For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘biography

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd, London: Vintage, 2001, 822 pp.

London-the-biographyThis book topped my list of things to read to acquaint myself with my new city before I moved, but cancer treatment and all the overwhelm of moving delayed it until I’d already lived here for 18 months. In the end, I’m glad of that timing. I can’t imagine how I would have understood or absorbed much of the book’s content if I didn’t already have some sense of the geography and architecture of the city. This book is as much an interpretation of London as it is a history of it, and I would not have understood its meaning without first having known London itself.

Peter Ackroyd was unknown to me in the U.S., but he is everywhere here, a prolific writer of fiction, history, biography and TV documentaries. He is captivated by the way London’s history and personality live on, even though the city changes constantly. He has a particular interpretation of the city as a place driven first and foremost by commerce, wealth and glamor, with a constant underside of poverty, sordidness and anonymity that allow flourishing subcultures. This masterwork on London captures those themes throughout.

Bolstered by sources but unburdened by the need to prove a historical case, deeply researched but unmoored from the demands of scholarly thoroughness, Ackroyd’s biography unwinds a compelling narrative of London as though it was a living being, a creature carving out its identity across time, with some traits endemic and immutable, and others changed by its story. In spite of its length, the book’s short chapters, organized by topic or neighborhood or niche rather than simple chronology, made it seem like a very quick read. Ackroyd’s prose turns a tome into a page-turner.

As a lover of social history, I enjoyed his attention to London theatre, labor, protests, poverty, literature, crime and other topics, rather than just a litany of major events, leaders and decisions that shaped its history. I especially appreciated the way Ackroyd honed in on microcosms of people and neighborhoods. There are whole chapters dedicated to eccentric personalities that once inhabited a particular street. Each dwelled for 30 or 40 years in a tiny corner of the massive city of millions, but somehow, to Ackroyd, they capture something of London’s essence, so he tells us their stories. By the same turn, there are chapters that look at a particular small square or neighborhood across time, and the way certain traits seem to dwell there. For example, he talks about poverty and seediness in St. Giles, and revolutionary plotting or protest in Clerkenwell Green. Ackroyd sees a persistent, recurring pattern of social behavior that he links to various places in the city, as though the places themselves are inhabited by a particular spirit that shapes the people who dwell there. A more sober historian might scoff, but I found his case compelling and delightful.

In spite of its size, this is not a reference book. If you want to learn about the history of the Temple Bar or when a particular borough was founded, you won’t find that here. Instead, this is a book to read like a biography–cover to cover–in order to meet London and get to know its personality. Like any biography, you might not like the author’s angle, and you will have to rely on your own observations or the alternative perceptions of others to argue for another, truer personality. I found Ackroyd’s insights fascinating, and true to my own reading of the city in many ways. After reading the book, I look at the city differently as I venture out in it. I see layers I did not notice before, I find historical treasures not readily visible, and I am able to place myself within the city’s narrative in a new way.

I recommend Ackroyd’s book to all Londoners and London lovers, though I suggest it will be best appreciated by those who know the city, rather than as an introduction or prelude to a visit.


Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013, 133 pp.

Reading for PreachingMy credentials as an avid reader are well established by the very substance of this blog. I love to read. I read a lot. I love to talk about books, to invest in them and dissect them and commit them to memory. Professionally, I am a preacher. When I read the title Reading for Preaching, I placed my book order without delay. I thought this book was written for me.

While I enjoyed Plantinga’s book, I quickly discovered it was not written for me. Plantinga makes a compelling case for why a preacher should endeavor to regularly read, especially novels, biographies, poetry and journalistic narratives. I am clearly already sold, and a quick skim through the long lists of reviews posted here will show that I most frequently turn to those precise genres (except poetry, which I should read more often). For example, Plantinga thinks it unrealistic for a preacher to read as many as six “classic novels” each year, and offers hope that preachers will read just one.(41-42) While all my fiction reading is not “classic novels,” I definitely read a lot more than that already.

However, Plantinga does offer great perspective and insight about why reading matters–for me and for other preachers. He begins with the obvious: reading is a source of illustrations for sermons. There is nothing worse to me than a tired, canned sermon illustration, and Plantinga urges preachers to “dig up your own stuff.” (22) He points out the ways that reading can make preachers more attentive not only to the possible illustrations in texts, but events in everyday life that might illuminate the gospel. Reading also serves to “attune the preacher’s ear,” to help a preacher register how best to speak to a given audience. Plantinga identifies a variety of dictions a preacher might use–from tuxedo formal to tank-top casual to upscale colloquial or business casual (49). Each one pitches the message to a particular setting, designed to speak appropriately and engagingly to the audience at hand. Reading a variety of dictions helps the preacher recognize and develop the right tone for his or her own congregation and message. He recommends children’s literature as an especially good tool.

The second half of Plantinga’s book talks about the importance of reading as a source of wisdom for the preacher. While scripture remains the preeminent source of wisdom, other literature also provides a great deal of wise insight into the human condition. He highlights the way literature can open us to a variety of worlds and life experiences beyond our own:

The preacher wants his program of reading to complicate some of his fixed ideas, to impress him with some of the mysteries of life, with its variousness, with its surprises, with the pushes and pulls within it. (95)

Plantinga also points to the ways that literature and journalism can help us explore good and evil, sin and grace with a more complex, nuanced understanding.

The whole book is rich with appreciation and encouragement for the life of preaching, and the importance of sermons in the life of Christian worship. For example, he remarks:

The unpredictability of the preaching event gives no one license to wing it. Faithful preachers work hard on their sermons, understanding that although a fruitful result may be God’s gift, hard work is the preacher’s calling. After all, it is audacious to speak for God. (43)

It is a bold and humble task we do as preachers, and I cannot imagine undertaking it without an army of words behind me from other authors. Plantinga’s argument for the importance of reading did not move me because I am already convinced, but this book did encourage me to see my indulgence in good fiction not as a rest from quality reading, but a different kind of endeavor at building my theological and emotional vocabulary for preaching.

I finished this book and felt much better about setting aside the latest book from a consultant on church leadership, returning instead to the public library, where I checked out nearly a dozen new books, a mixture of quality fiction, history and biography. Now, to read them all!

Tutu: Voice of the Voiceless by Shirley Du Boulay, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988, 286 pp.

I had seen this book on the shelves of dozens of friends and fellow clergy, and I picked it up somewhere at a used book store at least 10 years ago. It stayed on the “to be read” shelf, but never struck my fancy until now. That’s the justification for why I am reading a 25 year old biography—a book about the life and ministry of Desmond Tutu that concluded just after his election as Archbishop of Capetown, before the election of F.W. de Klerk; before Nelson Mandela had been released from jail; before the start of apartheid’s repeal; before the first non-racial election made Mandela president; before the famous work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was like “Desmond Tutu: The Early Years.”

That time warp actually added a layer of intrigue to the biography. At the time of its writing, the outcome was uncertain. While Tutu’s Nobel Peace Prize and his election as Archbishop of Capetown were historic events and signs of great progress, South Africa remained an apartheid state, rocked by violent protests and intransigent government. When Du Boulay wrote this biography, no one (including Du Boulay and Tutu himself) could have known that the efforts toward ending apartheid would have been so successful, so quickly. Du Boulay shares in the biography that Tutu proclaims with great faith that apartheid cannot stand forever, that God is on the side of justice and will prevail. However, Tutu must certainly have wondered at the time if such change would come in his lifetime.

This biography paints a picture of Tutu as a man with a destiny. His intellect sets him apart from an early age, and he began his career as a teacher. For the first time, I learned about his early life and pre-ministry career, as well as his wife and family. Du Boulay details his fast journey through a variety of ministerial posts, each one posing new challenges and calling forth even more from him as a leader.

One thing stands out more than anything else: Tutu is always a pastor, in the best sense of the word. He balances his prophetic witness to gospel justice with an abiding concern for the life, joy and suffering of the people he encounters. His staff, the priests under his care as bishop, the people in his parishes—he asks after them and their families, responds to them with messages of care and concern, and preaches the gospel in the way of hope. He uses humor to build rapport, and recognizes the importance of trust and transparency.

I met Archbishop Desmond Tutu very briefly when he gave a lecture at my former congregation. (I escorted him to the restroom, to be honest!) In the few minutes he took my arm, I sensed I was in the presence of a holy man. He was genuine in his appreciation and humor, kindness and interest, humility and faithfulness. Du Boulay’s portrait matches my brief encounter, and makes me think my experience was like that of thousands of others he has spoken to over the years. It may be 25 years old, but it was still worth reading.

Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, HarperPerennial, 1977, 492 pp.

This biography of Lincoln has been sitting on my shelf for at least five years. I’ve always wanted to read it, but never found myself in the mood to reach for it. I think the experience of reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter demanded a palate cleanse and a reboot of my knowledge and understanding of Lincoln. Stephen Oates’ classic on Lincoln was just the thing.

Oates is a gifted storyteller, who crafts this biography as one of the most engaging I’ve read in a long time. He blends the right mix of historical background, quotations from speeches and letters, and researched reporting. He includes enough detail and a wide enough cast of characters to keep it interesting without becoming overwhelming. Most of all, he manages to create suspense in a story we all already know.

Oates’ Lincoln is a driven, driving force. Young Lincoln is ambitious from the start, which belies his reputation as someone who was plucked from relative obscurity. While he did not openly campaign for any office, which was considered too aggressive in his day, he was always angling for position and trying to make his way in the world. He was angry and hurt when he lost or got passed over. His depression haunted his internal life, but he also reveled in being the center of attention in a group.

During his presidency and the war years, Oates’ portrays Lincoln as a guiding, forceful leader. He carried the future of the Union on his shoulders, and felt its weight heavily and personally. He saw the only future in bringing people together across divisions, and so he assembled a team of Cabinet members and generals he thought could get the job done. Oates portrays the ways in which Lincoln grew as a leader during his presidency. At first, he was hesitant to make and enforce a decision, preferring instead to gain consensus. As the war wears on, he still listens and encourages input from those around him, but he is willing to assert himself and give orders when needed when he sees that inaction will do harm.  The Emancipation Proclamation issues from Lincoln’s understanding that sometimes a leader must act boldly, taking unpopular action to force forward movement.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this biography was the way Oates created suspense. We all know that Lincoln grows up to be president, that the Civil War is won by the Union, that Lincoln is assassinated—but Lincoln and his compatriots did not. In all the decisions they made, they did not know if history would prove them right. Oates captures that tension, the way Lincoln discerned the course of action he ought to take at every turn. I appreciated the reminder that even those who are recognized among the greatest of leaders do not act with the confidence and surety of hindsight.

While it’s now 35 years old, I think Oates’ biography withstands the test of time, and it provides an engaging read for anyone who wishes to know Abraham Lincoln better. He has written a follow-up book, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths (1994), which clarifies some issues from the first biography, but does not replace it. I’ve added that second volume to my list of things to read, and hope it doesn’t take five more years to get there.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

  • Graham: Thank you for writing about Susan Howatch. I like it that she is described as a mesmerising story-teller on front of book, and I do agree. I had long
  • revjmk: Tammy, I'm not sure the "he" you are referring to here (Willimon, Hauerwas or me--who goes by the pronoun "she"). I'm also not sure why you think th
  • Tammy Sanders: Has no one noticed he has the 10 commandments wrong. 1. You shall have no other Gods before me. 2. You shall make no images. 3. Don’t take th



Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,659 other followers
%d bloggers like this: