My 2021 Picks & Why, 22 Years Later, We Still Read Good Books Together

Book Girl and On Reading Well books

Good books are a very great mercy to the world.

Richard Baxter

I finished the list—the 23rd list. Compiling the Piquant Page-Turner ladies’ book club annual book list is both one of my favorite and one of the most difficult things in all the world.

Partly because I feel a sacred trust. Selecting in which friends will invest their precious time is a burden. I don’t want them to waste their time. But it’s excruciating for another reason: I see how many good books I cannot introduce to my friends.

After 22 years of reading a book a month together—250 or so books, I think—we have barely touched the top shelf.

Good Ladies Behind Good Books

This year two books helped me pick good books. Not surprisingly, both books were gifts from book club friends. Before I tell you about the books, let me tell you about the friends.

My friend Jen gave me the book on the left, Karen Swallow Prior’s, On Reading Well. Jen joined the book club over a decade ago, but her health seldom allows her to leave the house. But still Jen reads. She reads and reviews and helps launch books. Jen has been behind some of our best books and arranged the most fascinating author interviews.

My friend Karen gave me the other book about good books, Sarah Clarkson’s, Book Girl. Karen came to the very first book club meeting I hosted as a 22 year-old, married 1-year, grad-school student who loved reading and talking about books. She’s 30 years older than me and Mom’s friend—Mom comes too—but age is no barrier to when you love to read.

I wish I could tell you about my other book club friends—friends like Lisa and Kathy and Joyce and Jen.

Why Read Good Books?

Reason number one: because my imagination and attitudes and behavior need tune-ups. Reading helps me set my mind on what is good and pure and lovely. But it’s not enough to read widely. As Karen Swallow Prior notes, One must also read well…Reading well entails discerning which visions of life are false and which are good and true.

And, as Mark Edmundson explains in his book Why Read?, The ultimate test of a book, is the difference it would make in the conduct of life. So why take the time to find and read good books? Because reading good books makes us more virtuous people.

Prior quotes Thomas Jefferson to explain this further,

Everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original Act of Charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves to do charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary, when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity, and conceive and importance of Vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and…the exercise of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously. 

We read good books works our virtue muscles, if you will.

Why Keep Reading Good Books?

Build An Excellence Habit

In a word: habit. To have your imagination bathed in virtue you must continue at it. Don’t just dip your hand. Just as water, over a long period of time, reshapes the land through which it runs, Karen Swallow Prior explains, so too we are formed by the habit of reading good books well.

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in Man by his doing the actions”; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life…For as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, quoting Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 

We keep setting good books before our eyes because goodness is formed in us over time. We become what we behold, someone said. And what we keep beholding.

Build Empathy Too

Why else should you keep reading good books? Because continual reading of good books gives us more empathy. Empathy enables kindness, and God knows we need more kind and tender-hearted among us.

Reading allows us to place ourselves in another’s shoes, seeing the world through another’s eyes, empathizing with views different from our own… Just as thinking about walking can actually stimulate your brain and muscles to remember the feeling of walking, reading a book stimulated the brains of readers in such a way as to suggest they were imaginatively “feeling” the story as something real. Imagine the power that gives us to feel the pain of another, to understand someone else’s struggle, stubbornness, or need. The kind of compassionate insight offered by a perceptive story is one that drives us toward connection. We are given the insight both to understand and to reach across the barriers…

Sarah Clarkson, Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures & Transforming Power of a Reading Life 

We need each others’ presence. And we need—and crave for ourselves—empathy in their presence. That’s why we keep reading good books.

Why Keep Reading Good Books Together?

I won’t lie. It’s a drain. I’ve greeted my book club friends with dinner-stained sweatpants and tear-stained eyes some Monday nights. It takes time to read and effort to get together and the family still needs feeding. So we eat and I and race to the couch to finish the last 20 pages which more often than not make me cry. Then I answer the door and we book girls talk about books together.

In these more “socially-distant” days, we need friendship. Reading books together builds friendship. As Irving Stone noted, There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.

Clarkson explains how this connection happens.

[A] woman who reads is a woman who relates. A book girl knows that a shared book is a ground of mutual discovery, a space in which the soul and thought of another may open to her in a wondrous way…When people inhabit a realm of imagination or theology or poetry together, their own realms of soul and spirit are revealed to the others who sojourn with them to that place. Reading, when shared, begins a conversation that breaks down the barriers of isolation and connects us, one to another, as we exclaim, in C.S. Lewis’s description of friendship in his book, The Four Loves, “What! You too?”

Sarah Clarkson, Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures & Transforming Power of a Reading Life

Reading good books together connects us.

Will You Be a Book Girl (or Guy)?

That’s it. Now I’ll share the book list. And I hope with me you’ll resolve to keep reading good books in 2021, and maybe to read some together. (You’re always welcome to join the Piquant Page-Turners. If you can tolerate sweats and tear-stained eyes.)

I’ll close with this. It’s a vision of the generous Book Girls I’m blessed to know (you know who you are), and, by grace, I want to be.

The reading life is, I’m convinced, a form of love, a way of encountering the world and its splendor and drama. The reading life comes to us as a gift and, as it fills us, drives us to fresh generosity. As you read and imagine, learn and grow in the company of great books, I hope you, too, will find that joyous urge that comes of a heart grown rich to hand out books to the children in your life, to pass on novels to your best friends, to press a good story into the hands of a struggling teen. 

Sarah Clarkson, Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures & Transforming Power of a Reading Life 

I hope you’ll enjoy these books and I hope you’ll use these books—to learn and grow, to gain hope, to battle well.

Love, be changed: read good books together.

2021 Piquant Page-Turner Picks

January 11- Perfectly Human: Nine Months With Cerian, Sarah Williams 

February 8- Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High, Melba Pattillo Beals

March 8- The Awakening of Miss Prim: A Novel, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

April 12- The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim

May 10- True Grit, Charles Portis 

June 15- The Death of Ivan Illych, Leo Tolstoy

July 12- Live Not By Lies, Rod Dreher

August 9- A Gentleman From Moscow, Amor Towles 

September 13- The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt 

October 11- Health Is Membership, an essay by Wendell Berry

November 8- Pilgrim’s Inn, Elizabeth Goudge

December 13- Two From Galilee, Marjorie Holmes

The Piquant Page-Turners typically meet at 7 PM on the second Monday of the month. Please note that dates and times are subject to change based on the fancy and whim of its members.

Contact Abigail at joyfullypressingon@gmail.com if you’d like to get monthly updates, Zoom invites, and related links via group email. 

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