Sunday, January 13, 2013

The best books I didn't finish in 2012, and what they say about how I ought to live

It has been six weeks since I posted to this blog.  I didn't intend to stop writing; this wasn't some sort of purposeful holiday pause.  I just found myself without anything much to say.

This is a sign in part of my feeling stymied and overwhelmed by work, which is the topic of much of my writing.  Enrollment management is a wonderful but tough business, especially in a time where demographics and economics and culture are all pointing to challenging times for small private institutions of higher education.  I'm confident that I haven't had an interesting thing to say about enrollment management for the past 6 weeks.

I'm wrangling Westminster's strategic planning process as the chair of the strategic planning steering committee.  We are in an early phase--drafting a vision narrative, kicking off a SWOT analysis, seeking feedback.  And because we are in an early phase we are in a time where silence makes more sense than essays do.

So in a holiday season (with lots of flu at our house), rather than write, I've been reading.  There are two types of readers--people who finish books and people who start them.  I start lots of books--many more than I finish.  Here is a list of stuff that I read but didn't finish in 2012; clustered by genre or topic, and then a few self-criticisms in closing.

There are poets whose language is simply put but whose poems give me a feeling of being in the presence of something powerful and unspeakable.  In this, they are something like worship.  This year I've been reading three: Zbigniew Herbert, Mary Oliver, and Kay Ryan.

There is a type of book about religion that is at the confluence of community, ethics, and theology.  Some of the writing that sits in this location is liturgical, some of it is made up of essays, and some is personal narrative with religious overtones.  I'm currently reading these books: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability, Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference, Shane Claiborne (and Wilson-Hartgrove), Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Eric Elnes, The Phoenix Affirmations.

Civic Life
I'm working my way through these books about civic life.  (By civic life I mean that these are books about the civitas.  They touch frequently on politics, but it is not politics but the quality of public life in a particular place that is at the heart of their concerns.) Mary Parker Follet, The New State: Group Organization, The Solution of Popular Government, Robert Coles, Lives of Moral Leadership, James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, and Roger Scruton, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.

What does this list mean?  Clearly there are gaps between what is in my head and what is in my life. My intellectual interests are in local, small-scale responses to issues, especially those that draw on and build local associations, be they civic, cultural, or religious.  And just as clearly, if you looked at my life you probably wouldn't notice that fact.  I commute 70 miles round trip each day to work. I feel estranged from my own religious congregation (and perhaps religion) but can't find a new one.  My neighbors and co-workers think I'm on the political left; but if American conservatism had any Burke left in it I would be a conservative, or if there was a green libertarianism, that is where I would be.

What does your list of unfinished books say about you?

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