If you are interested in learning about ancient Mesopotamia it’s hard to do better than A. Leo Oppenheim’s classic book, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. The University of Chicago has now made it freely available as a pdf download. Happy reading.
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.
There are numerous problems with using the particular neologism of ‘eristology,’ including pomposity and technical obscurantism.
–Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity.
At least he’s honest.
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.
Two recent blog posts are worth your time to click through and read.
First, T. Michael Law gives some reflections on a few recently published Old Testament Introductions and picks his favorite.
And, Joseph Kelly has a short post on Ehud ben Zvi’s essay on the history of Jewish biblical theology with links to offprints of the article.