In about a week, I will be finished plowing through all of the primary texts for my doctoral exams (!!), so I am already making plans for how I’ll recharge my reading life. My first stop is an Advent/Epiphany reading list to carry me through the holiday break—after all, catching up on reading with Christmas lights and music in the background is one of the best parts about this time of year. Now that I think about it, it’s a little ridiculous that my first impulse after finishing the longest reading list of my life is to make yet another reading list. But do it I will. Many of the books here are re-reads, but others are new-to-me. Most are fixated on renewal, mutability, and the unending circularity of the seasons; some are just fun and beautiful. This list is also pretty novel-lite to make room for poetry and a touch of non-fiction. Gosh, I love poetry at Christmas.
Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent by Richard Rohr. I’ve been reading these daily Advent meditations every December for the past few years. Now, I’ve never managed to read every single one of them over the course of the month, but I’m always grateful for this little book during the first week of the season (when my sense of intentionality is still very high). Rohr argues that Advent is a call to consciousness, with the understanding that there are risks to a heightened sense of awareness—you notice pain, horrors, and tragedy more vividly. I wouldn’t classify this book as a feel-good Advent read (Rohr is direct and challenging), but there’s something satisfying about reading an Advent devotional that pushes beyond the warm and fuzzy feelings of Christmas.
The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon. Honestly, I don’t know anything about this new-to-me book, but a friend read an excerpt aloud at a dinner party nearly two years ago and I’ve been wanting to read it since. Written by an Episcopalian priest who also happens to be a chef, Capon writes about the joy of old-fashioned cooking in a world where “prepackaged dinner” is king. The Amazon description tells me he writes about “festal” and “ferial” cooking. I don’t know what that means yet, but I’ll let you know when I find out.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Anonymous Pearl Poet. My feelings at the end of Sir Gawain are about the same as my feelings at 5pm on Christmas Day: like Sir Gawain, I feel a little ambivalent and often unchanged after Christmas, even though I know I’ve experienced some remarkable shift. I think Sir Gawain feels the same way when he returns to King Arthur’s court: the other knights praise him because he survived the Green Knight’s test (which, if you’re not up on your Medieval literature, is a beheading), but Gawain doesn’t seem to think he’s transformed at all. Gawain thinks he failed the test. Although this literary connection might be a stretch, I would bet that the Christmas season has this Gawain-like effect on most people. We know that this is a transformative season, but we’re never sure how we ourselves are undergoing change. Also, if you haven’t read this Medieval poem since high school, you may have forgotten that Gawain is actually a “Christmas story,” set during the feasting celebrations of Christmastide and Epiphany. (The edition linked above is a translation into Modern English.)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This novel begins with a beautiful Christmas scene of girls dreaming up what they’d love to anticipate at Christmas, and it’s just perfect. I pick it up almost every year about this time, if only to meditate over the warm image of sisters sitting by the fire, imagining perfect gifts for Marmee. I usually don’t stress myself out about finishing this novel every Christmas; it’s more like visiting briefly with an old friend in meaningful little spots of time. What’s funny is that one thing I love about this book is picturing how odd Louisa May Alcott must have felt writing it. She was the daughter of one of the most influential Transcendentalist thinkers of her time, Bronson Alcott, and was on friendly terms with none other than Emerson and Thoreau. She had a deep understanding of women’s rights long before American women would ever get the vote, her writings had appeared in several respectable publications by her thirties, and her publisher asked her, of all things, to write “a girls’ book”? In her journal, she writes, “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”
The Ninety-Third Name of God: Poems by Anya Krugovoy Silver. Anya Silver was one of my English professors in college, and her 2010 collection of poems is by-far one of my favorite poetry books for this time of year. I like how this collection fixates on recurring, whimsical-yet-tangible images that you can trace throughout the book: milkweed, cats, skirts, icons in windows, and tumors included. The reason I think this book is so suited to Advent is its return to themes of anticipation (of both death and new life) and the nature of unexpected thin places like hospital operating rooms—and her poems are just plain lovely. (My favorites are “French Toast” and “Lessons and Carols.”) She also has a new collection out that’s on my Christmas wish list: I Watched You Disappear: Poems (2014)
The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton. Christmas, in all of its joyfulness and wonder, is also very messy thanks to the fact that the whole concept of incarnation is messy. I think that Sexton, troubled though she was by her own demons, understood the wild discomfort of divinity incarnate, a theme which occasionally turns up in her poetry. Also, if you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they say “confessional poetry,” then Sexton is a great place to start. (I really like this edition linked above, mainly because of the excellent introduction by Maxine Kumin.)
All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Wealth by Laura Vanderkam. Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think really reshaped how I think about my time, and I’m guessing that All the Money in the World will have a similar effect on how I view our financial resources. I have always been a spender—I love new, beautiful things just as much as anyone. And when I get busy (which is always), I don’t pay very close attention to where we funnel most of our money. When I wake up on Christmas morning, I want to be different somehow, and I think that one of the biggest differences I hope for is a more thoughtful approach to our finances.
Twelfth Night, Or What You Will by William Shakespeare. During the Twelve Days of Christmas, we will be visiting with family and traveling, so there will be very little time for reading. But what’s so great about those twelve days following Christmas is that you get to linger on the wonder of the season while waiting for the big revelation at epiphany. Even though Twelfth Night is primarily a joyful comedy of love deferred, it’s also a story about life bursting through the darkness of grief. Of course, it’s great that the lovers find their way to one another in the play’s revelation scene, but what’s even better is the pure joy that accompanies the reunion of twins Sebastian and Viola: their grand epiphany at the end of the play conquers death.
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