Big books



I like big books and I cannot lie.

I confess that I have escaped life between the pages of a book like some people escape into alcohol or drugs. The comfort of a big book, for me, is that it will not end too soon and one can postpone the final-page slump that inevitably comes when a shorter book reaches its premature end.

When I was a child we would prepare for our Scottish holiday by choosing six books from the library. Before the two day drive to our destination was over, me and my sister had finished all of our library books. The rest of the holidays were spent with nothing to read, waiting for the treat of a town with a bookshop where we could make a rare purchase of a paperback read. I now travel with a Kindle, because I never want to have to risk this experience again.

I have been known to cry  (make that sob) at the end of a very good book, not because the story was sad but for sheer despair that something so lovely was gone. I don’t have a very good memory for the novels I read, but once a book is read it an never really be read again. When the Canadian novelist Carol Shields died in 2003 I had been reading the novels one by one as they were published. The thought that I would never read a new Carol Shields novel again descended on me like a life sentence. Whilst her family and close fiends were grieving the loss of a special person taken too soon, I was just upset that a source of particularly good reads had dried up for good.

These is some of the history behind my love of big books. With a big book on your bedside table you can delay, for the time being, all of the anxieties of what to read next. Starting a big book is full of challenge and adventure, like the first day in a new job. Reaching the end of a big book is like approaching the summit of a mountain or delivering a baby after a long labour. A big book in the coffee shop, or propped open on the train is a sign to all the world that you are no amateur when it comes to fiction. With a big book in my bag I feel like I could take on the world.

So, if you too are looking for some long reads for the summer, here are five recommendations, all over 800 pages long.

Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I’m very grateful that my sister pointed out to me that Anna Karenina is a better read than War and Peace. War and Peace is an epic of Russian history with multiple families and storylines to keep up with, whereas Anna Karenina is on a smaller scale. Adultery and self discovery set against of background of Russian class war, this is everything you want from an epic nineteenth century novel.

John Galsworthy, The Forsythe Saga

Following the recent Radio 4 adaptation I went out and bought second hand copies of both volumes. The second volume will be my summer holiday big book read. Irene Forsythe is just as fine a character as Anna Karenina, in this vast family saga of feuds, fortunes and emotional tragedy.

Victor Hugo, Les Miserable

The musical beautifully covers just a tiny portion of the full story. This novel transports the reader to nineteenth century France through a series of diverse characters, locations and historic events. Monseigneur Myriel, the bishop, is one of my favourite character in fiction. This novel reads like many smaller novels in one volume, with carefully plotted connections and interactions, that create a cohesive whole.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

I will be forever grateful to my dear friend bookshop Jo who suggested this book to me during an intense season of insomnia and low mood. It provided the perfect escape. The story centres around a small art work that becomes separated from  the gallery that owns it. Avoiding too many spoilers, the quality of writing in the scene that sets the plot in motion is exquisite and the pace and tension of the rest of the novel makes for a compelling read, something that is essential  in a very long book.


 Ken Follet, The Pillars of the Earth

My love of all things medieval, especially cathedrals, means I was destined to read this epic tale of ambition, power and intrigue, though it isn’t the type of book I would usually choose. Some of the writing , characterisation and plot device is pretty dire but spite this I don’t regret the time I spent on this book. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to enter into the minds of a late medieval master builder and his prior, even if the portrays did lack a certain psychological realism.

Happy (long) reading!


What I am reading for Lent


I’m a little late for Lent I know. But this is a post about what I am reading for Lent and what Jonathan is not reading for Lent because, as many of you know he started his book fast yesterday. His dad and I have asked him not to do this and though he is usually compliant, this second son is sticking to his guns.

Our second son, the bookish one with the bedtime reading schedule that already looks like an undergraduate reading list will have finished our home bookshelf bests before he moves to university in the autumn of 2015. This son is giving up reading for Lent. Which begs the question: if you’re used to reading six poems, a chapter of history, a chapter of theology, a chapter of philosophy and a fifth of a novel each night before you fall asleep, what do you do when you bedtime routine is gone? And this I guess is also the answer to the question: you do it to see what you will do when one of your biggest comforts and pleasures is gone. This is precisely why he is doing it: to see what life looks like when you can not escape the world by curling up with a good book.

So, it’s just the Bible and school books for forty days, because if you’re not giving up something you’re really going to miss, you’re not really giving up anything at all.

Jonathan’s Books (the ones he in NOT reading)

Donald Miller, Searching for God Knows What.

When I first read Miller (about 10 years ago) I thought I’d come home. He writes the Christian book I most want to read: he asks all the right questions and answers them with a creativity and a freedom that blows other stuffy doctrinal tomes out of the water.

Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth.

In which the last Pope, Benedict XVI,  promises to salvage the original Jesus from the false trappings of recent scholarship.

Shane Claibourne, Irresistible Revolution.

How the church can respond to poverty and suffering in the world, Claibourne is a prominent activist and pacifist based in Philadelphia.

I recently read Lauren Winner’s biography, Girl Meets God. In it, Winner, the daughter of a Southern Baptist mother and a Jewish father, tells the story of her conversion to Judaism, followed by her conversion to Christianity and a year long struggle to reconcile the different parts of her identity through the traditional rites of the Christian church, which includes Lent. Winner also embarks on a reading fast and writes,

Giving up books for six weeks did not just leave me with more spare time. It did not just save me some money. It also left me starkly alone with my life. I read, I think, for many reasons. I read for information, I read for pleasure, I read because I want to figure out the craft of putting a sentence together. But I also read to numb any feelings of despair or misery that might creep my way.

Though I have no intention of giving up reading for Lent, like Winner, I find myself thinking about the things we use to numb the pain and how at any time of year these are the things we should really give up.

I recently realised I needed to stop my glass of wine in the evening habit for precisely this reason. The glass of wine was the thing I used to take the edge off the pain of the day and the glass of wine was why I only ever half dealt with my fears and insecurities. When we give up something that is stopping us from really living we’re not really giving up anything at all. Instead we’re choosing to live more fully and more authentically. Without the glass of wine I saw things as they really were, terrible at first, then God poured in. I’m seeing the world in a whole new light.

I agree with Winner about giving up the things we use to numb the pain. I can give them up for Lent or on any plain day I chose. I can give them up because I have nothing to fear, but I didn’t know that until I faced the fears full on.  So finally, I give up best when I know who I am in Christ because in Him I am changed and the world is changed.  The things that once ruled have been rendered powerless and the fears I once had grow small in comparison to His great love. I’m looking at the world through a filter that is the cross and on the other side I see resurrection day in the bright new dawn.

My Books

Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts Devotional

I’m reading this collection, 60 days of daily readings with a space for your own notes at the end of each chapter. It’s a lovely hard backed volume with textured paper and a ribbon book mark, but if you haven’t read any Voskamp before you may like to start with her New York Times best seller, One Thousand Gifts, part spiritual memoir part treatise on giving thanks.

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross

This is the ABC, Justin Welby’s chosen book for Lent. Graham Tomlin is the Dean of St Mellitus College London and ministers at HTB. He is a fine Bible scholar and reflective writer.

Jonathan Meyer, Another Story Must Begin

Jonathan Meyer a parish priest from Oxfordshire has a deep connection to the Les Miserables story because his church features in the recent film version of the musical. The book contains five Bible studies based on characters in the book and scenes in the film. I plan to use this series of studies with my youth group over the next few weeks.

Finally, returning to Les Miserables. Jonathan and I can both recommend a serious commitment to reading the original Hugo novel even though it is very long and a little hard going in patches. It is one of our shared favourites and we don’t think you should use the film as excuse for not making this a priority fiction read this year.

Best Blogs

Emily Freeman, blogs at Chatting at the Sky. I have long been a fan of her Saturday morning reflections and beautiful photography but more recently she has given me plenty to think about in her posts on spiritual growth. She gets to the heart of the thing.

Amber Haines blogs at The Run a Muck. I noticed her around the place a while back and I finally got down to reading her a few weeks ago. She writes splendidly on married love, her kids and other startling pieces of spiritual honesty and integrity. Take a deep breath and read through tears.

Ann Voskamp, A Holy Experience. Never tire. Take a look at Ann’s recent posts on her trip to Guatemala.

Finally, my own most read blog post last month were all on surviving black dog moods and serious blues: When we won’t talk about depression, Why we won’t talk about depression and Why we won’t talk about depression (2).

Comments are open for you to tell me what you will be reading over Lent.