Recently Read and Currently Reading

A sampling of the books I have read in the last month or so and/or am currently reading.

POETRY
I recently finished Christian Wiman’s new book of poems, Every Riven Thing and Galway Kinnel’s Three Books: Body Rags; Mortal Acts, Mortal Words; The Past. Wiman is the editor of Poetry Magazine and a fine poet. His language is spare and luminous. There isn’t a wasted word in any of these poems.

Kinnell’s poems in this collection are, for me, like the sound of owls, crickets and frogs in the night. I wouldn’t want to be without them, because they “belong” there and provide music for the darkness. It’s also true that those sounds can keep me awake or awaken me, and that is also a gift of Kinnell’s words. But, just as I rarely see any of the night-music makers, I can’t quite account for why these poems affect me as they do. I just know they do.

I am now reading Billy Collins' Ballistics and Thomas Lynch’s Walking Papers. Both solid, for different reasons.

BIBLE, THEOLOGY, SPIRITUALITY
For the course on the Gospel of Mark I am teaching at First Baptist Church of Asheville, I am re-reading Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, an amazing study of that gospel. It’s guaranteed to engage, enrich, unsettle, evoke and provoke.

I am also reading a new commentary by William Placher in the “Belief” series (Westminster/ John Knox Press). I have always respected Placher, who is a good theologian. His Narratives of a Vulnerable God is an intriguing theological question-raiser, but Mark hasn’t lit my imagination. I am not far into the book yet, so I am still reading with hope.

Hands down, the best “new” commentary on Mark, which I am also reading, is Ben Witherington’s The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans). Witherington is a careful—sometimes overly cautious—interpreter, but a faithful and interesting guide.

On the stack, but all I have read are the preface and introduction, Stanley Hauerwas’ new book, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian (Wipf and Stock, 2011).

A Time to Plant (Sorin Books) by Kyle T. Kramer is subtitled “Life Lessons in Work, Prayer and Dirt.” This memoir is about Kramer’s quest for a sense of place, purpose and meaning as a farmer-teacher-writer. He’s good with words, very good. Here’s a sample from early in the book: “Although I am anxious and yearn for answers, my more immediate concern in how not to live in fear, or, more to the point, in the paralysis, grumpiness, and rigidity that fear can create. I want to live with a sturdy, resilient hope rather than the much flimsier attitude of mere optimism.” Me, too!

LEADERSHIP
For a leadership seminar I have been teaching at the Gardner Webb Divinity School, I read The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Harvard Business Press, 2009), by Ronald Heifitz, et al. In a series of books, beginning with Leadership Without Easy Answers, Heifitz and has collaborators have given form and popular expression to “adaptive leadership,” which, in brief, is a way of thinking about and practicing leadership in times of unprecedented change—times when the challenges and opportunities leaders face are largely new and beyond their current repertoire of experience and expertise. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership helpfully summarizes the theory which undergirds adaptive leadership, and it also serves as a kind of handbook to guide practitioners of it.

Also for that class, I read two brief monographs which are aimed at helping leaders effect change in their organizations: The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry and The Thin Book of Naming Elephants (both by Sue Annis Hammond). Appreciative Inquiry (AI) grows out of the research of David Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve University, and operates on the simple, but often ignored, idea that focusing on a person’s, or an organization’s, strengths will be more likely to nurture change than will riveting attention to weaknesses. AI says, in essence, find out what works, find out why, and then do more of those kinds of things. Of these two “thin books,” the one on "Appreciate Inquiry" is more helpful than the one on “Naming Elephants.” The second book runs out of gas halfway through, and it isn’t such a long book to begin with!

BECAUSE
And, “just because” (which means “for no good reason”) I wanted to read it again, I recently re-read E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan. The young boy, Sam, who is central to the story, likes long excursions into the deep woods. Early in the book, White says of Sam: “These were the pleasantest days of Sam’s life, these days in the woods, far from everywhere—no automobiles, no roads, no people, no noise, no school, no homework, no problems except the problem of getting lost. And, of course, the problem of what to be when he grew up. Every boy has that problem.” Do you suppose it ever gets finally solved? Or do the question and a person just wrestle each other to a tie, with the match “called” after both of the wrestlers—the question and the person—are ready to retire?