The world needs good writing. Whether we write emails to a love interest, status updates on Facebook, fictional essays, scholarly articles, or non-fiction books, we could benefit others by writing better. Here is a list of books that I’ve put together to help you do just that. It’s not a bare list; I’ve added a few thoughts and musings along the way. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments section below. Happy writing.
If you consult only one book to improve your writing, Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg should be it. This book is not your typical “how-to-write” book filled with grammar and style discussions. It is a series of profound short sentences that will turn upside down your views of writing. You don’t read this book; you meditate on it. And you’ll be a better writer because of it.
If you can’t write a sentence then you can’t write. Sentences are foundational to writing, this is obvious. However, how much thought do you put into their construction? Many of us who are engaged in academic writing put a lot of time into structuring a book proposal or outlining a journal article but then spend relatively little time composing actual sentences. And then killing off half of them. And retooling the survivors. But this is what it takes to produce good writing. Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One is a fantastic guide that will help you deconstruct every element of the sentences you read and then expertly fashion your own.
Academic writers can learn a lot about the craft of writing from authors of fiction. Novelists spend their entire day forging prose while academics try to cram writing sessions in between teaching, grading, and administrative duties. And, if a novelist is a crappy writer odds are they won’t eat. This weeds out most of the hacks and those left standing generally know how to write an engaging string of words. Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car is a reflection on her literary life. It includes inspiring personal stories as well as nitty gritty advice on how to plant your tail into a chair for hours at a time and smith some words. Plus, it’s a short read which is always nice.
Some will be put off by Stephen King’s “colorful” writing in On Writing, but it is a fantastic book. King does not approach the act of writing as a detached observer. Instead, he tells you his own story of how he became a writer. Like Patchett he gives plenty of very practical tips on how to think up new ideas (take frequent walks) and how to cultivate the self-discipline it takes to write (pick a consistent time and place in which to write and only write).
Lastly, and most importantly, to be a good writer you must be a good reader. You need to nourish your literary sensibilities with a steady diet of good writing. Especially if you are an academic writer. Let’s be honest, shall we? Most academic writing is terrible. It’s difficult to follow, hard to understand, and a bore to read. If this is all you read then don’t be surprised if you’re a crappy writer. Supplement your diet with fantastic writing–fiction or non-fiction or both, just make sure it’s good. You can drop by your local bookstore and ask for recommendations or consult various lists of writing that others have judged as good such as the Booker or the Pulitzer prizes. Good examples of well written scholarly monographs can be hard to find. But–and I know she will be embarrassed by this–I think an outstanding example of a well crafted book, from start to finish, is Angela Roskop’s The Wilderness Itineraries. It’s tough subject matter (try making biblical lists interesting to a modern audience!) but this book is clear, concise, and even engaging. Study it and then go and do likewise.
Do you have a bibliophile in your life that you are looking to surprise with a gift this holiday season? Well, here is a list of books that would melt the heart of any book lover. At the beginning of the list I’ve included books that are related to religious studies but there are a couple books at the end that would appeal to any reader.
Jewish Concepts of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction edited by Benjamin D. Sommer. A deeply fascinating book that discusses how the Jewish community from the rabbinic to modern period viewed the Bible.
Inheriting Abraham by Jon Levenson. Jon Levenson is on my “read everything they write” list and in this book he points out that Jewish, Islamic, and Christian communities each have different understandings and traditions surrounding Abraham. Therefore, he questions whether “Abrahamic religions” is a useful concept.
In Defense of Religious Moderation by William Egginton. Egginton’s motivation in this book is to demonstrate that “fundamentalism,” or an epistemic stance in which one is absolutely certain that they are able to accurately discern the universe’s code of codes, is separate from religious belief. Accordingly, he believes that the best antidote to religious violence and fanaticism is not atheism but a more modest, or moderate, religious sensibility. While I think he at times stretches his case and doesn’t quite understand some of the Church matriarchs and patriarch, it is a deeply fascinating book that easily moves between discussion of The Matrix, Richard Rorty, Islam and back again.
The Bible and the Believer by Marc Brettler, Peter Enns, and Daniel Harrington. A Jew, a Protestant, and a Roman Catholic (no, this isn’t a joke) each discuss how they hold together their religious faith while simultaneously engaging the biblical text from a perspective that takes into account contemporary scholarly advances. If you know someone who is serious about cultivating a religiously informed intellectual life then you need to get them this book. Needless to say, everyone who is studying the Bible in both academic and worship communities will greatly benefit from it.
A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church by Ephraim Radner. An interesting and provocative book that tries to explore the oneness of God as conceived within Christian theology in relation to the often fratricidal tendencies of the Christian community both historically and in the present (think of all those church splits and fired seminary professors you’ve heard of not to mention the Crusades). The book sets forward a path for Christians that centers upon giving up parts of oneself in order to live in harmony and seek peace. As one who tires of being attacked by my fellow Christians and, even more, who is continually discouraged to see my Christian friends in the academy get ground down by the gears of “Christian” power, this book was a breath of fresh air and a strong personal challenge.
Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet. An absolutely marvelous little reflection upon personal book collection. Bonnet accumulated a personal library of tens of thousands of volumes and speaks from a heart in love with books. This is a must-read for any bibliophile.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. A fun novel about a guy who works in a San Francisco bookstore and stumbles upon a secret society that is trying to break a code made by Aldus Manutius, one of the world’s most significant book printers. You can read the short story that the novel was based on, but the novel takes the basic story line and extends it quite a bit.
Jon Levenson, Albert List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, has a new book out in which he questions the concept of “Abrahamic Religions,” in other words, that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are united in the common ancestor of Abraham. In Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Levenson demonstrates that each of these religions view Abraham in different ways and have different traditions associated with him. I thought I would post several resources that relate to the publication of this significant book:
First, Jewish Ideas Daily published an interview with Levenson concerning Inheriting Abraham.
And, here is a lecture that Levenson gave at the University of California Santa Barbara in which he addresses this topic. Professor Levenson was kind enough to send me an electronic version of the handout that he used for this address which will make it much easier to follow along with the texts that he cites. Dr. Levenson pointed out that his views are now more refined and nuanced since this lecture (which was given in 2006) but it is still a very good summary of his take on this topic. Enjoy.
Books & Culture asked me to review David Penchansky’s Understanding Wisdom Literature. In the review I discuss some meta issues such as: how one can form meaning from multi-authored texts, history of Christian interpretation, and the very nature of the task of theology. Let me know what you think.
I’d like to thank John Hobbins for reading a draft of this essay and giving me some very helpful feedback.
This is literally the coolest book review I have ever seen. Grab a laptop because it won’t work with smart phones, buckle up and get ready for your mind to be bent and your conception of genre to be deeply blurred. I seriously wish I were this creative…
This is a beautiful and magisterial book; but it leaves unsolved some of the puzzles that still make readers of the New Testament pause to ask what really is the right, the truthful, way to talk about a figure like the Jesus we meet in these texts.
via Christian Beginnings by Geza Vermes – review | Books | The Guardian. A thoughtful review by Rowan Williams.
I’m quite an enthusiastic supporter of electronic books in all their iterations. I think that long form writing has a wonderful future ahead of itself and that we’ve only seen the beginning of the benefits (and also destruction) of converting dead trees to atoms. And yet, for the student of ancient texts there is something lost in this migration. Ancient peoples had a deep association with the physicality of the mediums on which they wrote which in turn greatly affected their approach to them and even their thought processes involved in reading and writing.
One of the most striking portrayals of the immense significance of the physicality of a text is seen in the Smithsonian’s edition of The Jefferson Bible. They tried to reproduce as exactly as they could the edition of the Bible Jefferson made by literally cutting texts out of the New Testament, discarding some and rearranging others. They even produce Jefferson’s marginalia and chapter divisions written in his own hand. However, the most intriguing thing to me was that the publisher took pains (read expense) to represent a place where Jefferson glued a piece of a text in the margin. Here is a picture:
Writing is present on both sides of the flap and there appear to be pen marks in which Jefferson crossed out portions and such. All of this contributes to give a picture of editorial lengths Jefferson went toward creating this version of the New Testament. I wonder if this sense would be as strong if one were reading from a newly typeset edition in either print or electronic form? Personally, I doubt it.
Genesis is a defining story without which it is hard to make sense of the rest of the Old Testament.
Now, as far as I understand it RJS is a scientist of some kind and not a biblical scholar so I’ll cut her(?) some slack, yet, I think RJS represents a dominant assumption that Genesis is essential to the rest of the OT, a foundational book, the sine qua non without which the OT would be lost and rudderless. On one hand, Genesis is important if you build a metanarrative of Scripture or employ a so-called canonical reading of the Bible. And, New Testament authors occasionally quote or allude to certain passages within Genesis. Yet, if we are talking about making sense of a book in relation to the Old Testament then I think it is important to note how the biblical authors themselves viewed portions of Scripture before saying that it is hard to make sense of the rest of the Old Testament without X passage or book. For instance, with respect to Genesis how do we deal with the facts that:
- The seven days of creation are not referred to outside of Genesis 1 except for in one of the decalogues (Exod 20:8-9)1
- Adam shows up nowhere else outside of the first handful of chapters in Genesis apart from the genealogy in Chronicles 1.
- The Fall isn’t brought up again outside of Genesis until Paul.
- Noah is absent throughout the entire OT apart from the Genesis account and genealogy in 1 Chronicles 1
- The Tower of Babel is never alluded to or cited within the OT
Not every figure within Genesis is absent within subsequent OT literature though.
- Abraham has a decent showing in the OT and, in fact, this is where Stephen begins his history of Israel in Acts 7
- Jacob figures more prominently–a lot more prominently–than Abraham within the Old Testament outside of the Pentateuch
- Joseph appears about as many times outside of the Pentateuch as does Abraham
- Jon Levenson sees a connection, however slight, between Gen 1 and Ps 104 yet I wonder whether the similarities he outlines are best explained as stemming from an organic connection or a conversion of tropes; Creation and the Persistence of Evil, 53-65. [back]
Not a lot. And that is what disappointed me.
I’m reviewing Marvin A. Sweeney‘s TANAK: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Fortress, 2012) for BBR so my full reflection will appear there, however, there is an aspect of this book that I’d like to explore here.
I think Sweeney is a fantastic and insightful scholar and I always relish the opportunity to read his latest work. Naturally, I came out of my skin when I heard that he was producing an introduction to the Jewish Bible. There are few people more qualified than him to it and I thought that this book would make a tremendous addition to the reading list for my Old Testament classes.
The first chapter (Part I: Introduction) was classic Sweeney, that is, it blew my socks off. Particularly, the section “The Task of Jewish Biblical Theology” is one of the best reflections that I have ever read that outlines how to engage in constructing a biblical theology from within a particular faith tradition while staying in full conversation with other religious and non-religious communities. Sweeney then goes on to describe a distinctly Jewish approach. In defining what Jewish biblical theology is Sweeney helpfully demarcates it apart from the dominant Christian formulations:
Whereas the Christian Old Testament is read first in relation to the New Testament and then in relation to subsequent Christian tradition with an eye to defining the dogmatic or systematic theological principles that define Christian faith and practice, the Tanak is read in relation to the entirety of Jewish tradition with an eye to defining both the identity of Jews as a distinctive and holy people and the halakhic practices and religious perspectives that are pertinent to Judaism (25).
He goes on to further differentiate Jewish approaches from Christian ones:
Thus Judaism does not find itself based in dogmatic or systematic theological principles as Christianity attempts to do; instead, Judaism emerges as a religion of continuous dialog, both with the traditions and among contemporaries through time, as it seeks to understand the divine will as expressed in Torah and subsequent Jewish tradition (33).
Sweeney outlines many other things but I think these two quotes reflect Sweeney’s vision for Jewish biblical theology: study the text well according to contemporary critical standards and then bring these insights into conversation with Jewish tradition both ancient and modern. My disappointment with the volume stems from the fact that Sweeney doesn’t seem to follow his own advice. He does the former (critical study of the text) very well but the latter (conversation with Jewish tradition) hardly at all. After the introduction the entire balance of the book (save 2 pages of summary conclusion at the very end) is a detailed discussion of the content of Hebrew Bible that works sequentially, and in some cases, textual unit to textual unit, from Gen to Chron.
Looking through this discussion of the content of the biblical text it seems like it could have been the product of pretty much any critical scholar like, say, a Joseph Blenkinsopp (9 entries in the index). Sure, there is a little sprinkling of references to Jewish tradition here and there but practically no more than one would expect from a responsible Protestant, Catholic, or agnostic scholar. For example, Tremper Longman is cited more often than Martin Buber, Anthony Campbell, S.J. makes more appearances than Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Ronald Clements is quoted more than Michael Fishbane. Maimonides and Rabbi Akiba appear one time in the index, RaDaK twice, and Rashi not at all. “Systematic Theology” has three references, the same as ibn Ezra and “Heilsgeschichte” appears just as often (2x) as “Pardes.”
What is missing from this book is a deep and sustained conversation between contemporary critical consensus and Jewish tradition. Sweeney never seems to get very deep into the theological part of this introduction, much less the distincitvely Jewish part. But this is what I deeply wanted. I wanted a deeply critical *and* Jewish approach to the Hebrew Bible. I think that people who engage in biblical and theological studies must remain in conversation–real deep and substantive conversation–with perspectives different than their own. These perspectives should cross all boundaries: ideological, temporal, areas of specialization, etc. Among many other benefits, this stimulates creativity, deepens an understanding of the strengths and weakness of one’s own perspective, and it fosters mutual respect and civil dialog with those that we may disagree with.
Sweeney has produced a great critical introduction to the Hebrew Bible but I am less sure that it is an introduction to the Jewish Bible. Yet, this is what I think Sweeney was in the perfection position to provide and it would have been something that we all would have benefited greatly from.
What are your thoughts on this book in particular or on the bigger topic of inter-religious scholarly study?