On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Barton Swaim—author of the award-winning book The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics and writer for The Wall Street Journal and The Times Literary Supplement—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite fiction, books that have shaped him most as a writer, and more.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Apart from books I’m reviewing, or reading in order to write about them, I’ve been slowly going through a little work from the early church called Octavius
by the otherwise unknown church father Marcus Minicius Felix. It’s a dialogue between a Christian and a pagan, circa AD 200. A friend told me to read it years ago, and I forgot until recently—it’s a marvelous work, and more up to date, in its way, than many a modern defense of Christianity.
What’s one book you wish every evangelical would read and why?
I wouldn’t propose to say what everyone, or every evangelical, should read. I’ve only read the tiniest slice of great books in the world—who am I to pronounce? And yet . . . if you forced me to name one, it’d be Pilgrim’s Progress
. A century ago that book had been read by the great majority of literate people in the anglophone world. Now you encounter Christians who’ve never heard of it. Crazy. Everything to be learned about the Christian life from an uninspired book is in that one.
What are your favorite fiction books?
What books have most shaped you as a writer?
I try not to think about influence much—I find it can trick you into trying to sound a certain way or project a certain image. I see that in other writers from time to time, and I’m put off by it. Two books, though, have shaped me more than others, more perhaps owing to when I read them than anything else. The first is Malcolm Muggeridge’s two-volume autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time
. In those books Muggeridge somehow balanced riotous humor and acidic criticism, regret and hope, cynicism and earnestness. They are wonderful accounts—and of course his prose had an understated beauty about it.
And then there’s Michael Oakeshott’s collection of essays, Rationalism in Politics
. I’m not really an Oakeshottian in most ways, but he wrote about politics in the highest sense and in the gentlest, most humane way, but with sharp insight and wit.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
I don’t re-read many books at all. I read so slowly, and many books I read for the purpose of writing about them (and some are pretty bad!). So if I’m going to read a book just for the sake of reading it, it almost certainly won’t be one I’ve read before. Not enough time, I guess. I’ve read the above-mentioned Pilgrim’s Progress
more than once, and for some reason I’ve returned to Conrad’s book Lord Jim
once or twice—what he says in that story is so important, but I’m still not sure I can put my finger on it! Other than those? Not many.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I’m learning, and re-learning, then re-learning again, that Jesus learned obedience (Heb. 5:8). He was without sin, but that doesn’t mean he came into the world having already downloaded some divine obedience app. He learned it by reading the Scriptures and by prayer. As we all must.