Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


If you'll tell me your favorite novel...

I'll tell you mine, because I really want some new stories these days. On the bus ride out to class this morning, a friend asked me how I choose the next book I will read. This became a discussion on the various book lists we both always have running of "read," "to read," or for me, simply "best beloved in all the world." Right before I left for Oxford, I jotted out a list of my favorite books at the request of the Summit students I mentored. I meant to post it then, but forgot. Jetlag and all.

I'm posting it now because I'm hoping it will encourage you to post a few of your favorites in return. I greatly enjoyed the writing of this list because it was an informal, books that I love, read before you die sort of thing. There's no rhyme or reason to this list beside love. That's probably why it starts with stories. (I'll post the nonfiction half later.)

So please, I need some new gems at the moment, novels in particular. If I share mine... drop me a comment with your best beloveds?


  1. Peace Like A River by Leif Enger. Some of the best and quirkiest wordcraft I have read. Characters who are frail, tough, and funny all at once, and a story that wrestles with sin and grace. Also modern. I tend to like authors whom I could only meet in heaven so its nice that this one is actually alive.
  2. The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. Human nature in all its darkness, in all its yearning, and the way that grace is always enough to meet it. A world of a book with whole sections that read as the deepest, hungriest thoughts of devotion.
  3. That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. Last in the Ransom Trilogy (I was recently lectured by my tutor on why this ought never to be called "The Space Trilogy"). I like the strangeness of this book, and the invasion of the ordinary by the planetary powers, each embodying some aspect of power or beauty. Also, a story with elements just bizarre enough to stab you awake to the way modernism can put your heart to sleep.
  4. Island of the World by Michael O’Brien. One of the most beautiful books I have ever, ever read. I’ll warn you – not for the faint of heart. The story of a boy in the Balkans at the end of WWII. This is the story of how love grips us, and if we will let it, turns all things to beauty in even the worst times of grief. It is also that rare book that follows a life from opening all the way to its close in old age. The arc of innocence lost and regained is part of the power of this story.
  5. Pilgrim's Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. One of the goals of my life is to make a Pilgrim's Inn - an actual house where the hungry and hurting, the exhausted and yearning, can rest and be restored by beauty on the high road journey toward God. This story pictures that shelter.
  6. Lilith and At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald – both of these are a little strange – they are fairytales, with all the wildness of fairy tale imagery, but George MacDonald’s worlds are always spiritual truth enfleshed. These two are my favorite.
  7. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. An aching book. A true book. A humble book. Just the life of a Kentucky housewife. The cultivation of land, and soul, and community. But a book to make you realize the things that you have lost. When I went to read this a friend cautioned me not to start it casually. It was, she said, too precious. I agree.
  8. King Lear, and Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare  - Everyone needs some Shakespeare. Read Much Ado aloud with a friend (especially if that friend is in love). The language of Shakespeare is so crammed with whimsy, so woven and twined with meaning and image. Just reading a bit changes the way you view language.
  9. The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. Myth. This is an epic - epic beauty, epic journey, epic grief. An epic in the oldest sense of embodying eternally true things in a single story. A book to which I will return the rest of my life for my love of its characters, its lands, its story.
  10.  David Copperfield by Dickens.
  11.  Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. A father searches for his lost son in South Africa. One of the best stories I have encountered in which irreversible grief and a brokenness that cannot be healed is met by Christian grace. There is nothing trite here.
  12.  The Chronicles of Narnia. Required reading. That's all.
  13. The Wind in the Willows. Described to me recently as the perfect children's book, but just a golden tale of friendship, belonging, nature, and the importance of loving your corner on earth. So lovely.
  14. Middlemarch, by George Eliot. I say it's like the Bible because of the heights and depths of human nature it presents within a village life in England.