Article by: Ivan Mesa
On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Jen Pollock Michel—author of Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home [read TGC’s review and excerpt] and Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith [read TGC’s review]—about what’s on her nightstand, books she re-reads, books about home and place that ground her, and more.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Like a lot of readers, I buy, borrow, and begin a lot of books. (The key word here is begin). I can’t promise to finish all these titles, but here’s a selection of books from recent Amazon purchases and library runs.
- A Secular Age by Charles Tayor
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Moonglow by Michael Chabon
- None Like Him by Jen Wilkin
- Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
- Incarnadine by Mary Szybist
- Love, Henri by Henri Nouwen [read TGC’s review]
What’s one book you wish every American evangelical would read and why?
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. This book is a must-read for understanding race relations in the United States. Wilkerson charts the story of the northern migration of six million African Americans between 1915–1970, and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t learn this history in school. I’m sure that’s the case for many of us.
I’m not sure how we heal the racial divide in the United States without reckoning with our national history of slavery and segregation.
What are your favorite fiction books?
What books have most shaped you as a writer?
For the mechanics of writing, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well [read TGC’s remembrance of Zinsser]. For wit and empathy, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. For a study on voice, Mary Karr’s Lit. And for an apprenticeship in learning to write old truths in fresh ways, anything by Eugene Peterson.
What’s the last great book you read?
The book that comes immediately to mind is Tinkers, a literary novel by Paul Harding. It’s a beautiful meditation on time, memory, and mortality.
What books on home and place ground you the most and how?
Truthfully, I find that fiction best captures the longing for home. I’ve already mentioned Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy (Gilead, Home, Lila), but I love Gilead the best for the way it allows us to reconcile a proper, holy love for this world with a love for the next. Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow is also a stunning reflection on what it means to love land and derive identity from place.
In terms of non-fiction, I’m indebted to Glenna Matthews’s Just a Housewife. This is an important read for evangelical Christians for situating home (and specifically, the roles of women) in historical context. Similarly, Witold Rybczynski’s Home: A Short History of an Idea traces how the physical dimensions of home have changed, along with our consumer expectations.
Finally, in terms of Christian books, I’ve appreciated N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. Wright is very good at naming our gnosticism and reminding us that eternity is about embodied and emplaced existence. I’m also indebted to Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son; his reading of this familiar parable has inspired my vision for the church’s work of homemaking. As Nouwen writes, Christians aren’t meant to identify only with the lost sons of the parable. He argues the church is meant to assume the role of Father—presiding over the feast and extending arms of divine welcome to the world.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I’m learning a lot about courage, though not the kind that takes extraordinary leaps of faith. It’s more the kind of courage required for ruthless honesty—“the truth of the inward being” and “the wisdom in the secret heart,” as the psalmist puts it. Even though people think I’m a transparent person, I think it’s truer that I’m afraid of being honest—with God, with others, with myself. I’m afraid to name my real desires and fears and anxieties. I guess that’s a fear of being vulnerable, so I’m learning the courage of my own neediness. And truthfully, I’m finding my life enriched as I allow myself to need: to need God, my husband, my friends, my church community, my neighbors.
Also in the On My Shelf series: Greg Thornbury • 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
Ivan Mesa is an editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife, Sarah, live in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter.