Giving Books in 2014

A reading list for the charitable person, real or aspiring.

Welcome to 2014. If you and I have any shared experience, now is around the time you realized your turquoise sticky note with resolutions has gone missing. Possibly encamped between the hamper and the papers strewn beneath the hamper. Or it took a vacation to the office, in which case you are praying ever so fervently that a coworker hasn’t found it.

All is not lost for you and me. If all goes awry, there are always books. And better yet, books about how to live better, and give better! So many betters.

Enjoy this list of possible reading for 2014 on the topic of giving. The commentary is mine alone; all disagreements are welcome, particularly in limerick.

Middlemarch, George Eliot. I wholeheartedly confess that Middlemarch is very long. Imagine six seasons of Downton Abbey, in novel form, omitting the Laura Linney introduction. It may be the best book you read all year, but your friends will think you may of skipped town without a goodbye party.

In particular, look at the character Bulstrode, the patron philanthropist of the village. He is loved for hefty checks and hated for his clenching desire to have his power match his donations. But like any good novelist, Eliot isn’t satisfied to keep him flat. Bulstrode’s story may be the most dynamic, and human, of anyone in the village.

You Shall Know Our Velocity! Dave Eggers. Did you know Dave Eggers did fiction? Neither did I! In his first foray into the field, Eggers sends two very nineties friends around the world to give away thousands of dollars to whoever needs it (and this is before Give Directly).

I found the plot and overall message somewhat confusing (if you can figure it out I’ll personally send you a obligatory coffee card), but it is worth a reading if only for the imaginative scenario and subsequent challenges. It turns out that giving away money isn’t as easy as self-important late twenty-somethings think. Not that I know anyone like that.

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … And Yourself, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. This book has been out for a while and has made the rounds in evangelical Christian circles. Regardless of your faith background, the principles evoked by Fikkert and Corbett are provocative, practical, and ripe for group discussion.

In person, Fikkert is perhaps one of the only economists I’ve been able to listen to at length without creating my own crossword puzzles using characters from Tolkien. He’s a very engaging speaker and holds regular seminars throughout the country on the book and its general principles.

Open Letters, Selected Writings 1965-1990, Václav Havel. Every couple years you need to reopen an essay by Havel and remember what moving political theory reads like. Particularly, reread “The Power of the Powerless.” His telling of life under communist rule will fill your gas tank to build civil society.

“A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called “dissent.” This specter has not appeared out of thin air. It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the present historical phase of the system it is haunting. It was born at a time when this system, for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expression of nonconformity…”

Practical Gods, Carl Dennis. This poetry collection won the 2002 Pulitzer prize, but more importantly has become my pseudo life anthem. Excerpts of one poem, “Prophet,” are only the beginning of Dennis’s genius:

“You’ll never be much of a prophet if, when the call comes
To preach to Nineveh, you flee on the ship for Tarshish
That Jonah fled on, afraid like him of the people’s outrage
Were they to hear the edict that in thirty days
Their city in all its glory will be overthrown.

The sea storm that harried Jonah won’t harry you.
No big fish will be waiting to swallow you whole
And keep you down in the dark till your mood
Shifts from fear to thankfulness and you want to serve.
No. You’ll land safely at Tarshish and learn the language
And get a job in a countinghouse by the harbor
And marry and raise a family you can be proud of
In a neighborhood not too rowdy for comfort.

If you’re going to be a prophet, you must listen the first time.
Setting off at sunrise, you can’t be disheartened
If you arrive at Nineveh long past midnight,
On foot, your donkey having run off with your baggage.
You’ll have to settle for a room in the cheapest hotel
And toss all night on the lice-ridden mattress.”

It pains me to stop the poem there. But we must move on.

Bridges out of Poverty, Ruby Paine. Bridges is a workbook of sorts for practitioners and volunteers versus an academic book on poverty. Popular in the early 2000s, I discovered this book by its charts about class norms and expectations. If you volunteer regularly with the poor you may find this book useful, practical, and an easy meeting place for discussion with your upper-middle-class friends.

The Defining Decade, Meg Jay. Okay so this book isn’t all about giving. But it is about twenty-somethings, work, relationships, brain science, and everything you want to read about.

You’ll find that the search for meaning in work and the desire to “give back” is treated fairly and thoroughly in this excellent book. It is obvious that Meg Jay is not only a researcher but an experienced and kind counselor (as well as a good writer).

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese. Follow the fictional life of twins in Addis as they grow up in a field hospital. Deciding to enter the medical profession, see both brothers learn what it means to sacrifice, love, and forgive. I’ve never found writing about surgeries and childbirth so incredibly beautiful.

I was ill in November and had to take a cross country flight to San Francisco—this book healed me. One acquaintance said, “I hate Abraham Verghese. He just wrote the perfect book that I should have written. What am I doing with my life?”

Grace Matters, Chris Rice. Don’t get this person confused with the Christian pop singer. This Chris leaves his New England liberal arts college to live in a group home with Spencer Perkins, son of civil rights leader John Perkins.

This memoir is poignant and incredibly honest. Beautifully told and heartbreaking, he speaks openly about the difficulties of racial reconciliation, living in community, and the pitfalls of success. The only drawback to this book is you may feel tempted to sell your possessions and move to Mississippi. Don’t blame me when you’re there in July.

I would be expelled from the Wheaton College alumni association if I didn’t mention our patron saint, so my last “Give” reading recommendation for 2014 is “The Inner Ring,” by Clive Staples Lewis. Originally a commencement speech, Lewis paints an honest description of how social power works. It is a beautiful essay that will comfort and convict you. You may also start to notice that our social media “circles,” “friends,” and “followers” somehow fit perfectly into this philosophical framework.

With that note, happy reading in 2014. Winston Churchill once said (according to my twitter feed), “Young people should be careful in their reading, as old people in eating their food.” May it be so.

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