After Chris’ initial book tag, she went on to another set: books that have influenced the way you think. It’s had me thinking ever since. So here are another five (in order first read):
The Cloud of Unknowing. This served as a rather strange theological primer. I read it during my English Degree when Piers Plowman led to Julian of Norwich, who led to Cloud. Rather like reading The Wasteland when I was ten, there was no way I could understand Cloud. But it sketched out the territory of the possible. For someone like me, who tends to be restless till something is known and understood, it is just as well to learn early on that God offers an infinite playground for thinking, but that knowing will never be ours in this lifetime.
Thinking and Speaking, Lev Vygotsky. Another book I dare say I didn’t wholly understand –though I can distinctly remember the night I fought with writing the essay. Thinking and Speaking is about how human beings learn — more specifically how we develop ‘self-talk’ that forms the basis of meta-cognition. Three things (at least) that interested me in Vygotsky’s work. First was his focus on learning as a process graded so infinitely as to defy clear stages (contra Piaget). ‘Life long learning’ before the term became fashionable. Second, was the way in which the individual internalizes language and concepts from their surrounding culture. Vygotsky argues that it is actually significant relationships that lead to significant learning, as we internalize images that appeal (a vast oversimplification). Third, is the crucial idea of The Zone of Proximal Development: a fancy term for the gap between what we can know and understand on our own, and what we can know and understand with a trusted guide. A couple of significant things there: the gap is only so big, so if one is one is not ready, one simply can’t learn. But, the gap reaches it’s maximum capacity when we trust the guide — again picking up on the importance of relationship in learning. I’m sure I don’t apply Vygotsky’s insights as well as I should, but they offer an important framework for thinking about how individuals and groups learn and change.
The 200th Anniversary Cookbook from King Arthur Flour. A very perceptive then-14 year old (now 23 year old!) once noticed that baking was one of my favorite means of procrastination. So I probably read King Arthur when I should have been reading Vygotsky. King Arthur Flour is a small company in Vermont that mills good flour, sells hard to find baking goods and collects wonderful recipes. But it is the way they give you the recipe that counts. They tell you, for example, how to make a basic American muffin. Then they tell you what happens if you add this instead of that, and how far you can push it. So I learned to substitute half the baking powder for baking soda if using yoghurt instead of milk, how to mix blueberries in so they don’t sink, and so on. It changed my thinking for ever, and led to the signature cranberry and ginger muffins. A book well worth reading, especially when avoiding essays (or sermons, or deadlines…).
Existentialism & Humanism, J. P. Satre. A book every twenty-something should read, mark and inwardly digest and then grow out of. Don’t miss reading it. Don’t miss learning from it. But please oh please don’t forget to grow out of it.
and if you need help growing out of it, follow the bibliography in:
After Christianity, Daphne Hampson. Daphne was my thesis supervisor at St Mary’s. We named a sharp toothed puppy after her once. She and the puppy could both be hard work, but she was (no doubt is) one of the finest teachers I’ve ever met. Daphne spent years being angry in the church, and then spent years more being angry at the church. Not without justification. We lost a superb mind and an interesting human being when we pushed her out. She has important things to say about feminism, the use and abuse of power, and the nature of Christianity. She is so right on so much that I always find our points of intense disagreement a frustration. (Which is no doubt how she felt about so many of her students who were changed by her, but not persuaded to follow her out of Christian belief.)
What’s been interesting in thinking about this post is realizing that the books that most influenced me have been those that I either didn’t understand fully or engaged with but disagreed with. Now, do you suppose that’s typical or perverse? Maybe if others take up this thread it will start to become clear.