This summer break, I set aside some time to turn off my devices, unplug from the internet, and read some honest-to-goodness books. Some I received from friends and family as Christmas or Birthday gifts (thanks, Sharon, Zac, Neil!), and some I had accumulated on my “to-read” pile waiting for just the right time. Here are some short reviews of my summer reading pile, in case you’d like to follow along.
Christmas and New Year reading (and reference). pic.twitter.com/LKLFIbQKPM— Greg Restall (@consequently) December 28, 2018
Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a delightful little book. It’s an enjoyable and personable mixture of memoir and runners’ journal. I’ve taken up running as a serious exercise practice in the last few years, and Murakami’s writing about his serious practice of long-distance running, and how he fits that in to the life of a writer was challenging and inspiring.
After reading it, I thought I could take my running practice more seriously, and I surprised myself by managing my first sub 5 minute-per-kilometre 10K run in the next week. Reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running will remain with me for some time.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is well known to be a reflective thinker, whose theological writing seriously engages with a range of theological traditions, but which also comes from a sustained contemplative practice. I don’t find Williams’ writing easy, but it’s always been rewarding when I’ve made the time to slow down and digest it. Williams’ new book Christ the Heart of Creation is an attempt to revisit the classical doctrine of the incarnation in a new way: by focussing relentlessly on the idea that there is no competition between divine and creaturely action. According to Williams, too often we conceive of God as just another agent like any agent–except perhaps rather Bigger. (The metaphor is strained, but the relationship between a creature and God is more akin to the relationship between a fictional character and its author than between one character and another. Hermione stands to Harry in rather a different way than Hermione does to J. K. Rowling.) The way the Creator acts in creation is categorically distinct from the way a creature acts in creation. Williams examines different vocabulary used to give an account of the incarnation–from Augustine, the Chalcedonian Creed and Byzantine theologians Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus, through Aquinas and Calvin to Barth and Bonhoeffer, with a sprinkling of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein along the way, and always with care to the creature/creation distinction firmly on focus.
The result is a sympathetic recasting of traditional doctrines in a manner that breathes life into what may have seemed obsolete vocabulary. For Williams, incarnational vocabulary is a natural expression of a community attempting to articulate what they have encountered God doing in and through the human life of Jesus. The icing on the cake for me was Williams’ discussion of Paul’s “Body of Christ” language, which is, on this view, much more than a metaphor. This was a valuable read, well worth the time to digest slowly.
The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind, by D. T. Suzuki, is an exposition of the teaching of the Zen master Hui-neng (638–713). This book is an introduction to a debate in the early development of Zen Buddhism, a debate about sudden enlightenment and the doctrine of no-mind. I’d read some elementary expositions of Zen Buddhism before, but it was good to tackle a more extended work by the master D. T. Suzuki.
The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, is a little book featuring reflections by Henri Nouwen, on a famous painting by Rembrandt. The painting depicting the return of the prodigal son, from Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11-32). Nouwen reflects on the painting as he undergoes a significant turn in his life, departing his life as an academic in the US to live as a chaplain at Daybreak, a L’Arche community in Toronto.
The book is a thoughtful meditation on the painting, systematically taking three distinct perspectives, first identifying with the returning younger son, then identifying with the older son, and – at the end – reflecting on what it could mean to identify with the father in the parable.
MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood is the third novel and the conclusion of the dystopian (post-apocalyptic) Oryx and Crake trilogy. I’d read the first (Oryx and Crake) and second (The Year of the Flood) books of the trilogy years ago, and this had been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years. Now, with this summer, I finally had time to read it.
The books of the trilogy are set in and around the “waterless flood”, which swept away most of humanity in a genetically engineered disaster. There is a two-track narrative in MaddAddam, with one thread set before the flood, and the other, in its aftermath. In this book we learn more of Zeb and Adam, half-brothers who play very different roles in the world leading up to the flood and its immediate aftermath, and we learn more of the Crakers, the genetically engineered placid human-variants who Crake designed to replace us in the wake of the apocalypse. Atwood is perceptive when it comes to the different social roles religions can play in a world undergoing radical change. While Adam’s community of God’s Gardeners (think of a sect of environmentally-minded Quakers and you won’t go far wrong) are the central focus in The Year of the Flood (Book 2), in MaddAddam we hear from Adam and Zeb’s father, “The Rev”, who established the corporate friendly Church of PetrOleum: “My friends, as we all know, ‘oleum’ is the Latin word for oil. And indeed, oil is holy throughout the Bible! What else is used for the anointing of priests and prophets and kings? Oil!” As with The Handmaid’s Tale, religion can be co-opted into repression or exploitation, as much as it might be a force for liberation or conservation.
Richard Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty is a colourful account of the evolutionary dynamics of mate choice and the debate between adaptationists and non-adaptationists. What I enjoyed most in the book was the many examples of the variety of behaviours in the animal world–particularly in different bird species, but also in primates–and the insight into the distinct dynamics for selection and how different behaviours arise as a result of how mate selection takes place. There are many striking examples of different mating behaviour between bower birds on the one hand (where the selection of mates is basically up to the female bird–the males perform in their bowers and the females choose from among the males) and ducks (where the males choose and mate with females). The evolutionary dynamics are very different in each case, resulting in not only an incredible variety of different behaviours (in bower collecting, mating displays, plumage colouration, etc.), but also in the differences between species in which forced copulation occurs (common in ducks, for example) and those in which it is rare or nonexsitent (bower birds).
Without reading into the secondary literature, I can’t say much about the debate between adaptationists and non-adaptationists (as far as I can tell this turns on different ways “fitness” can be understood, and this turns out to be a pretty subtle matter), so I’m not going to judge on whether Prum is right about the side of the debate he lands on – but I do think that the book is very valuable as an introduction to the many and varied dynamics of mate selection and evolution among animal life, and the consequences that this might have for the evolution of the variety of behaviours among our primate cousins–including us. This was a delightful read.
The last book in my pile was not like the others. Gozo Shioda’s Aikido: The Complete Basic Techniques is not the kind of book you read from cover to cover. It’s a reference book, that you dip in and out of as required. I’ve referred to it repeatedly to help me remember and understand techniques I’m learning in my Aikodo classes. It’s one of the definitive Yoshinkan Aikido texts, and in my couple of years of practice, I’m reaching the stage where I’ve begun to learn enough of the very basic things that I am beginning to get hints of where the practice goes from here. I’m finding that having written words and pictures does help me reflect on and remember what I’m learning in class, so I’ll be referring to this a great deal in the years ahead.