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Reads of My Life: Steinberg, Hawking, Dostoevsky, Potok

We continue our summer series in which members of the SPECTRUM community share the 3-5 books that shaped them the most.

As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg

I’ll start with Milton Steinberg. There’s a quote from the movie Shadowlands put into the mouth of C.S. Lewis which says, “We read to know we are not alone.” It sounds profound, but it’s not true. That’s not why we read. But I did have that experience. I’ve had an interest in philosophy, in particular the philosophy of religion, since early high school. I was raised with the values of critical thinking, education and study. And I am a math/science person. All of these ingredients fertilized within me a deep dissatisfaction with religious authors, Christian apologists, and anti-religionists, because for years it seemed to me that nobody was saying the really important, relevant things. There was an elephant in the room, I felt. So was everyone–atheists and theists alike–too afraid to say so? Years went by. Then I read As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. He said things nobody else was willing to say. He took the clothes off of the truth and made you look at it naked. Finally, I was not alone.

A Brief History of Time by Steven Hawking

This book makes regular folks into science people. First published twenty two years ago, A Brief History of Time is a popular account of cosmology, covering topics like black holes, the big bang, and the nature of space and time in a way normal people can understand. Hawking showed me and millions of other people many beautiful ideas in science. The value of this book is not only the scientific facts and theories contained within it, but its ability to communicate a scientific aesthetic that today, as a mathematician in training, I find spiritually nourishing. That a scientific aesthetic is something many non science people are today finding enriching is evidenced by the many popular books on the edge of science and spirituality. The Big Questions found between the pages of A Brief History of Time continue to animate religious commentators such as Krista Tippett of Speaking of Faith far beyond the wearying narrative of war between faith and science.

The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Also, Crime and Punishment.

Southern Adventist University’s honors seminar studied Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I subsequently read The Brothers Karamazov. If ever there was a literary genius, it was Dostoevsky. There is more depth in these two texts than in most of the rest of my bookshelf. Father Zossima literally made me look at the world differently. Raskolnikov took me deep within myself and made me understand the fiction of philosophy without values. To this day, I sometimes lay awake at night thinking about these stories and their characters and ideas and conflicts.

In The Beginning by Chaim Potok

Among Potok’s fantastic novels, this one stands above the rest in its moving intellectual and emotional sincerity and honesty. In a way it is unfortunate that this book was not his debut novel instead of The Chosen, since the greatness of this book seems to get lost behind his more well known titles like My Name Is Asher Lev. This book’s power is in the understanding Potok has of the quiet intellectual no one seems to understand, yet who struggles so desperately to try to understand the world and his place in it. His brilliance brings him suffering. At the climactic confrontation between David and his father, I sobbed. Can you know unless you live it? Who can identify–and fall in love–with this book?

And perhaps it is the fact that his novels are so autobiographical (Potok did indeed “live it”) that I felt such a profound loss at Potok’s death on July 23, 2002. For as long as I am able to read, for as long as there are printed pages I will love him through his books. Thank you, Dr. Potok, so much for Ilana Davita, for Asher Lev, for Danny and Reuven, but thank you especially for David Lurie. He has shown me a beginning. . .

If you’d like to participate, email your books and brief reflections to alexander at spectrummagazine dot org

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