At the start of every month, I’ll be publishing a “5 Monthly Reads” article, offering for your literary pleasure five of the best books I’ve read from the month before. Enjoy – and let me know in the comments what you think of the ones you do decide to pick up!
#5: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea , Jules Verne – 1870
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of those books so deeply entrenched in the milieu of Western popular culture that we’re all probably at least nebulously aware of it, though far less likely to have ever read it.
I myself was in the latter camp – I was never really sure what it was about, though I knew it involved submarines and some squid; I wasn’t sure if it was written first in English, or translated; and I wasn’t sure (and this would often nag at me) how deep ‘20,000 leagues under the sea’ really is.
So let’s start there:
The book follows Professor Pierre Aronnax as he joins the mysteriously tragic Captain Nemo on a voyage in the submarine Nautilus , during which they encounter undersea wonders and aquatic adventures – including, though certainly not limited to, the occasional squid. The book was written in 1870 by author Jules Verne, originally in French. A league is about 3 miles; the title of the book does not refer to how deep they were, but rather how far they traveled, winding around the globe, while under water. 20,000 leagues straight down from the surface of the sea would actually take you straight through the Earth itself and nearly a quarter of the way to the moon after popping out the other side.
The book follows a sort of episodic journey, in which each new adventure feels like ‘the next thing’ the crew encounters. Though Captain Nemo provides a steadily deepening character exploration that ties the episodes together, the novel still has a strong serial feel to it. It’s science fiction at it’s earliest best, bringing together adventure, sensory splendor, and scientific speculation – all with a dash of philosophical inquiry.
If you’re a fan of sci-fi and want to connect with the genre’s roots, or if you’re in the mood for an old-school adventurous voyage, check this one out!
The Divine Conspiracy
, Dallas Willard – 1998
The Divine Conspiracy is a book by American philosopher and Christian scholar Dallas Willard. In it, Willard traces a picture of contemporary ‘consumer’ Christianity, and the reality of life-infused discipleship available instead. The ‘Conspiracy’ in the title refers not to ‘conspiracy theories’ as we tend to think of them (especially when in the same sentence as religion), but rather as the all-connected and all-connecting reality that Willard sees possible through one’s spiritual life. Willard challenges the idea that the teachings of Jesus are somehow ‘nice, but impossible’ or ‘not realistic for the modern world.’
This is one of those rare books that is written with such clear insight, such depth of wisdom, and such lucidity of expression that it can resonate its impact throughout a lifetime, whether read once or many times.
For those interested in Christian scholarship and spiritual inquiry, this book is one of the richest out there. Willard offers an interpretive explication of the Sermon on the Mount remarkable in its accessibility, power, and clarity. With gentle strength, Willard points out the pitfalls of both the Right and Left of Christian thought (respectively championing the ideas that either a) faith in Christ is the only matter of importance, and b) that social work, whether connected or not to spiritual faith, is the only matter of importance). Instead, Willard offers discipleship Christianity as the all-inclusive, connected, and divine alternative.
For those who don’t identify with Christian or Abrahamic spirituality, The Divine Conspiracy still offers kernels of wisdom and insight. Willard discusses the distinction between believing something (which will lead us to naturally act through and in light of the truth of that ‘something’), and believing we should believe something (which will have us try to appear as though we believe that ‘something’). In the human struggle between principles and image, deepening one’s understanding of that distinction is always valuable. Willard also explicates the nature of discipleship, noting that it’s an inherent part of our humanity to always each be disciples of someone, or some group.
For those interested in contemporary Christian thought, this book is a must; for all of us, it offers inimitable wisdom and insight into how we live our modern lives – and how to choose to create the lives we want.
#3: 1984 , George Orwell – 1949
1984 is, along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World , a reigning king of dystopian literature. Written in 1949, Orwell looks forward 39 years to a bleak future of totalitarian oppression.
The governmentally entrenched ruling class of 1984 ’s Oceania perpetuate the public-crushing power structures through systematic programs of omnipresent surveillance, historical revisionism, linguistic coercion, and swiftly brutal punishment for dissenters.
Orwell’s novel traces the story of Winston Smith, an Outer Party (think ‘middle class’) editor at the Ministry of Truth, where he spends his work week revising past publications and legitimizing deception. Though Winston, like everyone, presents an appearance of alignment and happiness, he’s increasingly tormented by his dissatisfaction with the status quo. We follow Winston as he seeks to understand the society he lives in, and seeks out any companionship or camaraderie in his dissension.
Though written over half a century ago, 1984 is troublingly poignant today. In the world of NSA global monitoring, constant metadata recording, and CCTV near-ubiquity, the world where “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” seems disturbingly familiar. In a world where the United States government will readily classify you as a threat in accordance with the books you read, words you speak, or people you associate with, the idea of ‘thoughtcrime’ doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
1984 is one of those books we’ve probably all read in one high school class or another; and like so many of those high-school reads, it’s a book that deserves a second look (or more). As we navigate the questions of modern privacy and political rights, 1984 offers a rich fictional foil to inform our ideas and perspectives – so dust off your old copy, and give it another turn!
#2: Mere Christianity , C. S. Lewis – 1952
In 1942, while Britain was entrenched in the seething chaos of World War 2, BBC Radio reached out to C. S. Lewis to give a series of radio talks focused on the heart of Christian thought and ethics. The talks continued from 1942 through 1944, addressed to a nation facing one of its darkest hours. In 1952, after Lewis edited a few parts to be more appropriate for the written word, these talks were collectively published as Mere Christianity .
In his talks, Lewis put forward a case for the ‘basic tenets,’ so to speak, of Christianity. Not wanting to involve himself in theological disputes among sects, Lewis spoke only about the nature, wisdom, and value of ‘mere’ Christianity – those aspects of Christianity that all Christians agree on.
Lewis offers an intellectual case for Christianity, combining a historical perspective with a theological argument from morality. The argument from morality was the theological argument most persuasive in Lewis’s own conversion from atheism (a conversion to Christianity effected largely by the influence of Lewis’s dear friend, J. R. R. Tolkein of hobbit fame).
Lewis goes on to describe the Christian morality, exploring the virtues and vices – and the tension between them. Lewis focuses particular attention on the sin of pride, which he holds to be at the root of all other sins. With humility and gentleness, Lewis navigates each issue in ways immediately open to relation and compassionate understanding.
Mere Christianity is a classic in the field of Christian apologetics – and, like The Divine Conspiracy , offers wisdom and insight valuable to anyone, regardless of spiritual background.
#1: The Prophet , Kahlil Gibran – 1923
The Prophet is a collection of prose poetry by Kahlil Gibran, in which a prophet Almustafa discusses life and the human condition with townsfolk before leaving the city.
Each chapter of the book takes up a different topic, prompted by one of the townsfolk listening. Topics range from beauty, friendship, children, and love, to laws, work, commerce, and death.
In each section, Gibran speaks through his prophet with a voice of universal love and compassionate perspicacity. Gibran’s eloquent lyricism exemplifies the beautiful freedom possible in prose poetry. The lilting beauty of lines and phrases melt into each other, carrying the reader along on a sustained and powerful voyage of introspection and love. The Prophet is one of those books in which nearly every line is quotable.
Indeed, The Prophet is one of the most-loved and most-read literary works in world history. It’s been in continuous publication since 1923 (currently its 163rd English printing), and has been translated into over 40 languages. By some estimates, The Prophet has sold over 100 million copies worldwide.
Pick up a copy, and sink into the joys of Gibran’s words – whether for the first, or fiftieth, time.
Have you read any of these books before?
Will you be picking up any to read this month?
Join the discussion in the comments, and share your thoughts on these picks!
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