A Reading Log

IMG_1886We all have our struggles. One of mine is sleeplessness. But I’ve found at least some benefit: I can read during the nights. I’ve begun maintaining a reading log. Nothing fancy, but it helps in at least three ways. First, it helps me maintain a ledger of what I’m reading. Second, I am better able to see patterns among books and thinkers. (Some writers are worth more of my time; others have already consumed too much of it and I move on.) Third, a reading log provides a means of evaluating ideas.

Over the last several months, I have not written much blog-wise due to my current location with the military, but here is a list of some of my recent reading. In the left column is the book; the middle column lists the book’s author; and the third column is my response–usually just a fragment, phrase, or sentence or two. At the bottom are some of the volumes I’m still reading due to their length and/or weightiness. Hope you profit. My thanks to fellow readers who have pointed books and writers out to me that would have otherwise escaped my attention.

Book: Author: Response:
Suttree McCarthy Among the saddest books I have ever read. It may also be the richest book I read in terms of its delight in language and the fecundity of words. McCarthy is—his dark vision aside—a wordsmith on par with Joyce and Shakespeare.
Cormac McCarthy’s Nomads Andersen & Kristoffer A master’s thesis that was large on jargon and intellectual posturing and short on coherence and clarity.
Resolutions: Advice to Young Converts Edwards My only complaint is that I waited this long to read it. Edwards was certainly a theologian/philosopher, but in this volume, you also see he was a pastor with a love of discipling God’s people.
On Reading Well Prior A reminder that some of the world’s greatest literary pieces are explorations of the biblical worldview. A truly good book about books.
The Battle for the Beginning MacArthur I know of no other living Christian writer who is as biblical and clear as John MacArthur. In this volume, he tackles head on the mutually exclusive worldviews of biblical creation vs. macroevolution and materialism. An important book.
The Stranger Camus When I read it as an 18-year old, I thought it masterful. Now, er, hardly. A sad book about life without God, life without hope, and life without redemption.
In the Year of Our Lord Ferguson One of the best books I’ve read in recent memory. The bottom line up front: the true Christian church must always keep her focus on the truth, the gospel, Christ, and purity. Today’s pagan headlines are merely tomorrow’s fertilizer. Keep a biblical perspective.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Diaz Reminded me why I don’t enjoy postmodernism or post-postmodernism. With its trendy style of blending genuine pity with trendy pop-culture and profanity and gender politics, this is just what literary committees adore, but it makes for poor literature. Who will want to read this modish stuff in a few years? Egads.
Killing Jesus O’Reilly This could be helpful for skeptics of the Christian worldview.
Killing Lincoln O’Reilly Very enjoyable. I learned even more to appreciate Lincoln and to pity him.
Killing Patton O’Reilly Leadership for Patton was what he seemed born for. He was a patriot, a very fallen and cruel man, but also courageous like few others. When hell stared him in the face, he spat and kept right on marching. And I thank him and those he led.
Animal Farm Orwell Communism/Progressivism/Socialism fails—everywhere and always. But dogs return to the vomit. And people often act like animals.
The Catcher in the Rye Salinger Hard for me not to gush here. In my view, one of the best novels ever, esp. with regard to narrative voice, point of view, and tone. A masterpiece.
Exit West Hamid People are not reducible to religion, ethnicity, and politics. The human heart is the problem; we are sinners and we need a savior—and government is not the savior. Ever.
Kidnapped by the Taliban Joseph There are good and bad folks everywhere. Sometimes good intentions lead you into bad situations. But grace can still appear and even endure.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Angelou An anthem to the artist to sing—if for no else than himself/herself. Some will listen.
Tom Sawyer Twain I preferred Huck Finn. But similar episodes and themes are here—innocence vs. experience; corruption; escape vs. responsibility.
Blood Meridian McCarthy Perhaps the most violent book I’ve ever read (again). Horrific and beautiful. McCarthy descends into the pits of evil and reprobation, and takes us with him. There he writes in graphic detail. But it is so heartbreakingly beautiful in its expression that you endure the rapacity and cruelty and cannot see life the same way.
The Sun Also Rises Hemingway Immature adults taking themselves way too seriously and drinking way too much alcohol get mad at the state of the world, but refuse to take responsibility. This was a much better book when I read it as a 19-year old, if that helps. Probably the last time I’ll do this one.
The Sound and the Fury Faulkner A watershed book in terms of its use of interior monologue, non-linear time, flashbacks, stream of consciousness, etc.
Books Are Made Out of Books Crews A book about the books that have shaped Cormac McCarthy. Appreciative of this book.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction Peterson Beautifully written by a man gifted with discernment, biblical maturity, and a pastor’s temperament.
Facing the Music Brown A book of Larry Brown’s short stories. Kind of like Harry Crews’ fiction, these are stories of down-on-their-luck southerners who ain’t got no quit in ‘em. Excellent fiction.
Larry Brown: A Writer’s Life Cash A biography of Larry Brown, of his determination, struggles, literary triumphs, and isolation necessary to create.
Everything that Rises Must Converge O’Connor It’s Flannery O’Connor. Read it. Then read it again.
Hitler’s Religion Weikhart Excellent, readable, researched book of Hitler’s worldview (pantheism).
Hillbilly Elegy Vance No matter how successful we are in the world’s eyes, we never really leave behind the boy or girl we were at 12. Our childhood affects us till we die.
A Wrinkle in Time L’Engle Childhood imagination sometimes portends divinity.
Desperadoes Hansen Literary western genre. Beautiful language. A bit slow going, at least for me.
Light in August Faulkner Rich in interior monologue. A slow read for me. The preacher was my favorite character.
Killing the SS O’Reilly There is no bottom to man’s evil.
Love Thy Body Pearcey Read Nancy Pearcey’s books. You do yourself a disservice if you don’t. Logical, persuasive, and clear. Excellent.
Go Set a Watchman Lee Even the folks we think of as ‘good’ are sinners.


Currently I’m reading Don Quixote and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Both are excellent. Maybe this helps encourage you. It at least helps me to keep track of some of my reading life and helps me plot my future reading goals. “Take up and read.”

Sleepless with Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”

There are advantages to battling sleeplessness, I suppose; one of those advantages is rereading great novels. I came across an old paperback of Salinger’s lacerating, hilarious, façade-shattering masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye in, of all places, Iraq. I’d read The Catcher in the Rye twice before, but this rereading was the most meaningful so far. C.S. Lewis, another enduring favorite for me, touched on the value of rereading great books: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally—and often far more—worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” Yes and amen. But how is Catcher great? In at least two ways, Catcher is a remarkable piece of fiction: 1) Salinger’s mastery of tone and 2) the way in which he explores how the sensitive person (artist/writer/musician, etc.) sees the nuances, details, and beauties in life that the mass of humanity tramples upon. This sensitivity to nuances alienates Holden from the less perceptive people around him.

First, Holden Caulfield is one of the most realized and believable characters with regard to tone in all of serious literature. He is as real to me as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, as real as Emma Bovary, as real as Santiago on his boat, as real as David Copperfield coming into his own, as real as Lear as he goes mad before his own family and kingdom, as real as Scout and Jem, as they gossip about Boo Radley.

Holden Caulfield is a 16-year-old boy, repeatedly expelled from prep school. Why? He doesn’t apply himself, as the adults in his life tell him. He does not play by the rules. He neglects most of his class assignments and focuses instead on writers and books he particularly appreciates (Thomas Hardy’s novels, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc.).

Holden passes his English classes, but even in those, his mind wanders too much; he neglects the discipline required to succeed in the prep school system. He learns more through self-study than he ever does in the classroom. He obsesses (not too strong a word?) about particulars and details 99% of the other students and faculty never notice and/or suppress. (More on this idea below.) But Holden’s speech and mind are believable.

In the passage below, Holden is visiting with his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who has awarded Holden an “F” for his (Holden’s) admittedly shoddy work in class. Listen to the way Holden’s mind works:

Well, you could see he [Mr. Spencer] really felt pretty lousy about flunking me. So I shot the bull for a while. I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff. I told him how I would’ve done the same thing if I’d been in his place, and how most people didn’t appreciate how tough it is being a teacher. That kind of stuff. The old bull.

   The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away. (pp. 12-13)

Holden knows his own immaturity with regard to his poor academic performance, but he respects the humanness of Mr. Spencer. He has connected with him in spite of not doing well in his class. Moreover, Holden’s thoughts are preoccupied with the ducks. Who cares for them? Of course any number of connections about providence may be asked here. Is there a caring God over all or are the ducks (and all of the cosmos by extension) alone?

And then, after we as readers sense Holden’s fatal flaw (he retreats from “the system” instead of accepting it, and making the best of it), we see how attuned and compassionate Holden is vis-a-vis his concern for the ducks in Central Park. Where do they go in winter, when the lagoon is frozen over?

How many 16-year-old boys’ minds work like that? You see a boy who uses words like “lousy” and “moron.” But then he frets over delicate creatures. Questions of providence, or the lack thereof, might be asked here.

Another scene where’s Holden’s tone is artfully displayed comes when he’s in New York City. He’s lonely for girls. (Remember, he’s sixteen.) He flirts with some fatuous girls in a hotel and dances with them. But inside, he knows he’s frittering his time because they’ve nothing to offer him. They are part of the “phonies,” too. The irony, of course, is that Holden is often likewise phony towards others. Listen to Salinger’s mastery of tone:

The one ugly one, Laverne, wasn’t too bad a dancer, but the other one, old Marty, was murder. Old Marty was like dragging the Statue of Liberty around the floor. The only way I could even half enjoy myself dragging her around was if I amused myself a little. So I told her I just saw Gary Cooper, the movie star, on the other side of the floor.

     “Where?” she asked me—excited as hell. “Where?”

     “Aw, you just missed him. He just went out. Why didn’t you look when I told you?”

She practically stopped dancing, and started looking over everybody’s heads to see if she could see him. 

“Oh, shoot!” she said. I’d just about broken her heart—I really had. I was sorry as hell I’d kidded her. Some people you shouldn’t kid, even if they deserve it. (p. 75)

Secondly, Salinger explores the deeper issues of Holden’s character. Salinger is suggesting something about the role of the artist in the world. He (the artist) differs from the masses of humanity in that he notices what most never consider and/or suppress. Holden is sensitive to the power of genuine friendship (his relationship with Mr. Spencer, e.g.) innocence (his sister Phoebe, e.g.) and to the vast difference between artifice (what Holden calls “phony”) and the genuine.

Allie, Holden’s deceased younger brother, exemplified the genuine—but he is gone. Allie had a baseball glove that he’d written poems on, and he’d read them when he was in the outfield. Now ask yourself: what would you think of a kid with poetry written on his baseball glove? Exactly. Seems odd. Sissy, perhaps. And if you thought that, you’re playing right into Salinger’s hands.

He is suggesting something about the life of the artist. He (the artist/Holden-like, Allie-like) is an exile in a kingdom that thrives on artifice. He is a rebel doubly cursed because he feels the thorns of life.

When phonies rule the world, where does the artist go? Holden’s repeated flight is a sad commentary on Salinger’s views with regard to that question. The fact that Salinger walled himself off from public life for most his writing life after his military service is not irrelevant here. Perhaps only Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy have been more guarded.

This idea of the artist’s predicament is powerfully captured in the poem “What’s Wrong with Me” by Chase Twichell. Twichell writes of a sick coyote “ . . . crossing the field, /poisoned, injured, rabid, old, the rest of the pack anxious,/yipping and howling back and forth/across the valley as dusk comes on. What’s wrong with me is that/I find their music beautiful. I dwell on it long after it stops/and in the silence afterward I write down its words.” That is haunting and beautiful. Both the images and sounds recorded, and the fact that a person takes notice and subsequently labors to preserve that pathos, are noteworthy. He puts words to paper to capture the power of the cries of a hurt coyote, of the pack yelping, and of the sun sinking another day.

Holden Caulfield is like the speaker in this poem. He notices what most would bypass, as they go on to the next distraction. Yet he’s caught in a dilemma: how does one fight for the genuine and enduring in a world obsessed with artifice and the temporal?

Holden Caulfield is believable because Salinger was a master of tone (he attended to what the mouth reveals about the heart), and through The Catcher in the Rye, we are blessed with not only a master of narrative tone/voice, but also by one with a narrative exploration of how life cheapens or deepens, depending upon our view of aesthetics.