We live in a derivative age. What I mean by "derivative" is that so much of the content we read comes from secondary sources. Instead of reading C.S. Lewis's non-fiction work, we click on a blog or read a book "about" Lewis's non-fiction. Instead of reading Republic by Plato we look for the Spark notes.
Instead of reading Charles Taylor's A Secular Age we're content read James K.A. Smith's book "about" Taylor's monumental work. I'm not saying you shouldn't read Smith's work (quite the contrary!), but doesn't it make sense to read the original great books instead of reading a derivative work? I'm sure Smith would agree.
A cardinal rule in studying the bible (hermeneutics) is to first approach the text. Read, and reread; observe, and observe some more. Don't pick up a commentary until you've exhausted the text with your observations. We're too quick to jump to what someone else says about a text instead or wrestling with the text ourselves. (C.S. Lewis talks about this in his introduction to The Incarnation of the Word of God, actually. It's worth a read!)
So, with this in mind, I thought I'd offer three primary texts you should read. Lewis suggests we hesitate to read the great works because we're afraid we won't understand them, when in reality writers like Plato are very readable and understandable. Enough of this, let's get to it.
1. Works of Love, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. I remember growing up hearing pastors and teachers warning me about Kierkegaard. Clearly they never read him. In the last eight years no other writer has added so much to my devotional life. Works of Love reads like a devotional. Not the kind of devotional you might be used to. It actually has depth. Works reads like someone took Wordsworth, Edwards, and Lewis, and shook them like a James Bond martini. I'm not a martini drinker but I'm sure they're tasty, much like Love. Give Kierkegaard a try. Here's a taste:
"As the quiet lake is fed deep down by the flow of hidden springs, which no eye sees, so a human being's love is grounded, still more deeply, in God's love." -Kierkegaard, Works of Love
2. Phantastes, George MacDonald. I actually discovered MacDonald before C.S. Lewis. My father bought me this book when I was twelve years old. I think mainly because I liked the cover. But when I read MacDonald, my mind opened up like a clear winter sky. This is not a fantasy book for children. MacDonald wrote it for an adult audience. It seems folks love to reference MacDonald and Lewis together, but I wonder how many really read the Scotsman. MacDonald also read the first draft of Alice In Wonderland to his children for his friend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). Faerie stories might not be your thing, and that's fine. But if you want to see how Lewis's imagination was influenced by MacDonald, then spend a weekend and read this book.
MacDonald, in his stirring essay "The Fantastic Imagination" wrote, "The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is--not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him ..." I guarantee Phantastes will wake something up in you. I dare you to read it.
3. Symposium & Republic, Plato. I've tried to give you some breadth in this short list. But understand, this is my secret shelf, and so I'm limited to the very best books that I love and use often; indispensable books that aid my writing, thinking, and the important having-of-fun. So, here's Plato. The last two years his "conversations" have aided my research on beauty. I am more familiar with Symposium, but sections of Republic and Timaeus leap off the page. I recommend the Oxford World's Classics editions of these books (though I own the Loeb version of Symposium, which is fantastic). Robin Waterfield gives excellent introductions and really gives you permission to enjoy the writings.
I was reading Chapter 9 (as named and divided by Waterfield) "The Supremacy of Good" and literally blurted out loud, "So that's where he [C.S. Lewis] gets it!" The occasion made me remember Digory's comment in The Last Battle? "It's all in Plato, all in Plato: Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?"
Bonus - Secret Digital Shelf
Evernote - I'm a "real book with pages that turn" kind of reader. I write drafts of my chapters in my Moleskine, and write all over the pages of my books. But since beginning the doctorate I have found Evernote to be indispensable. Here's why:
1. Search Everything - I use the "Pro" version, which costs a few dollars a month. It enables me to search text in photos I take of my journal or a book I don't own. For example, last week I was browsing Blackwell's in Oxford before grabbing my favorite double espresso macchiato and I found a great book on the imagination. It was too much to buy, so I browsed through it, found a section that was great for my current thesis chapter and snapped photos in Evernote on my phone. I later searched "imagination" and found that note immediately.
It's the same with notes. If I am writing on Augustine, I just search it and it brings up every note I have that contains "Augustine."
2. Organization - Writing a 100,000 word thesis demands organization. Evernote allows me to keep my thesis notes in notebooks and let's me tag each note with a relevant descriptor. Notes can be any length. So, instead of dumping notes, or thoughts, into a Word doc or Google doc I throw them into Evernote with the confidence that I can search them and find everything easily.
Also, I had Evernote for a year before I really used it. If you want it to make a difference for you, then make yourself use it for everything, and it will revolutionize your organizational life, be it thesis writing, blogging, home organization, etc.
3. Web Clipper - If you add the Web Clipper to your browser you'll be able to grab web articles with one click; you can tag the article, place it in the appropriate notebook, and search for it later. This is essential in research. I don't have to copy the link and paste it somewhere, or email it to myself. I just web clip it and it goes right into my notebook.
In the spirit of secret shelves and good books, check out, my friend, Christie Purifoy's Farmhouse Bookshelves.
I'd love to hear how you use Evernote if you do at all.
Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.