Discover more from The Raven's Writing Desk
Through a review of We Go On by John Onwuchekwa
In September last year, shortly after starting this newsletter, I wrote a piece called, “Why do I Write?” in which I discussed my particular concerns which lead me to the writing desk, namely; to love God and love people. In the past couple of weeks, we released the first two episodes of the Consider the Ravens Podcast. Part of the tagline reads, we “believe that the main way that discipleship has been bolstered throughout Church History has been through literature. Whether fiction or non-fiction, short epistles to huge four-volume tomes of systematic theology, we'll be looking at it all.”
Here’s the issue though.
I can be completely sure about why I write, but why on earth should anyone read it? In point of fact, the question goes yet further.
Why Read… at all?
This question struck me the other day whilst writing the article “Approaching Waterfalls” during which time I realised I had no idea how to write a book review. I don’t mean to say that I will stop writing book reviews or that I don’t I have the capacity to, but that the form my reviews take seems to be far different from the ones I read online, in magazines, or in newspapers. I decided to download three magazines, The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and The NYT Book Review, read through some of the entries and found that the general gist went something like this:
Tell half a story, get the reader hooked so they want to hear more
Critique elements of the book so the reader views you as nuanced and unbiased, but choose elements that will not insult the author or their capabilities
Write as though the reader really should be interested in this book and if they’re not, they’re somehow inferior
To that last point, one review read, “American readers have long been enthralled by Dante’s name and his work…” AKA. If you’re an American and a reader, you really should hold this opinion too.
In the book Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, we’re told that every morning, “Stepan Arkadyevitch took in and read a liberal paper, not an extreme one, but one advocating the views held by the majority. And in spite of the fact that science, art, and politics had no special interest for him, he firmly held those views on all these subjects which were held by the majority and by his paper, and he only changed them when the majority changed them—or, more strictly speaking, he did not change them, but they imperceptibly changed of themselves within him.” It seems to me that at some point book reviews became tailored to Stepan, telling him what to read, that he should read them, and that everyone else thinks the same.
This is, of course, ridiculous.
The truth of the matter is that though Dante—who I am sure most American Readers, and indeed Earthlings in general, have not read—was no doubt a wonderful writer and I intend to read the Divine Comedy one day. I was convinced, however, not by people telling me that I should read Dante, but by a recent podcast guest telling me why I should read Dante. I was thoroughly enthralled by his account of the effect Dante had wrought upon his imagination and was excited to one day have a similar experience. I’ve been subject on many an occasion to the common phrase, “What? you’ve never read [insert name here]” meant, of course, to shame me into believing that I am somehow lesser for having not read, for example, the Hungry Caterpillar.
I don’t mean to knock anyone for writing reviews like this, or of course, picking up books because of reviews like this, I’m sure there are many nuances I am missing in the form. I cannot, however, conform to the format.
My reviews generally take this shape:
What is different about this book? How does this book bring ideas, arguments, stories, subjects to the fore in a way which is either unique or distinct?
Why I loved/didn’t love the book and why I either commend it to you or don’t commend it to you.
How do I recommend you read this book? The reality is that we live in a world that is increasingly illiterate and I cannot assume, we cannot assume, that recommending a book will automatically give readers all the tools they require to absorb and/or implement the lessons and stories found within.
Take for example this short version of the review I’ve included below, it’s my initial outline shall we say:
I’ll go into more detail below, but here’s how that fits within the format:
What is different about this book?
It’s written in a far more personal and personable way than 99% of the books I’ve read, at least non-fiction books, it takes a difficult subject, takes the reader by the hand, and talks them through it. It’s not preachy, it’s not overly self-deprecating, it’s just a man under God, talking to a reader. I loved it.
Why I loved the book and why I commend it to you.
I actually don’t recommend you read this book, I recommend that you listen to it. I bought this book on Audible and I don’t regret it. John reads the book himself and John has a voice that cannot disguise or hide emotion. The best example of this is at the end of the book, I’m fairly certain that John closed the recording, turned off the mic, and cried. John doesn’t just know what he’s talking about John feels what he’s talking about.
How do I recommend you read this book?
There are prayers laced through the seams of this book, this isn’t just so John can pray for you, but so that you can pray, and be given an example of how to pray in certain circumstances. We learn to pray primarily by hearing others do so. John recommends saying grace AFTER meals are finished, I recommend this is a practice you extend to all forms of consumption, whether it be reading, social media, arguments, television (those still exist right?) bring it all before the Lord.
Why then… should you read? That’s the question we started with, I’ve used the medium of books, or a book, to explain why you might read something specific, but what about more broadly. Why read newsletters, novels, papers?
There’s something different about long-form content which we are sorely missing in our discourse today, we’re far more likely to trust a headline, an Instagram story, or a tweet to give us all the information we need on a subject even though we know deep down that there must be so much more to learn on a particular issue. One way you can learn to discern that is by reading longer-form content like newsletters, articles, and yes even books. When I write on a particular subject with a 1500-word limit, I find that it’s almost impossible to get even a fraction of what I want to say, or could say, into that space. As readers, you’ll become even more aware of that as you go through, for instance, more academic works like the one I recommended earlier this week. That is a book that has entailed thousands of hours of research and writing, has been peer-reviewed and edited. On any given page you’ll find footnotes galore, even the shortest of points has been informed by so many other works, is critical of so many other works, is arguing for/against so many other works that it would be impossible to take the time to read them all yourself. You may, still, disagree with the author by the end of the work.
Why then trust four lines on an infographic with no footnotes on an Instagram post of dubious convictions? I’m not saying they are necessarily wrong, but that reading more prolifically, or at least more broadly, can help us not to assume they aren’t wrong.
I love reading, it slows me down, it helps me to step off of the bullet train that is 21st-century life and ground myself for a bit. It’s a reminder that not everything needs to be quick, or concise, and that brevity rarely evokes clarity (better said, saying something at length is often far better than saying something quickly, we’ve all been burned by being misunderstood because of a tweet, a message we sent off too quickly, not to mention the dreaded mistress that is
Read critically. Ask the page what its argument is and why it believes what it believes. Don’t let it off the hook because it’s on a computer screen or a piece of paper. We’re happy to throw a book in a rucksack and let get beaten within an inch of its life, why not do the same with its contents? Make notes, take time to dwell, pray through the things that bother you, provoke you, or delight you. Get to know the world, get to know God. Read with a smile. Read with a scowl. Read with your heart and with your mind. Read knowing the Holy Spirit is within you. I mean to say read with your whole self, not just your eyes.
How to Shout While Whispering
A Review of We Go On by John Onwuchekwa
At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll not take long on this review. Most of you will likely skip it and so I will take the most time to discuss the third of my three points, I would guess that if you’re reading this you’ve likely already made up your mind to buy the book, so that will be of most use to you. - Adsum
John Onwuchekwa is no ordinary writer. I imagine him as a man who, upon taking up painting for the first time, somehow stumbled upon an entirely novel way of doing so and has continued to be the leader in that style ever since. This is not, in and of itself, a compliment, after all, one could invent a new way of painting that has only eluded being discovered before because of how truly awful it is.
Such is not the case with John.
In the previous article, I recommended that you read with your whole self, what makes John unique is that his style consists entirely of writing with his whole self. It begins with his heart, which had been broken not too long ago and is still, it seems, in the process of repair. He then forgoes the use of his hands, which could lead to mechanical writing, but instead opts to use his voice. I will go on to explain why you should listen to the book but this is not what I mean. I try as best as I can to write how I speak, to be conversational and to welcome you to join in, John doesn’t try to do this, he just does it. Then, his identity as a son of the Most High takes centre stage and won’t budge. This is all of the immense importance not simply because this is a wonderfully written book, but because of the subject at hand.
You don’t want a stiff, callous tome to help you through hard times, but someone who has been there themself and wants to be in your situation with you.
In summary, he encourages the reader to do the following:
Learn to lean into God at all times, in all circumstances, in all places, no matter what the cost. Don’t lean into yourself, you’ll just fall over.
Don’t read this book, listen to it, or read and listen to it. Most of the time when I see that an author has read their own book I roll my eyes, I almost didn’t buy this book for that very reason. Narrators are artists in their own right, most of the time it’s far better to let them do the work. This is not one of those times. John has a voice that cannot disguise or hide emotion. The best example of this is at the end of the book, I’m fairly certain that John closed the recording, turned off the mic, and cried. John doesn’t just know what he’s talking about John feels what he’s talking about. Go and listen.
“Take a moment to pray with me”
“Why don’t you pause and pray?”
“Read through the passage and pray”
If this book has a chorus it is this:
The book will likely leave you with more questions than when you began, but the questions will be better ones. John doesn’t have all the answers, no one does. The truth is that we can’t know all that will happen or all that should happen, we can ask though. Take the questions you have straight to God. Learn to do that well. I’m certainly going to listen to this book again, I pray that it will help me pray more, and I pray that it would do the same for you.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill