Beach reading

By Derek Olsen

It’s that time of the summer—my wife is stocking up on sunscreen and the girls are working themselves into a fevered pitch. Yes, it’s almost vacation time! Every year we spend a week at the Jersey Shore with my wife’s family. A great time is had by all, and it includes everything such a vacation should: sun, sand, home-made ice cream, poker games with my father-in-law, and the inevitable family dramas that result when three generations pack themselves into one beach house for a week.

One of the highlights for me is reading on the beach, so an important part of my pre-vacation planning is working over my shelves to decide which books I’ll be taking with me. In determining beach reading, I like to split my selections into three categories: serious books, engaging books, and guilty pleasures.

The serious books tend to be more academic works that I keep saying I’m going to read when I have the time—and rarely seem to. Every year I dutifully pack at least one, promising myself that between watching over the kids, schlepping things from the beach to the house and back again, and listening to my mother-in-law’s stories about teaching , I’ll be able to give the tome the time it deserves. Of course, every year, this turns out to be more delusion than reality and most of them return home again with only a few chapters or pages read than before. But hope springs anew…

This year’s serious pick is The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey edited by Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck. The book is broadly divided into seven sections that examine the prayer books of the Anglican Communion (and a little beyond as well) from a variety of angles through sets of essays, and the contributors represent a wide range of liturgical and theological stars. I’ve read parts of it before, but I want to focus in on a few sections that impact my current research. In particular, I’m looking forward to the section on social history which delves into diaries and parish records to talk about how the prayer books were used “on the ground” in various times and places, and to the section on the future of the Book of Common Prayer especially as it’s impacted by technology and the Internet.

The engaging books tend to be more popular books that make me think. Lighter than the serious books, these are sometimes political, sometimes theological, but have as the aim something that’s going to stretch my spirit. Often I find that it’s the engaging books that I keep returning to throughout the following year as they’ve touched some nerve or sparked my thinking in one area or another.

This year’s engaging book is Essays by Plutarch translated by Robin Waterfield and introduced by Ian Kidd which was a gift from my sister-in-law. A little bit political, a little bit theological, Plutarch is one of my favorite writers. A Greek writing in the Roman Empire around the same time as St Paul, I find him pleasantly philosophical but not tedious or jargon-heavy. Stoic by training, practical and pragmatic by nature, he talks through some of the universal questions of human significance in a way that’s still meaningful and accessible two thousand years later. This collection includes a number of his pieces I haven’t read before, but whose titles reflect the same kind of themes as his pieces that I have read: “On Listening”, “How to Distinguish a Flatterer from a Friend”, and “On God’s Slowness to Punish”.

I’d like to commend Plutarch to you for two reasons. The first is political. The European Renaissance, in its recovery of classical learning eagerly embraced Plutarch. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, even the eighteenth centuries, Plutarch was read avidly and was used as a model. The humanist philosophy that gave rise to the principles of Enlightenment liberalism and democracy was influenced and inspired by Plutarch and his vision of moral life as it impacted both individuals and societies. Modern politics could use a real shot in the arm by once again examining the themes that invigorated Montaigne, Jefferson, Franklin, and the Founding Fathers.

The second is biblical. Plutarch (along with the letters and essays of Seneca) serves as a great companion to the New Testament. Paul takes on a new light when read in the company of Plutarch. The point is not to try and figure out what Paul’s getting from his culture and what form revelation so we can toss out the “culture” part. No, Plutarch is so helpful because we get to see another author from the same time and a similar cultural background using the same moral vocabulary. We receive a clearer picture of Paul’s vision of life in Christ by seeing Plutarch talk about faith, hope, and virtue from his own non-Christian perspective. Too, our reading of the Gospels are informed by Plutarch’s Lives where he offers the preeminent view of how Antiquity read biography.

This year’s guilty pleasure is sponsored by my Kindle. Thanks to the Kindle and other e-readers, I’m able to pick up big collections of my favorite old authors for cheap.

Thus, the guilty pleasure is The Definitve H. P. Lovecraft: 67 Tales of Horror. I haven’t read Lovecraft since late high school/early college, and it’s great to revisit the grounds of Miskatonic University and the other New England haunts of horror that came out of Lovecraft’s brain. (I may as well confess now that I’ve already started in on this one…)

As a religion geek, I’m use to talking and thinking about experiences of the numinous and the supernatural tied hand in hand with goodness, beauty, and truth leading to positive transformative experiences. In his weird tales, Lovecraft presents another option—experiences of the numinous and supernatural entirely divorced from goodness and beauty that leave you wondering about truth (and sanity).

Too, Lovecraft, while not considered a proper literary figure in his own day, is a major influence for some of the today’s great authors of fantasy and science-fiction. I was pleasantly surprised to discover upon rereading “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” just how much the “ghoul” chapter of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is an homage to Lovecraft’s work.

So—that’s what’s on tap for my beach reading: a little “work,” a little “play” to be squeezed in among the other pleasures of the trip. We’ll see how much actually gets read, of course, and, if this year is like every other it’ll be less than I hope but more than I’d get read otherwise!

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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