On My Shelf: Life and Books with Matthew Lee Anderson

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Matthew Lee Anderson—founder and lead writer of Mere Orthodoxy and author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite fiction, the books people would be surprised to find on his shelf, and more.


What​’s ​​​on your nightstand right now?

I’ve become a firm believer in not reading “seriously” just before bed, if only because doing so tends to make falling asleep considerably more difficult for me. So I keep my nightstand proper relatively free of anything not strictly for pleasure. Over the past year, I’ve been slowly working my way through the non-Jeeves/Blandings P. G. Wodehouse corpus. Wodehouse is a delightful way to close the day, for the reasons Joseph Epstein articulates. I’ve also finally been bothered to start the massive Patrick O’Brien series. Their impressiveness as historical fiction has nearly overwhelmed my enjoyment of them as fiction. I’m happy to slog through lengthy, arcane descriptions of nautical affairs if the payoff is worth it, but so far (book four) I’m skeptical that it is and will probably give up the series soon.

I try, though, to get in an hour or so of non-dissertation reading per day. Ross Douthat’s new volume is a masterpiece of engaging storytelling, and I have my dear friend Hilary Yancey’s memoir of giving birth to a son with cleft palette that will be read later this week. I have a slew of books on Leviticus awaiting my attention for a Sunday school class I’ve been thrust into teaching, including Mary Douglas’s work, Jacob Milgrom’s great commentary, and Gordan Wenham’s commentary.

What are your favorite fiction books?

I continue to gravitate toward various Victorian authors, for reasons not entirely clear to myself. I love Bleak House, and David Copperfield has a special spot in my sentimentalist heart. Two Cities is exceptional, though I’m persuaded by Chesterton’s point that it isn’t particularly representative of Dickens’s peculiar greatness. Few authors loved their characters more thoroughly than he did (probably to a fault). I went on a George Eliot bender a few years back; it’s difficult to find prose to match hers. Still, the only novel I deliberately reread for several years in a row is Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. It’s the only fiction he wrote that comes near to qualifying as “great” (though the rest is enjoyable and edifying). I’m continually surprised by people who claim to love Lewis but have never read it.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

I have read far fewer biographies in my life than I should have. I made it through the first two volumes of The Last Lionbut I’d rather read Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People (which, even so, defeated me after the first volume).

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelf? 

I have an entire portion of my bookshelf devoted to contemporary teenage dystopian fiction—books like Bumped, or Wither, or Birthmarked. I’ve even read many of them and plan to finish the rest sometime this year.

What​’s the last great book you read?

“Great” could mean a variety of things here, so let’s specify. The last canonical book I read was Lear, which I revisited recently after a long hiatus from Shakespeare. The last book I read that introduced a serious disturbance into my thinking is Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology. The last book book that I enthusiastically enjoyed and was eager to talk about with someone was Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

What​’s one book you’d encourage every church leader to read and why?

The two books I commend most often are Augustine’s Confessions and Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. The former is a study in theologically disciplined biography and an astonishing depiction of the ways in which the grace of Christ transforms our affections. The latter captures the strange glories of Christianity as a comprehensive way of seeing the world—if, that is, one can get beyond the distractions of Chesterton’s glittering sentences and cheeky (and not always sustainable) parallelisms.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

More than I can or should say here, at least if we include the previous six months. I will note, however, that the Easter lesson for me this year brought home the iterative quality of grace: grace covers not only our sins, but also our doubts and hesitations about the forgiveness offered for those sins. The spiritual value of penitence has been sorely underplayed within evangelical circles—the mark of true repentance is an amendment of life. But grace places an end on such penitential sorrow, as well, and requires joy from the Christian.


Also in the On My Shelf series: Melissa Kruger • Isaac Adams • Denny Burk • Vermon Pierre • Jake Meador • Russ Ramsey • Jason Allen • Jason Cook • Mack Stiles • Michael Kruger • Robert Smith • Tony Merida • Andy Crouch • Walter Strickland • Hannah Anderson • S. D. Smith • Curtis Woods • Mindy Belz • Steve Timmis • David Mathis • Michael Lindsay • Nathan Finn • Jennifer Marshall • Todd Billings • Greg Thornbury • Greg Forster • Jen Pollock Michel • Sam Storms • Barton Swaim • John Stonestreet • George Marsden • Andrew Wilson • Sally Lloyd-Jones • Darryl Williamson • D. A. Horton • Carl Ellis • Owen Strachan • Thomas Kidd • David Murray • Jarvis Williams • Gracy Olmstead • Matthew Hall • Drew Dyck • Louis Markos • Ray Ortlund • Brett McCracken • Mez McConnell • Erik Raymond • Sandra McCracken • Tim Challies • Sammy Rhodes • Karen Ellis • Alastair Roberts • Scott Sauls • Karen Swallow Prior • Jackie Hill Perry • Bruce Ashford • Jonathan Leeman • Megan Hill • Marvin Olasky • David Wells • John Frame • Rod Dreher • James K. A. Smith • 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 • Nancy Guthrie • Matt Chandler

Browse dozens of book recommendations from The Gospel Coalition’s leaders and sign up your church at Hubworthy.

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