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.

Sledgehammer Literature

Sledgehammer literature is a phenomenon in modern publications of over-the-top manipulation of emotions or actions in the text to elicit a reciprocal visceral response from the reader. While sledgehammer writing is the preferred style of political opinion writers and advocacy pundits, the same “all faucets on full” writing appears to have migrated to fiction and not political non-fiction writing as well. Authors assume that wringing every last drop of emotional pain from an event is good writing or good for sales, perhaps. Good for one or the other, the prescription of pain, wrenching emotions, brutal self-evisceration and physical manifestations of such pepper the populist lit and literary lit with gut-twisting passages.

This is not bad writing. In fact sledgehammer literature is excellent writing that produces powerful reactions in readers, leaving them shifting uncomfortably in their chairs and on their couches. Typically the purpose of walking a person through a wrenching experience is conclusion of catharsis once the resolution is complete, like the ancient Greek plays that excelled first at presenting wrenching emotional circumstances. The unique characteristic of sledgehammer literature is that there is no catharsis at the end, only relief that the passage is done or disbelief that one stuck with the text and read through it. This type of literature beats up the reader for the sake of demonstrating that the writer can beat up the reader.

Sledgehammer literature is the epitome of technique by an author. Indeed, the mark of such literature is pure technique; missing is many of the other elements of the art of writing. While an excellent novel may have a particularly painful scene, the elements of plot, pacing, character development, and description will also be well pronounced. A novel of the sledgehammer variety relies on the visceral reaction to mask the deficiencies of the other ingredients.

Sledgehammer literature is best identified by its weak appeal to suspend disbelief. When elements are missing, when characters have no more depth to them than the pain they evince in the reader, the reader is left with little else but the pain. And who wants that much suffering really?