The Holiday reading list: or who are we kidding?

The ritual of choosing (and deluding myself about) holiday reading is one of the great joys of going on holiday. it is second only to the sheer fun of choosing a pile of reading and music for the Christmas season.

I don’t do sprawling beside the pool holidays by choice and I don’t do beach holidays (I am usually afraid, even having lost a pile of weight, that some short-sighted trawler will mistake me for an edible whale and then harpoon me.)  So my quantum of reading time is necessarily circumscribed by the fact my inner five year old is being let loose on another collection of medieval cities, frescoes, byzantine era mosaics and general gorgeousness, and the momentary savour of the reading will wait for a few hours.

My favourite holidays are cycling round bits of Italy  or Spain that I haven’t been to. (I wrote off a bicylce cycling round Monte Subasio to Assisi when the brakes failed. Either Saint Francis was looking after me or the Almighty was hoping for a bit more peace and quiet before I came round disturbing things.)

I love discovering Italian and Spanish cities – especially the medieval bits.  This is – like every year –  a “walk till I drop” holiday, of long days enjoying the city and leisurely evenings spent being thankful.  I am already anticipating the sixth century Ivory throne in the museum at Ravenna, and the mosaics in the basilicas so green, purple and white that they could have been laid yesterday.  This year Bologna (the City in whose railway station an insalata is not a salad but a cheese and ham croissant) Ravenna, Modena and Ferrara beckon. 

And all good holidays need some good reading, or so someone who should have known better once decided.

So, it’s that time of year when I look at the five foot and growing pile of unread books in the study and think – “which of you lot do I take with me in order to kid myself I am going to read any of you?”  I give up and put the kettle on instead. Fortified by procrastination and two cups of tea [one lapsang souchong, the other apple and cinammon] I clean the floors, scrub the bathrooms, dust the entire flat, offset the carbon I will use up in flying then go for a walk and then finally return to the pile resolved to sort this thing.

I savour the possibilities of which twenty items I will take. Then I ask who I am trying to kid…me, the airline or my rucksack?  So I think through:

  • The book to read while on the plane. (Honestly? One cup of tea and a plough through every journal article I can lay my hands on later will be followed by fallng asleep for about half the flight, before spending the descent reading the in-flight magazine ( in both languages  depending on the airline) as a vocabulary building exercise;  topped off by making a really bad decision to find and then fiddle with my Ipod – sorry iPod –  for the remaining two minutes before we are told we are about to land.
  • The theological or historical tome to read while sitting on trains rushing ( or pootling ) through the Italian countryside to that day’s destination. (Continuing the vein of honesty I will do my usual of raiding the newstand and bookshop near the station and buying newspapers, the Italian edition of Scientific American [Le Scienze], The Jesuit Bi-Monthly La Civilta Cattolica and devour these on the train instead.
  • The leisurely evening read. (Then I remember they have bookshops in Italy which are still like bookshops were here when I was an undergraduate.  And I always end up buying stuff while there.  Some schlock horror Italian giallo crime novel will be chosen, or another volume in the series of modern theologians I love reading.)

So, as usual, into my patient and long-suffering rucksack goes a selection of more or less randomly chosen items:

  • The collection of medical and scientific articles which I will plough through over breakfast and on the plane. This year I’ve taken a collection of papers on health inequalities and policy change culled from The Lancet, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health and a host of others. A collection of 27 papers I will read and reflect on with relish. Including the special issues of JECH I picked up at the World Congress of Epidemiology earlier this year.
  • Volume 2 of the works of Teresa of Avila – our Carmelite group is continuing the study of this amazing woman in preparation for the fifth centenary of her birth.   I also slip Rowan Williams’ amazing study of her in. I would finish this but for the fact I re-read every chapter several times.
  • Nancy Krieger’s Epidemiology and the People’s Health – this should be on every trainee’s reading list
  • A slim volume on evidence synthesis which I will get through in one train journey
  • The New Testament
  • If I have been there before, my little black city book – favourite cafes, galleries, museums, haunts, bus routes, restaurants and so on to my last place of holiday.

 The Journey Back also brings the pleasures of reading, but that’s another story.

If you have had your time of renewal and refreshment, I hope you enjoyed it. I intend to thoroughly enjoy mine.


A gem of a book

“Raimundo Panikkar tells the story of a man who for years writes passionate lerrers to his faraway beloved. She finally answers his letters, after years of silence, with one to him saying that she has married the mailman. It is a wisdom tale not unworthy of a sufi.”



Author: Lawrence S Cunningham
Hardback, 242 pages
Publisher: Sorin Books, Notre Dame, Indiana
ISBN: 978-1-933495-25-5

The quote above is taken from this wonderful little book. It’s the kind of book that will get you laughing, and by dint of that numerous funny looks as you read it over coffee/on the bus/train.

Another example:

R.G. Collingwood once said this about an Oxford seminar: one of the company reads a paper, and the rest discuss it with a fluency directly proportional to their ignorance. This is a phenomenon not unknown at my own university.

Now tell me you can’t think of occasion be it academic, ecclesiastical or professional where that hasn’t happened!

I suppose the sign of a good book is one where, by the time you have finished, you see bookmarks left all over it because you were moved or challenged by bits of the text. Or is that just me? Because that’s how I left this book. I suppose this is what one might call the publication of a commonplace book , a distillation of knowledge, gleanings and thoughts.

Cunningham himself says of the book ” What appears in this book is an idiosyncratic sample, gleaned here and there, from a row of notebooks that sits on a shelf over my computer. This sample does not include the many verses (or two) of scripture I have written down over the years. Those verses have been — and here I borrow a conceit made famous by Matthew Arnold — “touchstones,” which is to say, words so powerful that they stand for something much larger than is first seen in the words themselves. Certain lines of scripture have this in common with really great poems: paraphrasing them, or taking a stab at their exegesis (or even eisegensis) is never really adequate as a replacement for the words themselves. I often write these biblical verses down simply because they strike me, but as I cannot adequately reproduce the inspiration that gave rise to my writing them in the first place, I have added them here. ”

This might seem an old-fashioned obsession to some, but Cunningham does not disappoint. His thoughts are always provoking. Sometimes observations, sometimes profound. I took to reading this book early mornings, then sometimes just before bed.

Cunningham is the only man who ever kindled enthusiasm in me for reading St Bonaventure in Latin. He describes his Latin as “lush” with comic understatement. And he’s right, it’s gorgeous Latin. Bonaventure wrote a fantastic treatise on the psychology of love. His Latin is just right for such an exercise, though I really struggle with it, preferring the economy (and relative ease) of St Thomas.

But Cunningham’s accessible musing on Scripture, on the Early Christian Writers and on that wonderful, strange, uinfuriating but loveable thing which is the Church took me back to my undergraduate years. His pages brought by turns sweet nostalgia, moments of amazing learning, invitations to prayer, a re-kindling of things I thought I had forgotten, and never once did it with hubris or self-importance.

His observations on the rich history of the Catholic Tradition are by turns funny, challenging, poignant and resonant. He illustrates the fabulous and the foiblesome (is that a word?) of the Catholic worldview while inter alia taking the odd sideswipe at dreadful art.

The mark of a truly remarkable theologian is that every now and again a work like this with palpable humanity seems to distil the wisdom and knowledge of a lifetime’s prayer and study into a fairly small book. And in ways deceptively accessible such a book brings you into an encounter with the writer, and more importantly with God. The writer almost seems to fade into the background, even in the funniest moments of his writing.

Barth, De Lubac, von Balthasar, Ratzinger – all of them and more produced just such sublime work. Cunningham, for me anyway, will sit among them on my bookshelves.

Sometimes the oddest things bring you face to face with God. Two recent experiences did this for me. One was this book, repeatedly. The other was Mass on the Feast of the Ascension. I was one of the Cathedral wardens that day. And from when I arrived half an hour before Mass until the end it was busy, heaving, and at times felt frenetic. Giving out hymnbooks, taking the Collection, telling people where the loos are, and a host of other things. I was trying to settle for a few minutes after Communion and was at the back of the Church trying to listen rather than bombard God with words as I so often do. There, kneeling beside me was one of our ever-smiling young Sri Lankan dads with his Son, kneeling on bare stone, head bowed. just minutes before both dad and son were beaming smiles at people during the sign of peace. And I looked round. All was still, as visitors and regulars alike on bended knee filled that building with prayer. And I was moved, brought up sharp before the presence of God, and almost winded by it.

And in the way things go, straight after getting home I was brought down to earth when I read the following in Cunningham over coffee and nearly choked with laughter:

Was not all that edified to read on the feast of Saint Cuthbert (March 20) that he would pray at night standing in water, but two otters would dry him off as he emerged from his private prayer so that he would be dry and presentable for the monastic office of Lauds.

God preserve us from taking ourselves too seriously!