On My Shelf is a series that helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers.
I corresponded with James K. A. Smith—professor of philosophy at Calvin College, editor of Comment magazine, and author of several books including Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic, 2009); Imagining the Kingdom (Baker Academic, 2013) [review]; and How (Not) to Be Secular (Eeerdmans, 2014) [review | interview]—about what’s on his nightstand, books he re-reads, his favorite biographies, and more. (And yes, that’s an actual photo of Smith’s nightstand below.)
What’s on your nightstand right now?
Well, my nightstand stack is huge. But on top right now is Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity. Franzen is one of those authors people seem to love to hate, but I just think he’s one of the “obligatory” novelists of our generation—what John Updike was for an earlier generation. I just finished Adam Gopnik’s book The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. It’s really a philosophical meditation dressed up as a book on food and eating. Really fantastic. And Gopnik is an exemplary writer. I have the same response reading him as I do reading David Foster Wallace: he makes me aspire (“I want to write like that!”) and despair (“I could never write like that!”). Next up is David Halpern’s new book, Inside the Nudge Unit: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference, which I picked up when I was in Edinburg last week. At some point I want to write a small book on how Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s notion of “nudging” has implications for public theology and cultural renewal. Finally, near the top of my nightstand pile you’ll also find the latest issue of National Affairs, which I think is the smartest policy journal out there.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
The books I most regularly re-read are ones I teach, especially at the introductory level—which is what makes my job a dream. I “have” to regularly re-read Plato’s dialogues like the Apology and Phaedo, Augustine’s Confessions, Descartes’s Meditations On First Philosophy, and so on. I also enjoy re-reading short stories. For example, I recently dipped back into some of Updike’s Early Stories, which was worth every second of re-reading. I do the same with the gems by Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant in the Oxford Book of French Short Stories. And this summer I also re-read Wallace Stegner’s marvelous novel Crossing to Safety. It’s a beautiful story of friendship and faithfulness and I wanted to re-read it during the season of our 25th wedding anniversary, which we could only celebrate because of the importance of faithful friends in our life.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
I’m a bit of a biography junkie. I don’t know if I could say which have “influenced” me the most, but if I think of biographies that keep creeping into my consciousness, a few come to mind: Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is still something I regularly press on other people—the story of a broken, brilliant, maddening, yet highly effective leader. And Isaacson does a great job of not getting in the way of the story. More recently, I was quite taken with the new biography of Richard Nixon, Being Nixon, by Isaacson’s sometime co-author Evan Thomas. Anyone with any sort of Augustinian sensibility couldn’t resist Thomas’s portrayal of the inner life of Nixon. And as I’ve said elsewhere, I think Jim Bratt’s biography of Abraham Kuyper is masterful. Kuyper is, in many ways, a bit of a model for me—which can also be disconcerting when you see his faults and the price he paid for his work.
What are your favorite fiction books?
That would be like picking a favorite child. Sorry, I can’t do it.
Also in the On My Shelf series: Randy Alcorn, Tom Schreiner, Trillia Newbell, Jen Wilkin, Joe Carter, Timothy George, Tim Keller, Bryan Chapell, Lauren Chandler, Mike Cosper, Russell Moore, Jared Wilson, Kathy Keller, J. D. Greear, Kevin DeYoung, Kathleen Nielson, Thabiti Anyabwile, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Collin Hansen, Fred Sanders, Rosaria Butterfield, Tullian Tchividjian, Nancy Guthrie, and Matt Chandler.