Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Books & Reading, Mother's Education

    Wide Reading for Quarantine, Installment Two

    May 4, 2020 by Brandy Vencel

    Installment One is here. I noticed that some of my recommendations started falling off of my Facebook page (or wall or whatever it’s called), so I decided to preserve them here sooner rather than later. Before I do that, though, I thought I’d review something I talked about in my newsletter a couple weeks ago: stability.

    There are a number of times Charlotte Mason implies that wide reading gives us stability. In In Memoriam, for example, she is quoted:

    The stability proper to persons who have read widely … should belong to us all.

    p. 9

    We talk about the moral imagination, but fail to realize that stability is one place we see it working out in practice. The man who has read his history and his Pilgrim’s Progress and his fairy tales is not surprised that times are hard. But more than that: he has a vision of what it looks like to persevere, to thrive creatively. He can imagine a person facing fear with courage and behaving with justice and kindness to others even in the midst of chaos because he has read of it being done.

    Or, what Caitlin said in Little House in the Big Pandemic:

    I have read many old books, and they have given me courage.

    It is the necessity of wide reading that brought about this challenge to myself: recommending books in different categories (my favorites) rather than just a list of one or two kinds.

    Breadth, my friends, bring depth if the books are the best kinds of books.

    So here’s the list:

    None Greater by Matthew Barrett

    I gave None Greater by Matthew Barrett my Afterthoughts Book of the Year award last year, which has never before happened with a theology book. (Please note that the Kindle version of this book is still only $0.99 as of the date of this post.)

    I have this distinct memory of doing an “attributes of God study” my freshman year of college, and being surprised that it was interesting, but didn’t touch my heart the way I expected. It was like God was a sentence I was learning to diagram. I felt the same way many times in seminary — we there to study the greatest discipline and yet jokingly calling it “cemetary”?

    Something is wrong with many religious books.

    None Greater teaches the basics of theology proper in way that drives the reader to worship, and at least one reason for that is Barrett’s emphasis on God’s infinite nature. When he applies infinity to other divine attributes — love, goodness, etc. — you start to see how impossibly big God is … compared to you!

    It’s a theology book that doubles for devotional reading — which really means it’s theology done right.

    Category: Religion

    Tremendous Trifles by G.K. Chesterton

    G.K. Chesterton is always a good read, even if it’s the weirdest book in the world, The Man Who Was Thursday. With that said, Tremendous Trifles is a favorite of mine. It’s not a big time commitment because it’s an essay collection. Almost all the essays are short (3-4 pages) and each stands alone, which means you can put the book down for a week without feeling lost.

    Chesterton is brilliant. He will make you think. He will convict you that you are far too uninterested in the world around you. He will remind you there is such a thing as being Too Grown Up. Most importantly: he will make you laugh. When I think of “jolly,” I invariably think of Chesterton.

    And then I smile.

    Category: Essays

    On the Incarnation by Athanasius

    I wanted to start recommending some older books and thought, “Where better to start than Athansius’ classic, On the Incarnation?” But here’s the deal: you MUST buy the copy that includes the introduction written by CS Lewis, because this makes the book a double blessing.

    Athanasius’ work itself is wonderful and beautiful and it’s a great idea to read it during Advent. What better time to think deeply on the import of the Incarnation than when we are anticipating it?

    Then there is Lewis’ introduction. This is one of those hold-my-beer essays from Lewis. He leaves us with no excuses for only reading modern books. We are dangerously prejudiced in favor of our own time and Lewis says “the only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” These are the ONLY books, he says, that correct the errors characteristic of our own age.

    Lewis believed in alternating new books with old books one for one. He then makes a concession: “If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” I would add to make sure that all your old books don’t come from a single period of time. I was convicted that for years, most of my olds books came from the post-Revolutionary war period, and that limited my perspective as well.

    No where, Lewis says, are old books more important than theology. And so I commend Athanasius’ little book (and I do mean little!) to you, if you haven’t read it before.

    Category: Religion, Philosophy

    Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning and On the Soul by Cassiodorus

    This book (gifted to me by the lovely Barb Gifford) contains three works by Cassiodorus: Institutes of Divine Learning (he actually says it’s an introduction to religious reading), Institutes of Secular Learning (by this he means an exploration of the seven liberal arts — he believes the seven liberal arts are the seven pillars upon which Wisdom builds her house in Proverbs), and On the Soul.

    Disclaimer: I have been reading this for over two years and haven’t yet finished On the Soul.

    I am recommending this for two main reasons. First, I think he shows what an educated pastor actually looks like. Culturally, we have a really, REALLY low bar. That becomes more evident when reading a work like Institutes of Divine Learning.

    Privately (until this public book review), I often say there is no such thing as the Grammar Stage, that the ages and stages of the neo-classical approach is a weird classical baptism of modern thought, and reading someone who preceded Dorothy Sayers by, oh, over a thousand years, helps put all sorts of modern thoughts in perspective.

    It also becomes obvious why Plato mainly focused on music and gymnastic for the young.

    I always had a hard time wrapping my mind around the Trivium when reading books written after about 1850; Cassiodorus was the man who finally straightened my brain out! It’s not that reading this makes a person a master, but I think it’s so well organized and presented that it lends a certain clarity that allows for further thinking and better future reading.

    Category: Philosophy, Education

    Evening in the Palace of Reason by James Gaines

    Evening in the Palace of Reason by James Gaines is one of my favorite books of all time. I first read it when I only had a couple children, yet I’ve never forgotten about it. It left me sort of breathless — I was aware of the depth of a person like Bach and how very, very shallow my own understanding.

    The famous challenge Frederick the Great offered to Bach — and Bach’s profound conquering of it — wasn’t about mere music. It was a battle of worldviews. The fugue may now be mostly gone, but Gaines has made it forever symbolic to me of a time when the planets still made harmonies as they swung around the sun.

    Category: History, Music

    Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

    I found this photo on Amazon, where someone is currently selling my beautiful edition of Idylls of the King by Tennyson for eleven bucks (disclaimer: the stock and price change very regularly). Of course, you can also get it in a used Signet paperback for about fourteen dollars, except last week when it was only a penny. Used book buying is very confusing. It’s your call; either way it seems to be out of print, so you’re at the mercy of used booksellers on this one.

    Idylls of the King is narrative poetry — so not exactly “regular” poetry, but not exactly epic, either. The twelve poems of the collection work together to form Tennyson’s retelling of the King Arthur mythology. It is beautiful and magical — it is both the story you know and love as well as something uniquely Tennyson.

    If you ever read a retelling that you think minimized Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s treason, you’ll likely agree that Tennyson tells it with an appropriate level of heartbreak and tragedy.

    Category: Literature, Poetry

    On Writing Well by William Zinsser

    Five or six years ago, I started reading a book or two on writing each year. I wish I had done this earlier — my writing almost immediately improved because many of my mistakes were so basic. (I went to public school during the No Grammar years, so my education was deficient and my writing ability was rescued by summers spent reading.)

    Of all the books I’ve read so far, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is my favorite. (I’m pretty sure it was Karen Glass who introduced me to it.) I appreciated that he explained many different kinds of writing — travel writing, science writing, review and critique writing, and more — and offered a vision of what “good” looks like for each genre.

    Zinsser is an enjoyable and interesting writer and he includes interesting stories from his adventures in writing that are worth reading even if you aren’t particularly interested in honing your writing skills.

    This book is now required reading for high school graduation at our house!

    Category: Rhetoric

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply Katie May 6, 2020 at 3:00 pm

    My current approach to wide-reading gets at it from a slightly different perspective. I read something with a particular purpose, like Escape From Colditz, which I was reading aloud to my boys. Then I get enthused and read at least a few similar books (currently The Great Escape, Within Four Walls, Reach For the Sky and Dam Busters) until I’ve pretty much had enough and want a change. Then I’m very motivated to pick a very different kind of writing. It’s kind of like the playground craze at school, and it works well when I’m not up to a more organised and disciplined approach.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I’d definitely second the Athanasius recommendation, and it *is* really short. I’m looking forward to reading it with my children when they’re a bit older. And None Greater is on my list for when I next have some bookfunds. I enjoyed listening to the Mortification of Spin interview with Matthew Barrett.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 6, 2020 at 3:27 pm

      I like your strategy! ♥ Brilliant!

      That MoS episode was why I bought None Greater. I love that show. ♥

  • Reply Valerie May 4, 2020 at 10:14 am

    Hi Brandy, I read your lists of all these wonderful books and want to read them. But what if I am just barely keeping up with my CM study group and pre-reading? I’m just about to start Year 6 pre-reading, having almost finished most of the year 5 books. Until I found AO, I just didn’t read much other than scientific studies and continuing education and marriage or parenting books. I’m not a fast reader. I wish I were! I have to read and re-read anything difficult. If I just keep up with my kids and get a few extras in each year, is that still wide reading? As much as I would love to read all these books, I just can’t figure out how.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 4, 2020 at 12:21 pm

      If you are reading through AO it is TOTALLY wide reading! A number of the books on this list actually appear in an AO year somewhere, OR I used them in place of an AO book with one of my kids. The vast majority of my reading over the years has been for AO or the podcast. There really isn’t time for much else, at least not for me!

      Another thing: when your kids are older, you will be able to use some things you want to read for read alouds, too. Having a bunch of teens means that if I feel like reading Jane Austen, I put it on the read aloud stack instead of trying to find time in my personal schedule. They love it, so it works for all of us.

      • Reply Valerie May 4, 2020 at 2:07 pm

        Thank you! That really helps; I only recognized Pilgrim’s Progress from the early years.

        • Reply Katie May 6, 2020 at 2:43 pm

          I struggle to find time to read as much as I like, but audiobooks while I’m cooking or washing up are a great way to get more reading in without much of a time commitment.

  • Reply Cyn May 4, 2020 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for the recommendations Brandy! I was curious what other books you have found helpful for improving writing? I find myself in the same situation as you did, woefully uneducated in this art.


    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 4, 2020 at 9:50 am

      I’m reading Simple and Direct right now. I really like it, but I’m also glad it wasn’t one of the first ones I read! Another favorite was The Lively Art of Writing by Payne. I’ve done some others, but these two are my other favorites — most memorable, most helpful, most fun to read.

    Leave a Reply