Since time is always at a premium, I try to be selective in what I read. As well, I like to keep my diet wide, reading novels, books on spirituality, theological treatises, biographies, and essays on psychological and anthropological issues.
How do I select a book? I read reviews, get tips from colleagues, receive books as gifts, and occasionally browse in bookstores, but what I actually end up reading is often more the result of a conspiracy of accidents than of a studied choice. Books that we need to read have a way of finding us.
What books of note found me this year?
---Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a John-Updike type of commentary on contemporary culture. It's an easy read, but packs good emotional intelligence.
---Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is stunning both in language and content, a classic that deserves to be read. In a culture that tends to prize good looks and looking good above most everything else, Wilde's book contains some inconvenient warnings.
---Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a witness to the raw drive to stay alive. This isn't John Steinbeck's “The Grapes of Wrath,” but it touches some of the same places inside us.
---Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed is 200 pages too long, but, like all of Lamb's books, is deeply insightful regarding our struggle to forgive and reconcile. Lamb's central character is invariably someone out of touch with his own anger who is eventually brought to his knees in a way that redemptively exposes his anger to himself.
---Par Lagerkvist's Barabbas is a very imaginative take on what happens to Barabbas after Jesus' crucifixion.
---Oscar Casares’ Brownsville Stories and Amigoland are warm and emotionally insightful, with good stories, and special appeal to anyone living near the borders of Mexico.
---Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table is one of the best reviewed novels of 2011, deservedly so.
---Pascal Mercier's Night Train to Lisbon is your novel, if you're looking for an intellectual hit.
Among spirituality and theological treatises:
---Judy Cannato, Radical Amazement: Insights and hints about getting into the present moment and seeing the hidden depth within life.
---John Shea, On Earth as it is in Heaven, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: If you are dissatisfied with the homily you listen to every Sunday, buy these commentaries on the Sunday readings.
---Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps, The Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger: A mature apologetics for those seeking to articulate reasons for their hope.
---Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale: A great piece of writing on the power of language and the language of the Gospels.
---Rob Bell's Sex God, Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality, and Love Wins, A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of every Person who Ever Lived come from the pen of a young minister who writes with extraordinary balance, good insight, and an equal feel for both the Gospel and the culture.
---Two of the most powerful books I read in 2011: Bush Dweller: Essays in Memory of Father James Gray OSB, edited by Donald Ward, and Joan Didion, Blue Nights. Both are powerful stories; the first about a Hermit who meets and counsels the world from his hut, and the second about a woman struggling to find life in the face of a number of bitter deaths.
Treatises, theological and anthropological:
---Michael Kirwan’s Discovering Girard is a lay-person's introduction to the insights of the renowned anthropologist, Rene Girard.
---Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul, Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World: As with previous books, Plotkin pushes the edges of mainline spirituality, calling always for a much deeper role for nature.
---Dale Schlitt, Generosity and Gratitude, A Philosophical Psalm: A philosopher with an expertise on Hegel, gives us this wonderful, 136-page, poem on gratitude, showing that the genuine insights of abstract philosophy can be as God-filled as the Psalms.
---John S. Porter's The Glass Art of Sarah Hall is a spectacularly beautiful book replete with photos that belongs on every coffee table and in every library.
---David Servan-Schreiber, Anti-Cancer, A New Way of Life: This book was handed to me at the cancer clinic just as I was beginning chemotherapy and, among the many books on cancer I have perused these past months, I found this one to be the most challenging and helpful.
---Kathleen C. Berken, Walking on Rolling Deck: Life on the Arc, foreword by Jean Vanier: Berken, a journalist who lived for some years inside the community of L'Arche, takes us inside an alternative world, but without false sentiment or naïve romanticism.
These are books that have touched me, but, as St. Augustine once famously said: Concerning taste, we should not have disputes! Read at your own risk!
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.