Since the Outstanding Books for the College Bound (OBCB) list is finally live and active, I’m really excited to talk about the books I read this last year and loved. I couldn’t intentionally blog about them last year — though certainly because the scope of our charge was so large, it was impossible to know which titles I had blogged about would show up as potential considerations — so now that I can, I’m hoping it’ll encourage readers to pick up something completely new or consider recommending titles to other readers that may not have otherwise crossed your radar.
I served on two subcommittees of OBCB, reading those titles which fell under the category of Arts and Humanities and those which fell under the Social Science category. I nominated and read and talked about titles in other categories, but the almost fifty titles in my subcommittee lists are all ones I did get a chance to read (with one or two exceptions).
Rather than go down the list and talk about the titles in that order, I thought it would be more worthwhile to talk about them as they relate to different themes. Since I talked a little bit about how much I loved Aaron Hartzler’s Rapture Practice yesterday, it seemed fitting to dive in on the titles which explored religion or spirituality.
As someone who isn’t particularly religious, I won’t lie and say these were the books I was most looking forward to reading or talking about. But I think what makes these books so good and worth talking about is that they all captured my interest despite my own feelings and experiences with religion. There were four books that could really be categorized as “religious” from the Arts and Humanities list, and each one tackles something very different and those very different takes make them really worth reading, discussing, and passing along to other readers.
World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored & Explained by John Bowker
This is a DK book, which if you’re not familiar with, is a publisher that puts together these huge tomes on different topics and explores them in great detail. They tend to be very visually-driven, to the point where I can find them troubling to read because there is so much to wade through.
But it’s that abundance of information which makes Bowker’s exploration of world religions here great. This isn’t a cover-to-cover read. It’s a reference text, and it’s a bigger book, which makes the browsing factor of this more obvious.
This is an incredibly comprehensive overview of religions that are familiar and those which may be less familiar to readers. There are Western religions and Eastern religions, and what makes this book such a great tool is that it’s presented in the most objective manner possible. Bowker doesn’t have an agenda; instead, he’s offering the who, what, where, when, and why of each of the religious practices, and the book itself then highlights the visual artifacts, symbols, and more that give readers even deeper insight into the various practices.
Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler
Harzler’s memoir was, hands-down, one of my favorite reads in 2013. In fact, as soon as I finished reading it, I was tempted to write a length post about how much I loved it. But instead, I nominated it for committee consideration.
This is a story about Hartzler growing up in a very Evangelical household as he tries to come to terms with his own religious beliefs, as well as his own sexuality. But the second part of that is not out-and-out the focus of the book. This isn’t Hartzler’s coming out story, and I think knowing that is vital. This is instead his memoir about learning who he is when he’s living in an environment that doesn’t always encourage that sort of exploration. He knows early on he doesn’t have the same affinity toward religious practice and devotion that his parents do, but it’s not something he can be as open and honest about as he would like to be.
But what takes this story from being good to great is that Hartzler is incredibly respectful of everyone in the story. While he thinks a lot of what his parents believe — that the Rapture could happen any minute and they thus need to be prepared — he is conscious of why it is they believe that and he’s okay with it. And a lot of why he is that way is because he hopes that kind of respect can be extended toward him.
Rapture Practice isn’t a condemnation of belief or Evangelical practice. It’s a story about coming to terms with what it is you believe when you don’t necessarily believe in what you’ve grown up with. There is humor as much as heart in this one, and it has great teen appeal. This is a rare memoir written for and about being a teenager.
The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson
Wilson’s memoir was published for adults, but it has great teen appeal. Perhaps maybe more than having appeal for teens, this is the kind of book that college students and those who are just out of college will find tremendously interesting because it explores those post-college years in a way that a lot of other books simply don’t.
When Wilson took a course in Islamic Studies in college, she thought she found her path. She wasn’t Islamic, but it was a culture that fascinated her, and when she finished college, she decided to move to Egypt and find work. It was meant to be a way to shock herself with a new and different culture, but what it ended up doing was convincing her that converting to Islam was the right path for her.
The book follows as she rectifies the knowledge, experience, assumptions, and privileges she’s had her whole life as a westerner as she enters into the middle eastern world. She’s very insightful and perceptive, but this never comes off as preachy and it never once comes off as a story about how one culture or experience is better or more right than another. A lot of that comes through when Wilson falls in love with an Egyptian who grew up Islamic — she has to face the prejudices that his family may have and does have about his wanting to marry someone who converted. Could there be bridges built between their very different worlds?
The Butterfly Mosque also offers some interesting views of what it’s like to be a woman in a country where being a woman doesn’t allow as many rights as it does in the western world, as well as what it’s like to be an Islamic woman in this new world. It’s about being a foreigner but wanting to be involved in a new culture without exploiting or using that culture as a means of understanding herself. There are so many wonderful little lines in this book about life and about experiences, but I think the thing that stood out to me the most was that Wilson never comes off as privileged nor does she preach at readers suggesting that the only way to ever live is to have these foreign experiences. Instead, much of her point is that self-reflection is key to finding peace with yourself and beliefs and that self-reflection is precisely what makes you smart, strong, and gives you confidence to face new and challenging things, whatever those things in front of you may be.
There is definitely romance here, and I think for many teen readers, that will be a really great hook to the bigger story. I love, too, that OBCB has both Wilson’s memoir, as well as her more well-known novel Alif the Unseen, because it really showcases who she is and what it is she’s doing with her career. And she’s really young, too, which should inspire readers in its own right.
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose
I read this book back in 2009, and I actually reviewed it here at STACKED back then, too, so I won’t rehash my thoughts on it. One of my hesitations about the book back then was that I had some questions about the authenticity of Roose’s experience, as his mentor was A. J. Jacobs and it reminded me a lot of those “do one weird thing for a year for a book deal” situations.
But I didn’t let that color my beliefs on the value of having this book on the list because I think that Roose talks about and learns, as well as the respect he comes to develop for students at Liberty University, were important and interesting enough to merit a place. Roose’s story replaced Jacobs’s A Year of Living Biblically, which was on the 2009 iteration of OBCB, and I think that the replacement was a good one. Not because Jacobs’s story is no longer relevant — it definitely it is — but because it offers another story, another voice, and another angle on religion and religious practice.
What I find to be interesting in looking at the books on the list in this way, rather than in their big, overarching category of “Arts and Humanities,” is that I can see what the biggest theme is uniting all four of these books, and it’s a simple one: respect. Each of these books explores religion, both eastern and western practices, in very respectful ways. They’re never exploited, and they’re never meant to be studies. The three memoirs specifically are experiential, with great reflection offered by the authors. And I think that those sorts of stories are not only relatable to teen (and adult!) readers, but they give a look into a world through a set of eyes that may or may not go in with an agenda but that come out more educated, more respectful, and perhaps more humble.