One thing I’ve learned as an avid reader is how I need to be ready for what someone has to say before I can bear to invest my time with their book. We need to have experienced certain things in life for someone's message to speak to us. If you read a book at the wrong time, it can seem impossibly dense or indulgent or trivial or, worst of all, dull.
The volumes I’ve read in the past few months have been chosen with more care than at any time in my life. I once simply let serendipity, and persuasive reviews in newspapers and magazines, guide my reading. Now, more than ever, I seek out books that hold the promise of grace and meaning, of spiritual insight and practical guidance. Few of them, it turns out, have been works of fiction. What I feel nourished by these days are real stories about real-life situations from which I can learn something important. My ear is tuned for the ring of truth. I’m more prepared than ever to put a book down when mere words take the place of meaningful ideas. I’m convinced that half of all books, including some on this list, would better have been better published as magazine articles. In brevity lies a disciplined mind..
The books I’ve reviewed here are not the only ones I’ve read in the past year or two, but all are closely related to two themes in which I’ve seriously invested myself: 1) a study of cancer, and its attendant physical, psychological and spiritual effects; and 2) spiritual discovery. I take breaks to enjoy much lighter and brighter topics, but I’ve chosen here to draw a map of the exotic country I’ve been exploring. Several of these books have taken me places that seemed vaguely familiar before I arrived, but which now feel as comfortable as home. It’s been good to find guides who seemed to know their way around these parts.
I’ve tried to be chronological with my list, but I don’t date-stamp my books so this is merely an estimation of the order in which I've read them. They are rated on a one to five-star basis. You’ll not see many familiar titles here nor best-sellers, although I had to throw in some Tolstoy to show that I do sometimes read the Great Books as well.
*** What Kind of Life: The Limits of Medical Progress. By Daniel Callahan. 1990. I read parts of this book shortly after it was published, but picked it up again last year after my interest in medical ethics had been rekindled. Callahan makes a complex but logical case for the rationing of healthcare. I share his interest that the highest priority of healthcare should be care before cure. Twenty years after its appearance, Callahan’s argument is more relevant than ever.
**** Turn Your Mourning into Dancing. By Henri Nouwen. 2004. I’ve read a lot of Nouwen, but this book in particular is a good choice for anyone going through a time of suffering or woundedness. Nouwen was a Catholic priest and scholar who devoted the last 10 years of his life to living in a community of the mentally disabled. His insight that suffering is not about judgment but about God’s great love for us is profoundly reassuring.
***** The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. By Belden Lane. 2007. A professor of theology, Lane makes the observation that the great religions of the world were nourished in mountains, and nearly all of them born in deserts. The book is essentially about prayer, most notably the sort of contemplative prayer in which being silent before God is an end in itself. I read this book before and during a trip to Death Valley in 2009. I found a spiritual focus there in the ferocity of a sere landscape that revealed God to me in a fresh, unexpected way.
* The Human Side of Cancer: Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty. By Jimmie Holland and Sheldon Lewis. 2001. This book might be helpful to people who have been recently diagnosed with cancer and are distressed by all its uncertainties. There’s not a lot of human compassion in cancer care, but Holland and Lewis provide a healthy dose. I found the writing a little schmaltzy. It was not what I needed at the time I read it.
**** Letters from the Land of Cancer. By Walter Wangerin. 2010. The book is a collection of letters and meditations written by Wangerin within a few months of his diagnosis of incurable cancer and weeks after my cancer had advanced again. He tells his friends and family about his ideas, his fears, his sources of strength and his new reality. No one speaks from the other side, but this award-winning novelist, his cancer now sleeping, guides readers to the edge of life with a fierce honesty. The beauty of the book is perhaps summed up best by the last sentence of letter 15: “It is a good day. Gladness is available. Christ is at hand.”
** One Renegade Cell: The Quest for the Origin of Cancer. By Robert Weinberg. 1999. You don’t need to have studied cell biology or genetics to appreciate this book, but you had better be a motivated reader. Theories on the causes of cancer and how it metastasizes have advanced dramatically in the last decade, making Weinberg’s book slightly dated. What the author does especially well is to explain the complexities of research and why so much time and so many resources have been required to uncover the mechanisms of cancer.
**** As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning. By Richard John Neuhaus. 2003. The distinguished editor of “First Things” magazine nearly died after cancer surgery, but lived to write in crystalline prose about it. This “near-death experience” has nothing to do with the popular notion of the term, but more about how we face the difficult issues of dying: Is it possible to have death with dignity? Where can we find comfort? What is true about the after-life? He is totally non-sentimental in addressing his own death and ours. His conclusion, based partly on his Catholic convictions: Death is scary, even for the faithful, but it’s normal and you can arrive at a peace about it.
* Help Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know. By Lori Hope. 2005. Lame. There are, in fact, things people with cancer would like their friends and family to know—so go ahead and tell them. I stopped reading at about thing #11.
* Running with Cancer: The Ultimate Marathon. By William Phelan. 2006. What a promising title for such a disappointing book. Since 1980, Phelan has successfully fought and overcome four different episodes of head and neck cancer. Through it all he ran. This is a good example of a story that would have been best told as an inspirational article in Runner’s World magazine. The book is long and tedious.
** It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. By Lance Armstrong. 2001. I didn’t read this book, but rather listened to it on tape while driving my trusty 1992 Subaru wagon. I’m not sure what to make of a heroic comeback like Armstrong’s when his private failings have become so public: his divorce from the woman who nursed him through his treatment for metastatic prostate cancer, and the likely abuse of performance-enhancing drugs in competitive cycling. You want to be inspired by his well-told tale, but sadly I don’t buy it. Armstrong proves the point that cancer doesn’t make you a better person.
*** Heaven. By Randy Alcorn. 2004. Alcorn states upfront that heaven is one of the least accurately discussed subjects in the Christian religion. If it’s the unending church service that many Christians believe it to be, I’d be bored by the idea of heaven too. But I don’t and I’m not. Alcorn awakened in me a desire to know more about where I will spend eternity, which has set me on a serious path of biblical study (see below). He gets into some long-winded answers on both serious and quirky questions (Will there be coffee in heaven?) but created in me, at least, a thirst to know more. And, yes, I’m convinced there will be pleasures of both food and drink in heaven. I’ll take mine with milk and sugar.
** Exploring Heaven: What Great Christian Thinkers Tell Us About Our Afterlife with God. By Arthur Roberts. 2003. The next stop on my exploration of heaven was this personal critique by a retired professor of philosophy and Quaker studies at George Fox University, which both my children have attended. Roberts dutifully lists the various definitions of a religious term that denotes where people go when they die. What keeps this from becoming a droning, academic tome are the winsome stories of the author, with whom I spent an afternoon in Newberg, OR, after finishing his book. A charming book by a charming man of deep faith.
***** Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church. By N.T. Wright. 2008. Of all the books I’ve listed, this is the one I’d recommend most highly—assuming you have at least a passing interest in the subject. The hope about which this brilliant Biblical scholar writes is not “going to heaven when you die” but rather in life after life after death—at the resurrection. He gives us weighty answers to what we hope for in response to death and why Christian mission consists of more than just “saving souls.” My understanding of why I’m here and what I’m to do in this world has been transformed by the biblical truth that Wright expounds. He does so magisterially. Read this book.
**** The Troubled Dream of Life: In Search of a Peaceful Death. By Daniel Callahan. 2000. Callahan is the only author I’ve listed twice, such is my regard for his work. This volume goes beyond an examination of the technological imperative in healthcare that he makes in “What Kind of Life,” and describes the history of society’s attitude toward death and how it has changed with advances in medicine. This attitude contrasts with our modern-day conceit of life lasting forever, with us hanging on by our fingernails until the last gasp. Reading Callahan will be troubling if you demand the latest and most expensive healthcare regardless of cost, which by implication means almost everyone. It’s good to be troubled sometimes.
*** The Healing Power of Faith: How Belief and Prayer Can Help You Triumph Over Disease. By Harold Koenig. 2001. Koenig has spent most of his career studying the effect of people’s religious lives on their physical and emotional lives. He’s a serious academic at Duke University, where he has subjected his belief in faith’s healing power to scientific inquiry. Although his research begs the bigger question of where healing power comes from, he does offer powerful examples of how religious faith has enabled some people to endure and even triumph over pain and woe.
*** The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections. By Frederick Buechner. 1996. This book is a collection of musings on the loss of home and what Buechner calls a universal homesickness. It’s a touching book. Buecher reminds us that there is no ordinary life, and he seeks to show his readers how God is at work in each of us .
**** The Art of Dying: Living Fully Into the Life to Come. By Rob Moll. 2010. Moll does in this book what I have attempted in my life: to reckon honestly with death. Is there a more intense spiritual experience than our departure from this world? With increasing life expectancy and the availability of aggressive medical interventions, we have become conditioned to believe that death can be postponed indefinitely. Moll writes with grace and humility about how we’ve lost the spiritual discipline of ars moriendi (the art of dying), and how we can get it back.
** How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter. By Sherwin Nuland. 1995. This was a tough read, even after all the study I’ve made of the subject. The Yale University physician bluntly makes the point that it’s disease, not death, that’s the enemy, despite the fact that most deaths are “unpleasant, painful or agonized, and to argue otherwise is to plaster over the truth.” I recommend a reading of Rob Moll’s book (above) first before launching into Nuland’s. Knowing the truth about dying helps to take away the fear it instills in us, however hard that truth may be.
** Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit. By Norman Cousins. 1990. I met Cousins when I was a magazine intern in New York City in 1976, and really liked the man. He was witty, urbane, and, even then, bursting with optimism. This account of his experience of triumphing over serious illness made him a pioneer in showing that a positive attitude can aid the healing process. His quest to find proof of the biochemical factors that positive thinking has on disease are not all that persuasive, but in the process he takes us for a fun ride.
***** The Death of Ivan Ilyich. By Leo Tolstoy. 1886. This novella by Tolstoy is a mini-masterpiece. This story is about much more than the main character’s slide into ever increasing pain and irritability due to what we can assume to be cancer. As he is about to die, Ilyich realizes he has never really lived. It’s a familiar theme, but it’s handled here with exquisite mastery.
*** Letter for a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care? By Reynolds Price. The impetus for this small, poetic book was a stranger’s correspondence. In 1997, Price received a letter from a young man who had recently withdrawn from medical school due to colon and liver cancer. The man had read Price’s earlier work about his bout with spinal cancer, and was moved enough by their similar experiences to write. This sets up questions to which the book’s subtitle alludes: Is there a God and does he care? Price’s answers don’t always satisfy, but he does serve as a diligent guide for those who are searching.
*** The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality. By Barbara Bradley Haggerty. 2009. Hagerty was raised as a Christian Scientist, a faith she disavowed as a 20-something. Now a religious correspondent for NPR, this book chronicles her year-long quest to answer a question: Is there any real scientific evidence for God? The answer is a qualified, half-hearted maybe. The author is a fine medical writer, but what makes this story interesting is the personal journey she pursues in search of the scientifically unverifiable. She knows that, we know that, and the scientists we meet along the way know that. She ultimately arrives about where she started.
*** The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. By Siddhartha Mukherjee. 2010. This is perhaps the only book on my list that’s destined to become a best-seller, which is perhaps a good marker for how few good books on cancer there have been. For a disease that about one in three of us will experience in our lives, you’d think there might be more. Mukherjee’s sweeping epic covers the history of the research, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. The last section on how scientists have learned how cells become cancerous and how they can be treated with personalized medicine is the most interesting. This 600-page book is a very human biography of an elusive and complicated disease.