12 Books About Spiritual Sustenance

Many webzines put out lists of must-read or you-should-have-read books that will enlighten you, expand you, or help you attain spiritual greatness. These sorts of throwaway articles, which editors often toss off to freelancers, read as if written by excellent MFA graduates who have learned an appreciation for good literature. Good literature is a wonderful, continuing wellspring that illumines our culture except that a good many readers stop tackling the more difficult reads after they leave school. In general we are not reading them.

Moreover, there are excellent books of spiritual sustenance that are non-fiction, even hard science. These texts are not on MFA syllabi because there is only so much one can cover in fifteen weeks a semester for tens of thousands of dollars plus the cost of books. Other voices have added their lists to the conversation as well to fill the gaps. While each discipline offers unique books, the lists are typically skewed to the boundaries of their studies. An enervating list of books that provides spiritual sustenance requires more than a lit. major or a spiritual leader or a doctor of psychology.

What follows is a different sort of list of books. Spiritual sustenance can take all sorts of forms depending on age, education, career, gender, and family life. Beware, lists engender an authoritarian urge to give the reader “the truth” of the matter – these are the ones that matter. Hopefully this collected list does not fall into the trap of giving answers when there are only directions to suggest.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. One of the rules for writing fiction is “don’t tell me, show me.” Hesse’s novel is an excellent example that walks a reader through the search for a life of the spirit. You do not need to be a Buddhist to appreciate the novel.
Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. Disney productions of the book need to be dismissed although the great blooper classic title from Disney press, Cooking with Pooh, is worth a mention. Milne’s classic of the imagination of a young boy and his stuffed animals is sublime. There is a reason why parents continue to read the stories to their children over and over.
Ecclesiastes by Kohelet. Yes, a book of the Bible (Old Testament), actually from the back of the Bible. The Bible is three libraries of books and all of the texts are over 2000 years old. Kohelet was included in the canon but a pious editor was so disturbed by the doubt and skepticism woven into the text that he wrote an additional chapter, Chapter 12, to mitigate the potential impiety of the first eleven chapters. Kohelet identifies the absurdities between belief in God and reality as we experience it. Nonetheless, he believes and that is the challenge of the book. Use the JPS or NRSV translations.
How We Die by Sherwin Nuland, a National Book Award winner. The last chapter is worth the cost of the entire book. The surgeon examines the science of how the human body expires with appreciation and fascination for the complexity of the process. The last chapter though. . .
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He is a survivor of the Holocaust but refuses to be a victim. He dedicated his academic life to teaching students how he reclaimed his sanity and his sanctity for life after he emerged from the death camps.
The Blessing of the Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. How did we stray from the elements of common sense when it comes to raising children? This book is as much about the art of life as its application with parenting.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Cursed be those philosophy majors who have to think everything through. The novel is a journey that forces the protagonist to even question what questions he should be answering. The enduring strength of the text is that it teaches how to think about the vexing problems that confound us.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The children’s book that really is not a children’s book. What is selflessness and selfishness? Is there ever such a thing as giving too much?
Soul Mountain by Gao Xinjian, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This book is meant to be read slowly as the landscapes are painted in lush, exacting detail. If you find yourself wanting to rush through the text, put it down and come back when the urge has passed.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. Margaret learns the lessons and humanity of growing up. The text addresses coming to terms with our bodies and our fears.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. What is truly important in life and why do the answers often bring as much pain as pleasure? Another beautiful novel that shows rather than tells us the insights and lessons.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. A collection of short stories from the one-time librarian of the Argentinian National Library. This is a book for readers by a reader. Boundaries disappear, profundities multiply and slip away. When you look up from the text, you will never look at the world the same way again. The imagery is overwhelming.

Philosophy of Learning – Book Learning

Book learning, a term I often hear spoken with a whiff of condescension, is a necessary but incomplete method of gaining knowledge. The AP (Advanced Placement) exams lean most heavily on this method, the more that the students have read, the better they should be able to answer the expansive questions on the test. In the debates over education across the world, the arguments for those who demand extensive testing are concentrating on book learning and dispensing with most of the other forms for gaining knowledge. Anyone who has studied at a trade school, be it auto mechanic or medical school, has experienced the vast gulf of difference between reading about a subject and confronting the task in the field. From this corrosive and unproductive debate between the perceptions of the method versus its necessary but shared place amongst the other methods of learning, the definition and goals of book learning are distorted, all for the sake of winning an argument.

Book learning is not just reading books, which is a descriptor, not a definition. One can read a hundred books and learn nothing. How many Junior High students have been forced to read Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and left the class the class with the context that young people fall in love and parents hate that they do? Learning to read a book is a process of development of identifying patterns and relations, of placing facts within frameworks and useful contexts.

There are different processes of development for fiction and for non-fiction. Reading a journal article for a science discipline is a different form of skills than reading a book on the same subject, even by the same author. Articles and books have different functions. In non-fiction these different processes give us the tools to follow arguments, evaluate the evidence, and form conclusions about the validity of the arguments or the experiments presented. Knowledge in non-fiction book learning is an acceptance that the facts fit the conclusion or a rejection of the same. This statement is true for every human endeavor that falls under non-fiction from abortion to zoology and it is the definition of scholarship.

Fiction is not a different set of learning processes but a different set of applications. A lot of mythology about the prowess and potency of understanding literature is offered up as definitions of knowledge through the study of fiction. Symbolism and insight, morals and consequences, are tools for telling a story that are elevated to a level of factual points of knowledge. Literacy is an oft repeated word that appears to have no concise meaning but is the agenda of testing or the rejection of testing. What is this form of knowledge called literacy?

The cynic labels literacy as brainwashing. Not a particularly helpful definition but at least it sets a boundary at one extreme. Masters in the field are applauded as erudite, extremely well-informed, a boundary at the other extreme. Between these boundaries are culture, discipline, information, history, empathy, logic and scholarship.

Book learning is only useful if first, it leads to more book learning and second, it informs other methods of learning. Like the great librarians before Google, book learning teaches us how to search for more book learning. The knowledge sought may be fiction or non-fiction, and facts or advice, and insight or theory. A good book learner will read a Wikipedia article with keen skepticism and leap with gusto into the sources cited at the bottom of the article. Book learning is not facts and figures although facts and figures are its tools. Ultimately, book learning is about learning how to teach oneself.