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One Book for College: Make your Parents Nervous

September 12th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

What one book would you have a college student read?

It's not necessarily an easy question.

There are hundreds of guides for college students out there, some of which I'm told are very good, but who wants to look like they need an advice book when they show up on campus?

And when it comes to reading, most college students should, as Cate points out, simply start with the syllabus.  If you're not getting that far, you're not far enough.  Which, come to think of it, raises the question of why you're reading Mere-O.  Let's just move on.

What we need is a criteria, because those solve all our problems, right?  Here are four things that extracurricular reading should satisfy:

  1. It should be outside your major, so as to broaden your horizons and not appear on your syllabus.  Literature majors, you may want to read Shakespeare all the time.  Or Toni Morrison.  (No need to be a snob.)  But for this, you may have to branch out.
  2. It should make the colors of the world just a little more bright.  School can be an abstract environment, which has it's own problems.  One way to counteract that is to spend our free time lingering over the beauty of creation.  And books can, believe it or not, help with that.
  3. It should be accessible enough that it doesn't feel like labor, but thoughtful enough that you might come back to it.
  4. It should make your parents nervous.  Why?  Because you're in college, and that's what college students do.

Don't like the criteria?  Propose your own in the comments.  That's why God made 'em.

What book could possibly survive such a stringent standard?  (Hint:  it's not, alas, this one.  And yes, that's a profligate reminder that you should read it anyway.)

Sheldon VanAuken's A Severe Mercy

The odds that it will show up in your major are small, unless you're majoring in tragically beautiful love stories that make your heart hurt.  Which, in an academic world as fragmented as the one we currently have, one or two of you might actually be doing.  What do I know?  I'm just a writer.

Why A Severe Mercy?  The prose….oh, the prose.  You'll never look at new cars quite the same way.  And while you had better not be getting up to fetch a cup of water in the night for anyone but your roommate, VanAuken's will help you see that relatively minor acts of courtesy contain within them the substance of heroic self-sacrifice.

But while VanAuken has a way with words, it matches the unremitting romanticism of his aristocratic life.  Read with caution:  at points you'll want to drop out of school, buy a yacht, and start sailing around the world.  Which means it satisfies the "nervous parents" criterion rather well, doesn't it?

Of course, you won't have any money (you're in college, remember?) and probably don't know how to sail, so the disaster will be averted.  But the longing will be there and you'll go off and do better things for it.

As for substance, the book isn't exactly Thomas Aquinas, but it is a step above your standard airport fiction.  You might be turned off by the fact that it's a tragic tale of love and loss, but its elegance ensures that it is never boring and I have yet to meet a man with a soul who did not like it.

The book has some cultural significance as well.  Our boys Chesterton and Lewis laid the groundwork for what we might call "romantic Christianity," or the contemporary appropriation of the Dantean vision of the world. Courtly love and troubadours meet Jesus, and all that. VanAuken stands firmly in that tradition, and even if he doesn't resolve the relationship between erotic desire and our Christian faith quite as well as either of them, his poetic prose, dare I say, is the apex of the movement.

Which is about as high of praise as I could possibly give it.

But that makes me wonder:  what book would you recommend, if not this one? 


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.