November 2010: Books Read

1. Mohandas Gandhi – Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth. Gandhi, I believe, needs no introduction. This book is Gandhi’s autobiography, covering the time from his birth (1869) to the early 1920s.

This isn’t the first account of his life I have read; I saw Louis Fischer’s biography of him in a used bookstore five years ago and read it immediately. I’ve had this book on my shelf for a couple of years, and I decided to prioritize it after Mary and I watched Gandhi, the film about his life that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in the early ’80s.

The book itself alternates between fascinating and dull. When Gandhi was talking about religion, and most of the time even when he was talking about his own political development or self-discipline (which he talks about a great deal), I was riveted. He writes in short, matter-of-fact sentences that are easy to read. The dull parts were when he got into the specific personalities and issues in early 20th-century South African and Indian politics. That can’t be helped; his original audience would have been more interested in that sort of thing and more aware of the issues and personalities involved. I found it a good read, but maybe not the best introduction to Gandhi. There seem to be plenty of books out there that organize his writings and speeches more topically with less “filler.”

2. William Zinsser – On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. I read a previous edition of this book when I was in college (10 years ago), and I read this edition for work. It is largely the same book, with a few edits and a new chapter on writing memoir.

It is a classic for good reason. Zinsser writes confidently and well about how to become a better nonfiction writer. I’d recommend it to anyone who has that as a goal. I know one person who dips into it regularly, almost reading it as a devotional. It’s that good.

3. John Howard Yoder – When War Is Unjust: Being Honest in Just War Thinking. I’ve been a fan of Yoder’s ever since I read his The Politics of Jesus when I was in college. At the time, I saw it on a shelf in the university library and thought it looked interesting. I had no idea that Yoder was an incredibly influential theologian from the Mennonite tradition (which means he was a pacifist).

This book is so short that it is really a booklet. Yoder’s aim in it is to keep just war theorists honest. He was, as I mentioned, a pacifist, but he believed that churches in the just war tradition have not held as strictly to that tradition as they ought to. When it came right down to it, churches in the just war tradition (with a few exceptions) went along with whatever wars their nation decided to fight without seriously considering whether they were just. A sentence on the last page sums up Yoder’s argument: “If the tradition which claims that war may be justified does not also admit that it could be unjustified, the affirmation is not morally serious” (82).

4. Mignon Fogarty – Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. This is another book that I read for work. It gives grammar tips in an entertaining way, and I think it would be interesting particularly for someone who does not know much about grammar.

I did learn a few things about grammar, and I was reminded of a few things that I had forgotten. There were long stretches of the book, though, where Grammar Girl was preaching to the choir. I would say that I have an above-average knowledge of English grammar (although like everyone I can make mistakes), so I am most likely not part of the target audience.

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