If there is anything the other men at Rambling Ever On have inspired me to do, it is read more. Thanks to them, and my wife, I have read more fiction than ever these last five years. But recently I also began to feel convicted that I was not reading enough biographies and autobiographies. Very few things can be as riveting and edifying as actual human lives. People’s stories are often as creative as the most fascinating fantasy. So in the last three years or so I have begun to always have a biography in my reading rotation. And here are a few I found to be utterly delightful that I submit for our readership’s summer reading lists.
First, it was hard to narrow this list of about 30 books down to five so I will also give five that barely missed the cut:
Wins, Losses and Lessons: An Autobiography by Lou Holtz – One of the five most interesting books I’ve read in this category because I love college football and Lou coached my team for six years. I cut it because there was a sports autobiography I loved even better and I wanted a variety.
Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin – Politics has a way of making us see people as enemies and opponents and even stripping them of their humanity in the sense they become 2D beings on a screen. So I appreciate this book for helping me see this lady as a story worth telling. She now has an autobiography out that I hope to read soon.
Steve Jobs by Isaacson Walter – An amazing life and outstanding account of it. I read these 656 pages over ten days, which is fast for me. If REO did the Friday Six, this would have been included.
Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca – This is not a normal biography and it has some dry parts to be sure, but any story involving crime-solving has my interest. I will warn our readers that it has garnered a fairly average rating on Goodreads. Yet I give it a mention because there are parts of Grace Humiston’s story that are white hot and because she accomplished what she did in a time when women still were not allowed to vote.
No Ordinary Man: The Life and Times of Miguel Cervantes by Donald P. McCrory – I read this in an attempt to learn more about Spanish-speaking Christians who have made an impact on history and Cervantes certainly fits the bill. This is a man who deserves to be better known that he is, mainly for his work in Don Quixote and for leading an adventurous life worthy of a film adaptation.
Now, the Five:
C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath
Before this book, I felt like I knew almost nothing about the man C.S. Lewis, having known quite a bit about him as an writer. McGrath is the perfect scholar to introduce people like me to the full person of perhaps the most quoted Christian author of the last 100 years.
Biographies can inspire and this one did. But they also can show how real people are. I definitely see Lewis more as a human now rather than a quotable teacher. It is easy to idealize people like him, especially after they pass. But he had flaws and McGrath navigates them very appropriately.
McGrath talks about how Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien drifted apart, which I did not know. It was not a malevolent parting but they were not close starting in the mid-1940s because Tolkien felt replaced in Lewis’ circle after the Inklings basically died as a group around 1947. What that group accomplished when they were together, especially the big two, was quite amazing.
His chapters on the Narnia books are enthralling. I knew some of what he explains but he still tells it in a rich way. Reading those books has been a more riveting experience for me since I read this biography.
Simply an A+ work.
John Adams by David McCullough
“Facts are stubborn things.” I have heard my brother Ashley say that at least 50 times in my life. Last year for one of our niece’s birthdays, he advised her to read two books as part of a literary Bucket List and this was one of them. So I read it as well.
In an age where America’s forefathers are under social media attack at times for morality that is offensive to modern ears, Adams stands out as difficult to smear. He was not a perfect man, but he lived a virtuous life by many standards and used words potently to make sure extremes did not win America in the long run. I feel like Thomas Jefferson gets more glory than Adams does, but not rightly. Whatever good has emerged in stages throughout American history, after centuries of injustice to many types of people, we owe greatly to Adams. He was a genius in his time.
Yet many personal details give the book balance so it is not all about his contributions to the Revolution or friendship-turned-rivalry with Jefferson. I enjoyed learning about his wife Abigail very much. McCullough is an elite writer and this lengthy volume is among his best efforts, according to those who know best.
Adoniram Judson: Devoted For Life by Vance Christie
Without a doubt, this is my favorite missionary story of them all and has been since I was a student at Bible College and first heard it. And thanks to Christie, I learned an avalanche of details about Judson and his family that are crucial to understanding his legacy in Myanmar (formerly Burma).
To know Judson’s story is to know how significantly he suffered, primarily through the deaths of his wives and children. In modern times nearly any missionary would have given up and come home shortly into his service over there and no one would have blamed him. But he felt a call to those people and he never gave up, even when it meant separation from family due to illness and like things.
Perhaps he was wrong in that sense but I am not close enough to the story to know for sure. What I do know is that as I read of his daily schedule, how often he prayed, the sacrifices he made to learn the language of his target audience and to serve them in humble ways, I am extremely convicted of how I spend my time. I do not think I am wasting my life and there is no way I can or should try to replicate what Judson did in Asia with where I am in America. Yet I can still do more. And I can do it no matter how deep suffering or grief may attack me. That is what I take from his life and why his story is worth reading.
Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth and Olive Gilbert
This book is a mere 80 pages but the type is so small is reads much longer than that. I have heard this woman’s name my whole life and knew the big arc of her story but it was moving to read her own words about the gargantuan trials she faced. “There was no place God was not.” Wow, what a statement from someone who could have been extremely bitter or extremely prideful.
I will say that there are many complaints on Goodreads about Gilbert’s interjections. Most of them are about how preachy they are and how much the spiritual is exalted at the expense of the bigger secular story. But as a Christian I did not mind this at all. I want to be preached at by her life. She lived in a time where evil reigned and she made a courageous and timeless difference. Yet she seemed to know who to glorify and it wasn’t herself. That makes this a story worth telling and reading for people like me.
Glory Road: My story of the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship and How One Team Triumphed Against the Odds and Changed America Forever by Don Haskins
What is so funny about that lengthy and quite pompous title is that Don Haskins in the book significantly downplays his role in Civil Rights America. And rightly so. He was a basketball coach just trying to win and he sought out the best players, a few years ahead of his time in recognizing who they were. Yet I still admire Haskins for his modesty and for penning a sincere and page-turning work on his life’s exposure to the crucial intersection of sports and race, in a time where American made a major turn in direction at that intersection.
It is not as though black players had not been used. Prior to 1966 black players had started for Final Four teams in the NCAA. But there was something narrative-altering about seeing five of them starting, and against an all-white line-up in Kentucky. Haskins did something pragmatic but also landmarking. Basketball would never be the same after that as far as college recruiting, which absolutely affects the NBA. It would have happened eventually anyway (Bill Russell had a 10-year pro career already by this point), but Haskins saw basketball of the future 30 years ahead and he gets the story.
But I want to be clear that if you do not like basketball at all I still think you will enjoy huge chunks of this book. Haskins tells his story with charm and hilarious anecdotes and it is not all sports and race. And even if you do not like sports, the way he gives a firsthand account of how America was slowly but surely changing for the better in race relations (with still miles and miles to go), does make for interesting reading.
Overall this is not only the best sports biography I have ever read, and I have read many, this is the best sports book of any kind I have ever read. It blew me away. I could read it over and over.
So there is my list. What are some biographies you would recommend to others for this summer?
Editor’s Note: Click on the pictures to be taken to Amazon if you want to purchase a copy of one of the books.
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