One word: audiobooks.
The books that shaped a defining moment in my religious journey
At the end of 2021 and into the beginning of this year, I read a book called People Love Dead Jews, which I mentioned in last year’s reading wrap-up.
Reading one specific paragraph in the very first chapter sent me tumbling down a slippery slope, or plopped me onto an ascending ski lift, depending on your perspective.
Writing about Anne Frank, Dara Horn writes, “The line most often quoted from Frank’s diary are her famous words, ‘I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.’ These words are ‘inspiring’ by which we mean that they flatter us. They make us feel forgiven for those lapses of our civilization that allow for piles of murdered girls—and if those words came from a murdered girl, well, then, we must be absolved, because they must be true. That gift of grace and absolution from a murdered Jew (exactly the gift that lies at the heart of Christianity) is what millions of people are so eager to find in Frank’s hiding place, in her writings, in her ‘legacy.’” (Emphasis added.)
When I read that, I had to confront the fact that I was less and less sure that Jesus, a zealous Jewish rabbi, had believed he was G-d or even intended to start a new religion. So, I finally read a book I had been trying to ignore.
In Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became G-d, the popular New Testament scholar discusses the historical Jesus and what led to Jesus being regarded as one with G-d. I grew up in the church, certain that a belief in Christ’s divinity was more central to faith than practically anything else. My father would share evidence here and there, explaining the intricacies of trinitarian theology while claiming it was obvious to anyone who just picked up the Bible and read it. This book walks through many of the popular proofs offered and neatly dismantles them. It’s basic, and clearly somewhat controversial, but it’s worth picking up.
As I felt forced to reckon with a sinking suspicion that Christianity was not the creation of Jesus, but an establishment built on the objectification of Jesus’ martyrdom, I decided to read The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently by Marc Zvi Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine. This one astounded me. Not only did I learn what many “prophecies” later applied to Jesus really meant, I found out that few religious Jewish readers of Jonah take the book literally—something my parents do to this day, along with the book of Job, the creation account, and of course, every miracle. The book also explains how misguided interpretations of Jewish Scriptures so easily lead to antisemitism, in a world where many perspectives of Judaism and Jewish people are informed by Christian perspectives of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. For example, the indignity of Jonah and the rigidity of the Pharisees do not paint a positive portrait of Jewish people when taken out of context the way most (yes, most) Christians do.
Finally, I’m sharing this intimate picture of a critical moment in my religious journey because I want to be honest and upfront, even if that means being vulnerable. I do not want to convince you of anything. Many friends of mine continue to believe in the divinity of Christ, and their Christian faith is a meaningful part of their lives. Today, I’m just not at a point where I can agree with them. However, if, in ten years, I’m a church-going, Jesus-loving Christian, don’t be surprised! I’m literally 22.
The books I think about all the time
In March, I read Toxic Positivity by Whitney Goodman. Have you ever been going through a difficult time in your life, and someone’s advice is to smile, see the bright side of the situation, count your blessings, keep a gratitude journal, or just stop being so negative? This is the book to
throw at that person give to that person in a non-violent manner. This book will teach you how to respond when someone is venting and you’re not sure what to say. It’ll encourage you to be honest with yourself about whatever negativity you feel, rather than believing it will fade if you just ignore it. I’ve been changed by this book and I’d encourage anyone to read it.
In October, I read Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen. According to a description, “Through a blend of reporting, cultural criticism, and memoir, Ace addresses the misconceptions around the ‘A’ of LGBTQIA and invites everyone to rethink pleasure and intimacy.” Often, a low or non-existent interest in sex is seen as a problem to be fixed. This book confronts that notion and does so much more. If you’ve ever wondered if you’re asexual, aromantic, or demisexual, or if you just want to learn about the perspectives of this underrepresented group, this book is a fantastic introduction.
In May, I read Devon Price’s Unmasking Autism. From the description, “Masking is a common coping mechanism in which Autistic people hide their identifiably Autistic traits in order to fit in with societal norms, adopting a superficial personality at the expense of their mental health.” With this book, Price movingly encourages Autistic people to investigate what they do to “mask,” and find ways they can work on removing that mask. If you consider yourself allistic (that is, not on the autism spectrum), you’ll still learn a lot from this book.
In January, I read Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile. I’ve deeply enjoyed Carlile’s alternative country and folk rock music for a couple of years now, and feel a connection with much of the subject matter of her albums. In her song “The Joke,” Carlile sings to a young boy, “I see you tuggin’ on your shirt / Trying to hide inside of it / And hide how much it hurts.” As the melody flourishes, she tells him, “Let ’em laugh while they can / Let ’em spin, let ’em scatter in the wind / I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends / And the joke’s on them.” As someone who grew up trying to make Baptists happy while being unabashedly queer, she knows a thing or two about trusting the journey and waiting to see how it ends. She is now married to her wife, Catherine, and they have two children. Carlile’s book is a thoughtful overview of her life thus far, and the audiobook features her singing a song at the end of each chapter.
And, since I read 40 books in January, this one is from January, too. Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz is, well, a memoir about Schulz losing her father, about the ampersand and the word “and” in general, and her meeting her wife, Casey. While it may sound like just a few topics thrown into an essay collection, it’s not. Schulz weaves these things together quite beautifully, and honestly, writing this is making me want to go read it again, which I may do.
Just this week, I read Heretic by Jeanna Kadlec. This is a memoir in essays, and like any memoir, it thrives in the specificity, in all the little details readers may identify with and feel a connection over. When it becomes a record of the sins of the Evangelical establishment, I feel like I’m reading a different book, albeit one I would still be interested in reading. I would encourage many folks to read this, as it is a great example of many incredibly specific, yet practically universal experiences that many queer “Exvangelicals” must endure. Also, check the content warnings before reading.
The books that meet difficult topics with practicality
Not long after the murder of George Floyd, Kimberly Jones shared a video called “How Can We Win.” If you have not seen this video, please watch it now if you have 7 minutes. The video discusses the economic side of systemic racism, and asks the audience (and I’m paraphrasing), “How, after facing centuries of slavery and violent discrimination, can Black Americans get to a place of financial security?” Well, a year and a half later, Jones published How We Can Win—a deeply practical answer to the very questions she posed. Reading this, I learned a lot about personal finances and ways to work wisely with the money I have. I also learned about specific issues of personal finance that many Black Americans have to deal with. For example, Jones discusses the fact that more often than not, when one marginalized person finds even an ounce of success, they have a family, they have grandparents and cousins and nieces and nephews, who they must attempt to help out with what little they’ve gained. Whereas, to use myself as an example, if I were to earn double or triple what I make now, not a penny would go back to my family, because none of my family members are dealing with financial situations that would necessitate that. That’s less likely to be the case for Black Americans and other marginalized groups. I recommend this book to everybody.
Climate change is notoriously difficult for us to come to terms with. It’s terrifying to learn about and disturbing to see, so many of us turn our gaze to something else. In Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, the late Zen Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh, who is the reason I practice Zen Buddhism, approaches the issue of climate change with compassion. He focuses on what we can change, which is our own minds, versus the big and scary things we can only worry about. Sister True Dedication’s commentary adds a particular sweetness, and the audiobook is incredibly pleasant to listen to.
From my review on StoryGraph: “This is probably the book I would recommend to someone who hasn’t read any of TNH’s works, as the book is fairly broad. My favorite part was a passage where TNH was addressing whether it’s right for the military to use mindfulness, and he made the point that, if someone is practicing true, right mindfulness, they will look deeply and see the ways they are contributing to the suffering of others. He then said, sarcastically, we don’t teach, ‘Breathing in, I see that my enemy is there / Breathing out, I pull the trigger,’ and this made me laugh.”
The books about writing
In March, I was inspired by Natalie Goldberg’s iconic classic on the craft of writing, Writing Down the Bones. Particularly moved to action by Goldberg’s discussion of what she calls “writing practice,” I ended up hand-writing 464 pages (or about 85,000 words) regarding a plethora of topics, much of which I’ve shared in various forms after thorough editing. I find it lovely to get writing advice from another Buddhist, especially another queer Buddhist, and I will probably read this book again this year.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic made me want to get to work writing every novel that comes to my mind before anyone else gets the idea. Big Magic is essentially Gilbert’s manifesto on what she believes to be the magical system at work with the ideas that get into our heads as writers, inventors, etc. If you’re not a particularly spiritual person, or if you have a very rigid idea of the way the spiritual world works, this book is probably not right for you.
The books that made me genuinely enjoy fiction
Fiction is hard for me to get into. I prefer to read fiction in print, but most of the books I read are audiobooks. Well, these next two books are not only delightful fiction reading, they are also short, and particularly pleasant when narrated for audio by Em Grosland.
Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy represent what I wish more fiction offered. In these novellas, you’ll find hopeful, genderqueer, solarpunk utopia. It’s a vision of a future that, when presented by Chambers, I find myself able to believe in.
I read a lot this year, especially throughout the winter months of early 2022. While it is tempting to set a goal to read 100 books again in 2023, I’m going to keep my goal at 50, for the third year in a row, because I don’t really believe that more is always better. Below are some books I’m excited to read in 2023.
- Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks
- Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia by Sabrina Strings
- Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
- Deaf Utopia: A Memoir—and a Love Letter to a Way of Life by Nyle DiMarco
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
- Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life by Alice Wong
- Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne by Wilda C. Gafney
- Original Blessing: Putting Sin in Its Rightful Place by Danielle Shroyer
- A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
- Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler
If you’ve read any of these books and would like to share your thoughts or discuss once I’ve finished it, email me! (levipont at gmail dot com)
Last year, I wrote a 2021 reading wrap-up just like this one. While isolating with COVID in North Dakota’s frigid February, I wrote these reflections. While planning a Pride Month open mic night at a local bookstore, I wrote this to read aloud at the event. Throughout the summer, much of what I wrote in my notebooks had to do with death and the afterlife, so I shared some of those musings here. And that was my year! Thank you for reading, and Merry Christmas.