27 – The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan O. Hatch

Okay, I waited a couple of days to drop a big one on you. Here it is.

Here’s the thing. We know that we Americans are ignorant about history. We know Americans are ignorant about religion.

And, I would posit, this makes us especially ignorant of religious history in our public discourse. This is a problem, especially when terms like “evangelical” get thrown around by people who have no idea what they mean.

Christians tend to act like the timeline of our religion goes something like:

Jesus……………………………………….Martin Luther* ………….Our Church As It Exists Today!

However, sometimes those critiquing us are just as ignorant. Case in point:

Nice try, atheists. The (pre-mill pre-trib dispensationalist) rapture was invented in the 19th century.

So, I really think everybody — no matter what you believe — should do a bit of reading about the history of Christianity in America. Smart books like Hatch’s present a compelling, well-supported argument about how to understand the past in a way that can help us make sense of the religious landscape of the present day.

This book is dense, but very readable. There’s even a story about Thomas Jefferson and a giant cheese! If that doesn’t whet your appetite, I don’t know what will.

Extra Credit

Also try the works of religious historians Mark Noll and George Marsden.

* Or John Calvin, Menno Simons, John Wesley, or whoever, depending on your denomination. It is possible that Catholics don’t have this problem…but then they didn’t score very high on the Pew Forum’s religious knowledge test either.

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#28 – Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara

Does the design of this book cover look familiar to you at all?

Perhaps it reminds you a little bit of this:

But this is a list of books to read before you’re 30. Howl is for teenagers and college kids,* but Lunch Poems is for grown-ups.

Not that Howl doesn’t have a certain appeal. It totally does. Who doesn’t want to spend their days hanging out with “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”?**

But Lunch Poems exists in the world where a lot of us live. Offices. Buildings. Exciting things maybe happen to movie stars (oh Lana Turner) but not to us. We work in offices, and if we’re lucky, that’s a really good thing. Our 9-to-5 gigs might even contribute something good to the world (O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art). And in between times, we have lunch breaks.

O’Hara used his lunch breaks to wander around the city and write poems. He was a flaneur! Yet he held down a regular job while writing poems. Good ones! Poems that we can now carry around and read on our lunch breaks.

Sidenote: In 1966, Frank O’Hara was hit by a dune buggy and died. A dune buggy! Sadness.

*Also if you were actually a hippie during the ’60s, you get a pass. You can read/quote/love Ginsberg as much as you want.

**Especially if James Franco plays them in a movie.

#29 – The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff

Here’s one thing that’s changed for me in the last decade: I like short stories.

I’d read Interpreter of Maladies and Dubliners and the odd Raymond Carver piece, and that was pretty much it. I’d try to read short stories, but they kinda seemed like a waste of time compared to a big fat novel. Why spend all this time and effort getting to know characters that you’ll just have to say goodbye to in 20 pages?

And then I started grad school for creative writing. Suddenly I was rubbing shoulders with super smart people who cared passionately about short fiction. They were reading, writing, and recommending really good stuff.

(Note: at the time I was teaching unsuspecting undergraduates how to write and revise short fiction.)

In short, I’ve grown much more open-minded about how long I have to spend with a character to feel like it’s worth cracking the spine.

What I love about Tobias Wolff’s writing is that I feel like he’s one of the most adept writers today at creating morally complex characters. People who want to do the right thing, but convince themselves otherwise for some reason. People who want to do the wrong thing, but wish they wanted to do the right thing. These people feel real to me. The stories in The Night in Question are well-crafted, entertaining, and unforgettable.

I never pass a rug store in Seattle without thinking of “Firelight.” I never go into an old-fashioned bank without thinking of “Bullet in the Brain.”

Extra Credit

Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life and his memoir-ish novel Old School are also very good. Also his Paris Review interview is killer smart.

#30 – Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I begin the book countdown with a must-read: Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s account of growing up in Iran — and elsewhere — during the Islamic revolution.

Did this book give me a complete understanding of the intricacies of Iranian politics? No.

But one image from this book will always stay with me: little Marjane in her headscarf and homemade “Punk is not ded” jacket.

Punk Is Not Ded!
Maybe I had this jacket.