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. 

Be Merry: The Tide Has Turned

Galaxy sky star with trees sillouette

In 1948, C.S. Lewis published a poem called, “The Turn of the Tide.” In it, he imagines the cosmic significance of Christ’s birth.

Rest assured, the tide has turned. It might not feel like it, but feelings lie. Oh sure, we’re still in these long last days and I’m still one of the poor orn’ry people—but about 2020 years ago the tide turned.

Because what happened in Bethlehem did not stay in Bethlehem.

It was never intended to stay there. In fact, it reached the highest heavens. Breathless was the air over Bethlehem. When the Virgin gave birth to a son the galaxies tingled and rocked.

But it also reached the lowest shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that night and it penetrates into our little house in some big Wisconsin woods in these Covid-19 days.

The Turn of the Tide

I read the poem aloud to three teenage boys in that little house this afternoon. At least two out of three at half-listened. I hope you enjoy it at least twice as much as one of three did.

Breathless was the air over Bethlehem. Black and bare
Were the fields; hard as granite the clods;
Hedges stiff with ice; the sedge in the vice
Of the pool, like pointed iron rods.
And the deathly stillness spread from Bethlehem. It was shed
Wider each moment on the land;
Through rampart and wall into camp and into hall
Stole the hush; all tongues were at a stand.
At the Procurator’s feast the jocular freedman ceased
His story, and gaped. All were glum
Travellers at their beer in a tavern turned to hear
The landlord; their oracle was dumb.
But the silence flowed forth to the islands and the North
And smoothed the unquiet river bars
And levelled out the waves from their revelling and paved
The sea with cold reflected stars.

Where the Caesar on Palatine sat at ease to sign,
Without anger, signatures of death,
There stole into his room and on his soul a gloom,
And his pen faltered, and his breath.
Then to Carthage and the Gauls, past Parthia and the Falls
Of Nile and Mount Amara it crept;
The romp and war of beast in swamp and jungle ceased,
The forest grew still as though it slept.
So it ran about the girth of the planet. From the Earth
A signal, a warning, went out
And away behind the air. Her neighbours were aware
Of change. They were troubled with a doubt.

Salamanders in the Sun that brandish as they run
Tails like the Americas in size
Were stunned by it and dazed; wondering, they gazed
Up at Earth, misgiving in their eyes.
In Houses and Signs Ousiarchs* divine
Grew pale and questioned what it meant;
Great Galactal lords stood back to back with swords
Half-drawn, awaiting the event,
And a whisper among them passed, ‘Is this perhaps the last
Of our story and the glories of our crown?
–The entropy worked out?–The central redoubt
Abandoned? The world-spring running down?
Then they could speak no more. Weakness overbore
Even them. They were as flies in a web,
In their lethargy stone-dumb. The death had almost come;
The tide lay motionless at ebb.

Like a stab at that moment, over Crab and Bowman,
Over Maiden and Lion, came the shock
Of returning life, the start and burning pang at heart,
Setting Galaxies to tingle and rock;
And the Lords dared to breathe, and swords were sheathed
And a rustling, a relaxing began,
With a rumour and noise of the resuming of joys,
On the nerves of the universe it ran.
Then pulsing into space with delicate, dulcet pace
Came a music, infinitely small
And clear. But it swelled and drew nearer and held
All worlds in the sharpness of its call.
And now divinely deep, and louder, with the sweep
and quiver of inebriating sound,
The vibrant dithyramb** shook Libra and the Ram,
The brains of Aquarius spun round;
Such a note as neither Throne nor Potentate had known
Since the Word first founded the abyss,
But this time it was changed in a mystery, estranged,
A paradox, an ambiguous bliss.

Heaven danced to it and burned. Such answer was returned
To the hush, the Favete, the fear
That Earth had sent out; revel, mirth and shout
Descended to her, sphere below sphere.
Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost,
His beard, Niagara-like, unfroze;
Monsters in the Sun rejoiced; the Inconstant One,
The unwedded Moon, forgot her woes.
A shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth
went gliding. Her bonds were released.
Into broken light a breeze rippled and woke the seas,
In the forest it startled every beast.
Capripods fell to dance from Taproban to France,
Leprechauns from Down to Labrador,
In his green Asian dell the Phoenix from his shell
Burst forth and was the Phoenix once more.

So death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless’d
Nothing greater could be heard
Than a dry wind in the thorn, the cry of the One new-born,
And cattle in stall as they stirred.

C.S. Lewis, Poems, edited by Walter Hooper, 1992, pp. 49-51.

The After Effects

I’ve never imagined how it would feel to be a galaxy—Bowman or Crab, Libra or Ram— or even a planet of moon. But I’m glad Lewis did.

Because there must have been a ripple effect—a pulsing sound into space and even into forest and seas—when One babe was born. Maybe a shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth.

It’s easier for me to imagine that- the after effects on earth. Because a shiver sounds a lot like a thrill of hope and a weary world rejoicing though, doesn’t it?

And because every single day I feel the after-effects of the Babe born, the Son given. I live and love, I confess and forgive, and whenever I joyfully press on, it’s because of the coming of the One. It’s all because of the birth that arrested death.

Oh, yes. All these pulses and ripples and shivers and thrills and all this joyful music must mean the tide has turned.

The Tide Has Turned

A few years later, another famous Inkling, was also writing about the turn of the tide.  

‘Gandalf,’ the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. ‘Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.’ He stepped down from the rock, and picking up his grey cloak wrapped it about him: it seemed as if the sun had been shining, but now was hid in a cloud again. ‘Yes, you may still call me Gandalf,’ he said, and the voice was the voice of their old friend and guide. ‘Get up, my good Gimli! No blame to you, and no harm done to me. Indeed my friends, none of you have any weapon that could hurt me. Be merry! We meet again. At the turn of the tide. The great storm is coming, but the tide has turned.’

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 1956

The Child was born and the Son was given—unto us. The tide turned when the majestic glory of the King of the Universe was revealed in a Babe laying in a manger in Bethlehem.

And I’d be surprised if the galaxies didn’t dance.

So feel free. Be merry!

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

Isaiah 9:6-7

We await our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ

Titus 2:13

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
    and turns deep darkness into the morning
    and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name…

Amos 5:8

 *metaphysical ruler

**a wild choral hymn of ancient Greece

2021: Better? Or More Need of Endurance?

solo oak tree in snow
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:3c

I can’t wait for 2020 to be done! 2021 has got to be better. I keep hearing that and I’m just not so sure.

But I know we have need of endurance.

Need Of Endurance

That’s how the author of the book of Hebrews put it, For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised (Hebrews 10:36).

Endurance is bearing up under pressure or strain. It’s holding the weight above your head for 30 more seconds while your arms are quivering and aching. It’s carrying the six-year old all the way back while your legs are shaking. Weight bearing strengthens your body. It also strengthens your soul. But there are no shortcuts. You must bear up.

Endurance is strength in opposition. People who endure stand firm and handle pain because they know that trials can be productive (James 1:2-4). I like to write about about strong moms and strong grace and strength to do the ordinary things. My business card says I’m a spiritual strength trainer. I love to help people stand firm and grow strong.

So it’s not surprising that in this truth-denying climate, with freedom-ceding Covid-19 and a hyper-charged political scene, I hear the call to endure louder than ever.

Because 2020 might have been birth pangs and tremors. Not recovery and aftershock, but beginnings. You have need of endurance.

Because who’s not to say that the year of our Lord 2021 may be an even wilder ride?

Oak Or Squash?

Before James Garfield was President of the United States, he was head of Hiram College. At Hiram, a father once asked Garfield if his son’s course of study could be simplified so he could get through by a shorter route.

“Certainly.” Garfield replied. “But it all depends on what you want to make of your boy. When God wants to make an oak tree, He takes a hundred years. When He wants to make a squash he requires only two months.”

The blessed are the steadfast. The ones who endure like Job and grow strong in their faith like Abraham (Romans 4:20). The ones who feel the pain and scratch with potsherds and grieve their losses as praise, but don’t charge God with wrong (Job 1:22). But they don’t take shortcuts. They cling to God’s promises (Romans 4:20). They’re strong, steady oaks.

The not-blessed are those who squish under pressure. They feel they heat and turn to mush. They don’t stand firm. They spring up. But trials— like 2020 come and under the pressure, they wilt (Mtt. 13:21).

Or, to borrow from Garfield, they seek shortcuts. They don’t stand firm and they’re squash. Squishy, mushy squash.

God Supplies What We Need

So bear up. No shortcuts. Oaks of righteousness endure. Remember righteousness comes by faith. And faith means taking God at his word. His word in Philippians 4:19 says, my God will supply all your needs. So if we have need of endurance, we can bank on the our God—the God of endurance—to supply it. He gives it to the end to all who are saved. And he gives it with such kind purpose.

James 5:11 says that the purpose of the Lord is “compassionate and merciful.” And so his oaks endure.

Because God gives endurance. And because they know He will come through.

Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand...

Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:8b, 11

Condescending: Seriously Bad & Gloriously Good

Baby feet in cloth

Ooh. That sounded condescending, I confessed seconds after using the phrase, “So cute.” The topic? Christmas decor.

What does condescending mean? asked the 13 year-old son.

Like you’re God’s gift to the people you’re with. I paused, As if they’re beneath you and you’re so great to get on their level and give them the time of day.

Oh, he said.

I didn’t tell him the Latin part.  

Condescending Is Seriously Bad

I can be condescending. The bad way—the smug, snooty, Seriously?! way. The, How could you not know that? way. I don’t say it. But sometimes I think it. And thinking it even once is too often for a child of God.

But I begin to think how good it is of me to “go low” and help someone “up.” Even with “so cute” Christmas decor. That thought betrays my pride. For humility is not thinking less of yourself, Lewis said, it’s thinking of yourself less. Jesus said, Don’t let your left hand know.

Bad condescending is bad not only because it’s proud, but because it lacks sympathy. I condescend the bad way when I feel like the people I’m “gracing” with my insight or presence should know better or know more or fear less and trust more.

I’m not alone in that mire. Even the great preacher C.H. Spurgeon confided,

There are distresses to which God’s people are subject with which their fellow Christians can have but little sympathy. Some Christians whom I have tried at times to comfort, have had fears so silly that I have felt more inclined to laugh at them than to console them.

I must have more sympathy to condescend the good way. Because there is a good way.

Aunt Merriam says to condescend means 1: to assume an air of superiority, 2: to descend to a less formal or dignified level; to waive the privileges of rank. Number one is bad. Number two is the good.

Now here’s that Latin part. Condescendere comes from the Latin words con- which means ‘with’ or ‘together’ + descendere which means to ‘descend’ or ‘come down.’

A question for us: When we descend to be with another, is it with love and sympathy or pride and superiority?

Condescending Is Gloriously Good

The God way is the good way. Philippians 2, verses 6 and 7 explains the “good” condescension so beautifully,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 

Do you see it? Almighty God condescends to us, not by reminding us of our smallness and neediness, but rather by stooping down to make us great. The All Wise God who does great things beyond our understanding speaks to the creature in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, the Word made flesh. The Holy God in whom there is no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

Have you ever sung that old hymn “Come, Christians, Join To Sing,” by C.H. Bateman? Here’s the second verse:

Come, lift your hearts on high,
Alleluia! Amen!
let praises fill the sky;
Alleluia! Amen!
he is our Guide and Friend;
to us he’ll condescend;
his love shall never end.
Alleluia! Amen!

Did you see it again? God’s condescending love is worthy of our praise. God’s is gloriously good condescension; his condescension is free from pride and full of sympathy. Spurgeon—and I— know that even when we are unsympathetic and condescend in the bad way, our God in not like us. Thank God he is not like us.

Now our God is so tender and gentle that He even condescends to deal with our silly fears…His gentleness shows itself in His being afflicted in our afflictions and entering into our sorrows, and putting Himself side by side with us in the battle of spiritual life.

C.H. Spurgeon, Divine Gentleness ackknowledged

Condescension like that makes me want to worship Christ the newborn King. Oh yes our God condescends.

And not just to the whole wide world, but to sinful, needy you and sinful, needy me.

God Condescends

Fourteen years ago last month, I made a once in a lifetime announcement. With Jim’s family gathered around to say grace before Thanksgiving dinner, I asked if I could recite a Psalm.

It was Psalm 13, a condescension Psalm.

Who is like the Lord our God,
    the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
    on the heavens and the earth?

He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
He settles the barren woman in her home
    as a joyful mother of children.


The Lord who is enthroned on high nevertheless stooped to look down upon me. He was mindful of my humble estate. After ten years of barrenness, he remembered me. He came down with me and lifted me from the heap.

The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianiy

But our Lord condescends in everyday ways too. Today he gave me peace in conflict and strength to forgive again. Then he allowed a cancelled session which gave me time to finish a report. In big and small ways, God stoops down.

But He did it biggest at Christmas.

Christmas Is About Condescension

I think C.S. Lewis saw it that way. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body, he wrote. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. (Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 5)

That condescending conversation in the van last night brought this song to mind in the morning. You might like it.

Who but God would send his Son
To condescend and make himself the likes of a mere mortal man

For in the end, condescend is one of the sweetest, most Christmasy words I know. It’s why we stretch Advent out. Because in the incarnation, God did way more than just come down and give us a hand. More than just step out of his castle for an evening of revelry with his serfs at Ye Olde Pub. Oh, no. Infinitely more.

He became one of us. He took on our weakness, sympathized with our weakness and bore our sin. The Creator became a creature. Like us becoming slugs but far more shocking. Who would condescend like this?

All glory be to Christ. Who but God.

Who is like the Lord our God,
    the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
    on the heavens and the earth?

Psalm 113:7