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What books make you who you are?

For the last few months, my extended family and I have been getting together on twice-weekly Zoom calls. Every Wednesday and Saturday, the room is open for any of my three siblings and/or their kids, my mother (living alone), an uncle, a cousin and me to come together and connect beyond the walls of our own homes. The Saturday gathering usually features a discussion of a movie, but recently we set aside the movie topic to share our respective “book canons.”

The family member who suggested the topic made a point to distinguish between a canon and someone’s favorite books and/or books one would recommend to others. A canon, she explained, helps explore and explain who a person is. The discussion was a fascinating window into my family members, some of whom I’ve known my whole life (or theirs). My brother, a proud former Marine, ultimately decided to leave the service as a young man after reading “Johnny Got His Gun” and an autobiography of the Dalai Lama. One person listed “The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous,” another, Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine.” My mother, who went through a difficult divorce, clung to the 1976 self-help classic “How to Survive the Loss of a Love” and has frequently given it to others who were going through similar losses.

I developed my list using the question: Which books made MaryAnn who she is? Here are a few:

A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle. I often say that my theology is mostly Jesus, with a side of The Force and a good bit of “Wrinkle.” This was the first book that made me cry, and it provided the inspiration for my one and only tattoo.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” by historian Timothy Snyder. I’ve reread this book every few months for the past three years. It’s a slim volume that connects 20th-century authoritarianism with our modern time in some important and alarming ways. At its core, the book is about what it means to be a good citizen: Do not obey in advance. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

The “Harry Potter” series, by J.K. Rowling. I was astounded to be the only one in my family who listed these books! I suspect if I had been born at a different time, these would have replaced L’Engle in terms of forming my personal theology. Like “A Wrinkle in Time,” the plot boils down to a cosmic battle between good and evil, akin to what Christians know as Christus Victor theology.

A tie between “The Red Tent,” by Anita Diamant, and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” by Nikos Kazantzakis. Both are imaginative riffs on biblical stories that expanded my spiritual and moral imagination. The former is a wonderful piece of speculative fiction with incredible details and an earthy, feminist sensibility. I read it while nursing my eldest child. The latter is slow to start, but by the end I was completely pulled in to the idea that Jesus was able to see, with full clarity, what he was giving up (marriage, family, a normal life) by dying on the cross. Incredible.

From there, the canon got more idiosyncratic. The other books I listed were formative for me personally, but I stopped short of recommending them — not because they aren’t worthwhile, but because they probably hit me at the right time and may not translate. One of those books was “New World New Mind,” by Robert Ornstein. I read this book in high school, and it was my first introduction to the concept of the amygdala. Our brains were wired by our evolution to respond to predators and other immediate dangers, but in our overstimulating modern world, that wiring betrays us. Gradual changes are much more deadly in the modern age (climate change, even pandemics), so we need to learn to rewire our brains to survive. This idea has been said many times in many places since, but this book changed the way I perceive the world.

What would be in your book canon?

MaryAnn McKibben Dana

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, pastor, speaker and coach living in Virginia. She is author of “Sabbath in the Suburbs” and “God, Improv, and the Art of Living.”

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