there is one who understands his goal of beauty, Annie Hovenden, and he comes to love her. However, she comes to marry and have child with the useful blacksmith, Robert Danforth. Owen still presents his work of beauty to her, a mechanical butterfly with supernatural powers that is crushed by her child. Owen is not disheartened because he finds beauty in Annie’s child at the conclusion of the story.
So long as we love life for itself, we seldom dread the losing it. When we desire life for the attainment of an object, we recognize the frailty of its texture.
- The Artist at Work by Albert Camus, which I intentionally read directly before The Artist of the Beautiful, is a short story about a painter, Jonas, and his life as an artist, and a husband and father. He starts out with great paintings that bring him much acclaim, and he starts out love with much love and happiness with his wife and children. However, he grows in pride because of his new found fame, and proceeds to grow away from his family, slowly and slowly moving to solitude in search for “his star,” a painting that ends up being a blank canvas. This ending is not surprising for Camus, the atheist existentialist that he is. This story is still an intriguing and beautiful one, despite its tragic ending.
Jonas’s disciples explained to him at length what he had painted, and why. In this way Jonas discovered in his work intentions that rather surprised him, and a host of things he hadn’t put there. He had thought himself poor and, thanks to his pupils, suddenly found himself rich. At times, faced with such hitherto unsuspected wealth, Jonas would feel a tingle of pride.
- The Minister’s Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a magnificent short story about a minister, who one day decides to where a black veil on his face, and keep it on his face till he meets death. This veil causes people to gossip, act differently, and cast off the reverend. What Hawthorne can do in fourteen pages astounds me. The veil becomes a symbol of the veil over our hearts, covering our secret sins that we hide in our innermost places. At the end of his life, the minister says this on his deathbed, as someone tries to remove his veil:
Why do you tremble at me alone?…Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!
- The Peasant Marey by Fyodor Dostoevsky is told from a first person narrator, who very well seems to be Dostoevsky himself. The narrator, in prison, constantly looks at the other prisoners with hate, thinking himself as better than they. Then, he, for reasons unknown, recalls the memory of the true love of one of his father’s serfs, who protected him form the threat of a wolf that may or may not have been real. No one was around to see the peasant, Marey, help the little boy, so this must have been true altruism. This memory completely transforms the narrator, even in a horrible prison:
And so when I got off the bunk and looked round, I suddenly felt, I remember, that I could look at these unhappy creatures with quite different eyes, and that suddenly by some miracle all hatred and anger had vanished form my heart. I walked round the prison peering into the faces I came across…I cannot possibly look into his heart, can I?
- Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a short story about a man named Goodman Brown, who is married to a wonderful woman named Faith. Hawthorne narrates the travels of Goodman Brown in the dark woods with a crook, encountering different people of the church in these mysterious woods. Strange things happen in these woods, and it all seems to figuratively point to not only Goodman Brown’s sin, but all of the citizen’s sin, and our sin as well. The short story ends tragically with Goodman Brown’s apparent allergy to a sermon and scripture reading, and his death.
Young Goodman Brown caught hold of a tree for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and overburdened with the heavy sickness of his heart. He looked up to the sky, doubting whether there really was a heaven above him. Yet there was the blue arch, and the stars brightening in it.
‘With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the Devil!’ cried Goodman Brown.
- ‘A Christmas Episode from Master Humphrey’s Clock’ is a short story or excerpt that narrates the bringing together of two men as friends. One man sees another at a bar on Christmas, sitting by himself as he was. This man ends up being deaf, and they grow so close together that they develop Aristotle’s highest form of friendship.
Whatever sorrow my deaf friend has known, and whatever grief may linger in some secret corner of his heart, he is now a cheerful, placid, happy creature. Misfortune can never have fallen upon such a man but for some good purpose, and when I see traces in his gentle nature and his earnest feeling, I am the less disposed to murmur at such trials as I may have undergone myself.
- The Dream of a Ridiculous Man by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a novella/short story about a suicidal man who contemplates ending his life, but falls asleep whilst thinking, going into a dream that just might be more real than life itself. He visits paradise in this dream and sees all of these people living in perfect harmony, moderation, and love. However, his imperfect soul corrupts this dreamed paradise. He comes to and is a changed man who knows that people can truly love on earth, and he plans to live by that principle of love:
Oh how I longed for life, life! I lifted up my hands and called upon eternal Truth—no, not called upon it, but wept. Rapture, infinite and boundless rapture intoxicated me. Yes, life and –preaching! I made up my mind to preach from that very moment and, of course, to go on preaching all my life. I am going to preach, I want to preach. What? Why, truth. For I have beheld truth, I have beheld it with mine own eyes, I have beheld it in all its glory…I know that people can be happy and beautiful without losing their ability to live on earth.
- Ethan Brand by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a short story about Ethan Brand, an ex-blacksmith, who returns to his kiln to tell people about his journey to find The Unpardonable Sin. The short story is crowded with mystery, but Hawthorne and Ethan Brand reveal to us mysteriously the unpardonable sin, a disconnection from humanity, that Ethan Brand himself possesses most above all humanity. Ethan Brand, at the end of the story, throws himself into the kiln which he put so much work into.
So much for the intellect! But where was the heart? That, indeed, had withered,–had contracted,–had hardened,–had perished! It had ceased to partake of the universal throb. He had lost his hold of the magnetic chain of humanity. He was no longer brother-man, opening the chambers or the dungeons of our common nature by the key of holy sympathy, which gave him a right to share in all its secrets; he was now a cold observer, looking on mankind as the subject of his experiment…
- The Seven Poor Travellers by Charles Dickens is a short story that tells of a house that allows six poor travellers to stay there. A man, who feel particularly drawn to the house asks to see the travellers, and he ends up hosting a dinner for them on Christmas Eve, as they come from the cold and heart-breaking rode.
Christmas Eve, my friends, when the Shepherds, who were Poor Travellers too in their way, heard the Angels sing, “ On earth, peace. Goodwill towards men!
- Heidegger’s Experiment by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a short story about a doctor who runs an experiment on his friends, who agree to humor him in being a part in the experiment. The experiment is for them to drink from the water the doctor supposedly obtained from the fountain of youth. This water works and causes the friends to grow younger, however, they seem to grow older as the liquid loses its effect. The old people are desperate for more liquid, but the doctor only has so much of it. And at the end of the story, there is a mirror that might show the liquid to only be a magic trick that merely makes them look younger:
Yet, by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of three old, grey, withered grandsirs, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shriveled grandam.
- An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis is a book on why we read literature. It explores criticism of literary works, the literary vs. the unliterary, good reading vs. bad reading, poetry, fantasy, and more. It is the most essential book to read if you wonder why other people read literature (and you yourself do not), and if you wonder why it is important to read literature (and you yourself do). All those interested in reading literature should read this book.
“…We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world form one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself…We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with out own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside…But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
- ‘Literature’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an essay on the nature of the British society during the time of Emerson. In this essay, Emerson discusses the utilitarian culture of Britain, saddened by the aversion of his people to things such as literature, philosophy, and things of the sort. He negates this utility focused English mind.
Nothing comes to the book-shops but politics, travels, statistics, tabulation, and engineering; and even what is called philosophy and letters is mechanical in its structure, as if inspiration had ceased, as if no vast hope, no religion, no song of joy, no wisdom, no analogy existed any more. The tone of colleges and of scholars and of literary society has this mortal air. I seem to walk on a marble floor, where nothing will grow. They exert every variety of talent on a lower ground and may be said to live and act in a sub-mind. They have lost all commanding views on literature, philosophy, and science. A good Englishman shuts himself out of three fourths of his mind and confines himself to one fourth.
- Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities by John M. Ellis is a book that speaks about the recent move towards a preoccupation with social and political ideas in English Departments. These social and political obsessions include race, gender, and class. While these topics have their place in literature, Ellis maps the mistake in making these things the focus of all literature, and provides a solution to the problem he speaks of.
A concern with exceptional minds and excellence is now dismissed as elitism, and many prefer to concern themselves with Madonna videos or gay pornography. Fine writing is no longer valued; English professors now write in a style that they would formerly have denounced as clumsy and full of jargon. Many, it would seem, no longer even like the field that once so delighted them, and they write on anything but literature. Thus, professors with prestigious chairs in literature at major universities routinely write and claim authority on political and historical topics like imperialism, psychological and social topics like sexual behavior…or any number of topics in other fields…But as for literature simply as literature—even to speak of it what way sounds old fashioned.
- How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton explores the different aspects of literature, including openings, character, narrative, interpretation, and value. He uses many examples from both classic and modern authors, showing his familiarity with literature as a whole.
In any case, even the most innovative literary work is made up among other things of the scraps and leavings of countless texts that have come before…It is true that we are forever recycling our signs. But it is also true, as Noam Chomsky reminds us, that we constantly produce sentences we have never heard or spoken before.
- Good News for Anxious Christians by Phillip Cary is a book that speaks about what the Christian life is centered on, what it truly is about: the gospel. He negates the rising Christian view known to some as ‘the new evangelical theology,’ which believes that one ought to hear God’s voice in your heart, have intuitions of the Holy Spirit, let God take control, find God’s will for your life, be sure you have the right motivations, split head from heart, be transformed again and again, always experience joy, apply everything to your life, and base your faith on experience.” Conversely he says that God speaks to us through Scripture, that the Spirit shapes our heart through Scripture, that obedience is for responsible adults (us), that faith seeks wisdom, that love seeks the good, that thinking welcomes feeling, that virtues make a lasting change in us, that God vindicates the afflicted, that the Gospel is, in itself, beautiful and essential, and that the Christian faith needs Christian teaching.
The story we live in, whether we believe it or not, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the disciples and the soldiers, the women who are healed and the children raised from the dead, we are all character’s in Christ’s story, which is really the story of the whole world he came to save. To believe the gospel is to find ourselves in this story, recognizing that we are one of the many sinners for whom Christ died. This is a great comfort and joy: it makes us Christians and gives us the strength to take up the cross and follow our Lord. That is why believers love to hear the gospel preached over and over again…
- Telling the Truth by Frederick Buechner is a book that explains the gospel as tragedy, comedy and fairy tale. Christ came to die, which is tragic. Christ died for our sins so that we may have salvation and eternal life, which is comic. Christ did all of this for us, and yet we still sin again and again despite his grace, and he still forgives us despite our repeated sins, which is fairy tale, something completely unbelievable. Buechner is a beautiful writer and great thinker.
Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and to such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes… you and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuiting of truth that we have.
- The Idea of a Christian College by Arthur Holmes is a book set out to describe the goals and purposes of the ideal Christian Liberal Arts College, the best form of higher education in his opinion. He discusses the need for a well-rounded liberal arts education, but also a Christian lens through which to view what one learns. He discusses how true learning will occur when people truly love what they are doing in the classroom enough to take it outside of the classroom. He believes this is cultivated best at a Christian liberal arts college:
Somehow or other the student must realize that education is a Christian vocation, one’s prime calling from God for these years, that education must be an act of love, of worship, of stewardship, a wholehearted response to God. Attitude and motivation accordingly afford but a beginning; this personal contact between faith and learning should extend to disciplined scholarship and to intellectual and artistic integrity.
- My Bright Abyss is a book by poet Christian Wiman. It is his meditations on Christianity, looking through his life, dealing with cancer, finding his wife, having his children (while having cancer!), and more. It is a book that takes one through the struggles of life and the faith, but also to the joys of life and the faith.
I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drining the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?… I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion—to the point of death, even—possible. Human man love can reach right to death, then, but not if it is merely human love.
- The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis is a work of apologetics, but also a work of fantasy. So, one might call it a book of ‘fictional apologetics,’ which is typical of Lewis’ works. This book narrates a man who finds himself in a dull, dark city, boarding a bus, finding himself at the outskirts of Paradise. He finds out on his journey that he is dead, and that the city was hell, and that he is now looking at the mountains where Paradise is. Everything is more real; the grass hurts his feet for example. He struggles with whether it is better to live in freedom down in hell where one is separated from God, or to work your way up the difficult path towards God that hurts you until you get accustomed to the reality of Paradise.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, Thy will be done.’”