#6 – The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkinson

The second I read the New York Times review of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, I knew I wanted to read this book. I immediately ran to the library.*

I wasn’t disappointed. Rather I found it was even more gripping than I had imagined.

Isabel Wilkerson follows the stories of three people who made the journey from the South to Northern cities. Louisiana to Chicago. Georgia to California. Florida to New York.** Really epic.

Good research and reporting just oozes out of the book. Yet it never disrupts the story. It’s just astonishing to me that a book as big as this one is so incredibly well-crafted. Historical asides provide context for the Great Migration, dismantling myths about the people, time, and places. At the same time the three individuals’ stories are so well-told — I laughed and cried. The three people whose stories Wilkerson follows are not heroic saints. They are not perfect. But they are smart, ambitious, brave, flawed — and just very human. Very American. Just wanting a better life for themselves and their children.

White-guilt-related aside: I often recommend The Warmth of Other Suns to people who tell me they enjoyed The Help. Frankly, The Help was okay (well-paced, good prose), but it left a weird taste in my mouth. Why should I, a white lady, read a white lady’s story about a white lady who, through telling the stories of black ladies, becomes a hero to the grateful black ladies? Can the black ladies not tell their own stories? I felt like a lot of the book was spent trying to convince me that the white lady had to tell the black ladies’ stories for them, that there was no other way. And that just felt creepy and maybe exploitative to me, as a reader. Plus the dialect. Eugh.

So, if you wonder what the lives of real African Americans were like in the ’50s and ’60s, then this book is required reading.

*Haha! Just kidding! I went to the library website and put a hold request on it. We’re in the digital age, people! And I looooooooooooooove the public library. Isn’t my library the cutest?

**Reminding me of some of the longest routes in Ticket to Ride.

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#25 – St. Augustine’s Confessions

Now we venture into “classic” territory.

I first read Augustine’s Confessions as a college freshman. But I’ve found myself returning to it multiple times over the years. This year, it was after listening to an intriguing lecture on how Augustine understood memory in relationship to the public spaces of the cities in which he lived his life. I’ve gone back to it as an imperfect Christian. And mostly, I’ve gone back to it as a writer of personal essays, many times, because this is the original text of someone writing about his own life in order to seek a deeper understanding of it and the world around him. Otherwise, why bother writing about yourself?

If you are interested in any of the following topics, I recommend this book:

1. Time

2. Memory

3. Pears

4. Heresy

5. Autobiography

6. Not being nice to your concubine

7. God

8. Gardens in Milan

9. Gladiators

10. Regret

Are the "pears" a metaphor for "something else?" (I find this interpretation annoying.)

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.