Book Review: On Writing Well

 On Writing Well by William Zinsser is on just about every list of books recommended for writers. The subtitle, which I assume is not originally Zinsser’s and was added later, is “The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.”

Zinsser lived from 1922-2015. He began as a journalist, later wrote for magazines, wrote books on a wide variety of topics, and then began to teach writing. That vast experience informs this book.

On Writing Well was published in 1976 and has been updated numerous times. My copy was published in 2016 with a 2006 introduction by Zinsser explaining the most recent update to include the computer era.

The first of the book’s four parts covers “Principles”: grammar, style, word usage, eliminating clutter, etc.

Part 2 deals with methods: the unity of the piece, the lead and ending, and various other aspects.

Part 3 discusses a variety of forms: the travel article, memoir, science and technology, sports, business, arts, humor. I might have been tempted to skip or at least skim through this section, as most of my writing doesn’t fit those categories. But I have a compulsion to read all of a book. And I am glad I did. A couple of the principles in this section are:

De-jargonize. Almost any field has its own vocabulary. One business hired Zinsser specifically to help them with communication, because even their engineers couldn’t understand each other any more. In one exercise, he had educators rewrite “Evaluative procedures for the objectives were also established based on acceptable criteria,” keeping in mind “clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity.” The best result: “At the end of the year we will evaluate our progress” (pp. 171-172).

Focus on the human element no matter what you’re writing about. He gave an example about race car driving, something I have zero interest in. But the piece grabbed me because it shared one person’s story rather than a detailed technical report.

Part 4 explores attitudes: developing confidence and your own style, etc. In one chapter in this section, he gives readers a window into his thought processes by taking them through a longer piece he wrote and discussing why he made the choices he did.

The “clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity” mentioned earlier are what the author calls his “four articles of faith” (p. 171). Those are his main themes, demonstrated by example time and again.

This book is chock-full of good instruction and tips. I have markings and sticky tabs on almost every other page. Here are a few of the standout quotes:

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard (p. 9).

The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original (p. 34).

Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind (p. 52).

Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try not to use words like “surprisingly,” “predictably,” and “of course,” which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact (p. 91).

True wit, however, is rare, and a thousand barbed arrows fall at the feet of the archer for every one that flies (p. 194).

Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page (p. 231).

Now, if I could only keep all these wonderful helps in mind all the times I’m writing! I generally only read 3-4 pages at a time so I could process as I went. But I think this is a book I’ll need to reread often in the coming years.

Have you read On Writing Well? What was a major takeaway for you?

(Sharing with Booknificent)

Book Review: Engaging the Scripture

I enjoyed Deborah Haddix‘s Journaling for the Soul so much, I bought her new Engaging the Scripture: Encountering God in the Pages of His Word not long after I first saw it.

I love that Deborah emphasized engaging the Scripture—not just reading an assignment, not just searching for information. Rather, “we are to read intentionally with the purpose of hearing from God, knowing Him, deepening our relationship, and nourishing our soul” (p. 28).

Deborah has chapters on the importance of God’s gift of His Word, dealing with distractions, further explanation about what’s involved in engaging the Scripture. Then she has a chapter for each aspect of engaging Scripture: reading, writing, meditating, memorizing, and praying it. A later chapter shares ways to interweave these practices (meditating while memorizing, praying verses while writing them, etc,)

Each chapter is fairly short: three to six pages of text, a page of personal reflection about the chapter, a section on resources for implementing the chapter, and a practice page or two.

Each chapter includes multiple ideas for engaging, with the encouragement to chose which works best with your wiring, schedule, and season of life. Tidbits of advice, encouragement, and wisdom are interspersed throughout the pages. Just a few:

Experiencing distractions during our quiet time does NOT make us a failure (p. 34).

Overwhelm often results in total abandonment. Start small. Experience success. Then incorporate additional ideas as you move forward (p. 39).

The physical food we take into our physical body does not nourish us unless we properly digest it and take it into our cells. Just as physical food is needed for physical strength, spiritual food is necessary for spiritual strength. The Word you read (the spiritual food) must be chewed, digested, taken into your being, and one way to chew your food is by memorization (p. 100).

Deborah has mastered the art of writing the way writers for the Internet are advised to: short paragraphs and lots of white space. The book isn’t long, but its style makes it seem even more manageable.

This is a wonderful resource that I highly recommend.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Recharge Wednesday, Booknificent,
Grace and Truth, Senior Salon, Global Blogging, Inspire Me Monday)

Book Review: The Swiss Family Robinson

Finding a good translation of Swiss Family Robinson is not as easy as one would think.

The book was written by a Swiss pastor, Johann David Wyss, and originally published in 1812. Wyss wrote the story for his sons to teach about spiritual and family values, industriousness, and wise uses of plants and animals. One of his sons edited the book and one of them illustrated it (both named Johann, like their father, but with different middle names).

After that, the book passed through multiple hands which translated and added to or deleted from the story. I listened to an audiobook version and scanned a Kindle version which were alike at the beginning but had different characters and scenes in the second half.

The story, as I am sure you know, involves a family of two parents and four sons shipwrecked on an island somewhere in the East Indies. The family name is not Robinson: their last name is never mentioned. The book is styled somewhat after Robinson Crusoe: he is even referred to often in the book.

Their first order of business is to get as much as they can off the ship before it sinks and to find suitable shelter. They are able to gather some food from the ship, but then need to search the island to see what they can find.

Fortunately, the father has a wealth of knowledge of botany. He knows the scientific names of plants as well as their uses.  One book I read recently said ministers of a certain era were expected to know a lot about botany. That may be the case here, or it may have just been an interest of Wyss’, or he may have crammed as much as possible into the story as a teaching tool.

They also get acquainted with the fauna as well as the flora. They use some animals as food and tame others to help them in their work.

The first half of the book details how they discovered the resources of the island and made a place for themselves. The only real danger they run into is a pack of jackals.

At the end of this section (what I think is the end of the original book), the family is content on their island and want to remain there. They’ve constructed various building projects and have plans for a sawmill and other industries. The father’s only concern is that his children will be alone when he and his wife pass on.

In the version I listened to, the father then espies a vessel at sea after about four years on the island. He meets a couple of men from the ship and gives them the journal he has kept. The men were exploring the island to see if it was suitable for the ship to land. They plan to put their people on boats and bring them in the next day. But a storm drives them out to sea again, and the family fears they ship is lost.

There’s a lot more drama in the second half: a couple of serious injuries, a massive storm, encounters with “savages” from another island. They discover a European missionary and a widow with two daughters on this island. The ship they had encountered was not lost at sea, but eventually made it home, along with the father’s journal. Another ship comes back to find them, and then decisions are made as to their future.

In the Kindle version, which happened to be the Kingston translation and is apparently more well known, the time jump in the second half is closer to ten years. The family discovers a girl who has been shipwrecked, Jenny Montrose. Eventually a ship comes looking for her, and decisions have to made about everyone’s future.

The first part is interesting, but a little dry, since the only action is discovering certain plants and animals, building a couple of different homes, handling whatever problems come up. The second half drew me in more since there was more action.

The four boys’ personalities are well-drawn and distinct.

Christian values form a major part of the story. The father corrects the children in various ways (especially in manifestations of pride). The family prays together, keeps Sunday set apart, applies Christian principles to life. One example, when they first discover the sailors on the ship have left them behind:

See how those on whose skill and good faith we depended have left us cruelly to our fate in the hour of danger. God will never do so. He has not forsaken us, and we will trust Him still. Only let us bestir ourselves, and each cheerily do his best. Who has anything to propose?

All in all, it was an enjoyable story. It was written for young people, but I wonder how it reads for young people now.

Near the end, the father in the story writes:

And my great wish is that young people who read this record of our lives and adventures, should learn from it how admirably suited is the peaceful, industrious and pious life of a cheerful and united family, to the formation of strong, pure and manly character.

You’re probably familiar with the 1960 Disney film version (which added pirates to the mix). We saw it ages ago, but I’d like to see it again some time now that I’ve read the book. There have been various other film versions as well. When my children were young, we saw a cartoon series version from the viewpoint of a daughter.

Besides Wikipedia, a couple of interesting articles about the book are:

I read this book for the Classics in Translation category of the Back to the Classics challenge.

Have you ever read Swiss Family Robinson? What did you think?

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Literary Christmas Reading Challenge 2019

A Literary Christmas: Reading Challenge // inthebookcase.blogspot.comTarissa of In the Bookcase hosts the Literary Christmas Reading Challenge each year in November and December. The basic idea is to read Christmas books! Since I like to read Christmas books in December anyway, this challenge was a nice fit. The details of the challenge are here.

One of the requirements of the challenge is to write a post expressing our intent to participate and sharing what we’ll be reading.

I have these books on hand and hope to read as many of them as possible:

Book Review: Canteen Dreams

 Canteen Dreams is a novel based on author Cara Putman’s own grandparents. It was her first book, released eleven years ago. But Cara wanted to fine-tune and re-release it. This edition came out on 2017.

The story opens December 6, 1941. Audrey Stone attends a dance in her home town of North Platte, Nebraska, and is asked to dance by local rancher’s son, Willard Johnson. Willard is interested and wants to get to know Audrey better.

Then Sunday morning, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and everything changes.

Willard’s brother, Andrew, was in the Navy. While the family waits to hear about Andrew, Willard would like nothing better than to enlist immediately.

But Willard’s father won’t let him. Farming and ranching are exempted occupations, since the country needs their work. Willard’s father feels he needs Willard’s help more than the military needs him.

Since North Platte is a railroad hub, and lots of troops come through on their way to service, someone gets the idea to offer the boys food and coffee during their brief stop. The young men are so encouraged and appreciative of the effort that the train stop refreshments grow into a canteen, with a nearby building, music, sandwiches, and a friendly atmosphere.

Audrey throws herself into working the canteen, on top of her full-time job as a teacher. She has little time for anyone or anything else, which doesn’t help her budding relationship with Willard.

Willard’s dissatisfaction with not being able to enlist grows into resentment and jealousy of the young soldiers at the canteen, which further impacts things with Audrey.

Both Willard and Audrey are believers and struggle with seeking God’s will for their lives. I liked their pastor’s counsel, especially these bits:

Let the sure hope we have in Christ build a bedrock of faith in your life. It’s the only way to survive a storm like the one your family has entered.

He is the vine, and we are the branches. We cannot expect to have the strength to lay down our lives, our rights, for others until we are firmly growing in a deep relationship with Christ. A superficial relationship is not sufficient. Without more, we will fail every time in our attempts to die, because we attempt to do it without the strength and love God gives.

This was a sweet story in itself, but knowing it was based on a real couple made it even more enjoyable.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: Jessie’s Hope

 In Jennifer Hallmark’s debut novel, Jessie’s Hope, Jessie is a young woman who lives with her grandparents. An accident that claimed her mother’s life left Jessie in a wheelchair since childhood. Jessie’s father abandoned the family.

Jessie is engaged to Matt and looks forward to their marriage. But she wrestles with several issues. Does Matt really love her, or does he just feel sorry for her? Though she longs to be independent, she worries that she won’t be able to be the wife Matt needs. And she wonders about her father and whether she should try to look him up.

Jessie’s grandfather, Homer, wants to provide Jessie with a beautiful wedding, but funds are limited. He goes to a ritzy wedding shop to see what can be done, but can feel their scorn towards a poor farmer in overalls who couldn’t possibly afford anything in their shop.

The course to a perfect wedding never did run smooth (apologies to Shakespeare), and a variety of problems crop up before the big day.

A secondary story line involves Angeline. She works at the ritzy wedding shop and had a crush on Matt, but he rebuffed her. She’s jealous of Jessie and feels Jessie views her as an enemy. But then they are thrown together in unexpected ways.

This is a sweet story with a number of underlying themes: the difficulty and necessity of forgiveness, the need to yield to God’s control instead of our own and to walk with Him by faith, the need to help others.

I love the strong sense of place Jennifer created. The contemporary Southern setting is distinct without being overly romanticized. The dialogue is just what I grew up with:

“What can I do you for?’

“If it tweren’t one thing, it was another.”

The cover is lovely and fits in well with the story.

My only quibble is that when Jessie us talking with another girl about becoming a Christian, the conversation revolves around accepting God as one’s Father. I think probably the author put it that way because both girls had father issues, and even though earthy fathers fail and forsake us, our heavenly Father never will. However, there are people who call on God as Father who do not trust Christ as Savior. Jesus and his death on the cross isn’t even mentioned in the conversation. Perhaps the author felt this character had been exposed to other aspects of the gospel in earlier encounters with Christianity. But I wish this had been a little more clear.

Otherwise, this is an excellent book. At the moment it’s on sale for the Kindle app for $3.99. You can learn more about Jennifer at Alabama Inspired Fiction.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The Printed Letter Bookshop

The Printed Letter Bookshop is the name of a book store as well as the title of Katherine Reay’s novel.

Madeline’s aunt Maddie, for whom she was named, has just died. Madeline has fond memories of staying with her aunt and uncle years ago and helping out in their bookshop. But some altercation came up between Madeline’s father and his sister. In loyalty to her dad, Madeline has kept her distance from Maddie.

Madeline thought she was going to make partner in her law firm, but she doesn’t. At a crossroads, she learns that Maddie has left her store, home, car, everything to Madeline. Madeline figures she will probably sell everything in a few months. For now she goes to check things out.

Janet was one of Maddie’s employees, the one who stayed with her in the last weeks of her illness. Janet has a kind heart but a crusty exterior, at least at first. Her base-level emotion is anger. Her marriage split up recenty, and her children, blaming her, want little to do with her.

Claire, Maddie’s other main employee, is a wife and mom. Her husband is a busy, successful consultant. Her children are constantly busy with friends, school, and activities. Her once close relationship with her daughter has cooled. Claire feels invisible.

Janet and Claire feel uneasy about Madeline, especially with her distance from her aunt and the uncertainty of her future plans for the shop. For them, the shop is their refuge, the place where they find purpose. But in working together and getting to know each other, the three women eventually form new relationships and gain new insights into themselves and each other.

The chapters rotate between the different womens’ points of view. I thought it odd that Madeline’s and Janet’s chapters were written in the first person and Claire’s in the third until near the end. But as Claire’s story unfolds, the reason for the difference in the story’s points of view becomes clear.

Katherine’s books all contain a wealth of literary references, usually to classics. With this story revolving about a bookshop and stories, literary references flow delightfully freely. Her list of classic and modern works referred to at the end covers three and a third kindle-sized pages.

A couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

That’s what books do, Maddie used to say; they are a conversation, and introduce us to ourselves and others.

You could lose yourself in a book and, paradoxically, find yourself as well.

I am from a different faith community than the main spiritual spokesperson in the book. I have dear friends within that community, but we know there are significant areas where we disagree. While I wish a couple of spiritual aspects were clearer, I felt the book did bring out some good spiritual truths.

I enjoyed the literary references and each woman’s unfolding journey individually and together. And I loved the book cover!

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: Moby Dick

According to Wikipedia, Herman Melville wrote to his publisher that he was working on “a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer.” That book was Moby Dick, based on a real whale named Mocha Dick.

Unfortunately, the book did not do well during Melville’s life time. Interest in it was renewed at the centennial of his birth, with many then praising it.

One of literature’s most famous opening lines, “Call me Ishmael,” may indicate that Ismael is not his real name. On the other hand, most of the characters go by one name, first or last, so maybe Ishmael sets the precedent right off the bat. Ishmael is not a full-time seaman. He is a schoolmaster who gets a hankering to go out to sea sometimes when land life gets too much for him. He’s a loquacious narrator, telling minute details of the story, giving several examples of a concept, and going into teacher mode to describe whaling practices, features of the whale, whales depicted in art and why the artists get them wrong, etc. etc.

Ishmael starts off making his way to Nantucket to look for a sailing vessel. He explains that instead of going to sea as a passenger who has to pay, he goes as sailor who gets paid for the voyage. The inns are crowded, so he has to share not only a room, but a bed with a stranger. He’s mortified to discover in the middle of the night that his bedmate is a cannibal, Queequeg. But eventually the two become fast friends.

They are hired for the Pequod, a whaling vessel, by the owners. They don’t meet the captain yet, as he is recovering from an illness.

Even before they set sail, foreshadowings abound that something dire might happen. The preacher in Nantucket gives a sermon about Jonah and a strange man calling himself Elijah gives cryptic warnings.

The sailors meet the three mates with vastly different personalities. Starbuck, the first mate, is 30, thin, serious, pious, a bit superstitious, courageous but not foolish. The second mate, Stubb, was “happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests.” It was quite funny to hear how Stubb both scolded and encouraged his crewmen when they were in the thick of capturing a whale. The third mate, Flask, was “short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered.”

We don’t see Captain Ahab until chapter 28. He’s described as grim with grey hair and a scar down one side of his face. He had lost one leg and replaced it with a prosthesis made of whale bone. Later he tells the crew that he had lost his leg in a battle with a legendary white whale named Moby Dick, and his main mission is finding and exacting his revenge on the whale.

As the Pequod meets up with other boats (which meetings are called gams), Ahab has no interest in chatting with the other captains about anything except whether they’ve seen Moby Dick.

If you’re at all familiar with the story, you know the voyage doesn’t end well.

Ahab’s mission is more of an obsession. Though Starbuck tries to talk Ahab out of his vengeance, Ahab won’t listen.

When Melville is telling the story, it’s as exciting, riveting, and hard to put down as anything I’ve ever read. But interspersed between story incidents are detailed explanations and Ismael’s thoughts about everything that could possibly be connected with whales and whaling. Wikipedia cites various theories about the reasons behind the book’s layout. Some of these side excursions are interesting, some boring. With some, you wonder if the narrator is writing tongue in cheek, like when he posits that perhaps St. George’s dragon was actually a whale. He wonders what the stuff the whale spouts is made up of and muses:

He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.

When he comments that pirates think themselves above whalers:

I should like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on.

Ishmael comments on his own storytelling:

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affair.

Like a lot of older books, this one has some Christian overtones. But I wouldn’t call it a Christian book. Ismael calls himself a Presbyterian, but I disagreed with Ishmael when he felt that joining in with Queequeg’s worship of a little idol he carried around with him was doing unto his neighbor as he would want his neighbor to do to him—not with all that the Bible says about idols. Starbuck is probably the closest to a genuine Christian. Ahab is full-out blasphemous.

I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Frank Muller. When the narration first started, I was disappointed Muller didn’t give Ishmael and craggy old sea-dog kind of a voice. But then I quickly realized that voice would not have been right for Ishmael as an educated man who was not a full-time sailor. Muller does give that kind of voice to Ahab, though, to great effect. Muller did all the voices and inflections well, and I am thankful I experienced the book with this narration.  I also read some parts online via Project Gutenberg here.

I read (or listened to) Moby Dick for the Back to the Classics Challenge category of a “Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia).” Moby Dick covers a lot of territory—in fact a beautifully illustrated map is here. But a great chunk of the plot takes place in the waters between those continents.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: Like a Flower in Bloom

 In the novel Like a Flower in Bloom by Siri Mitchell, Charlotte Withersby’s father is a botanist in Chesire, England, in the 1850s. Her mother was a botanist as well, and Charlotte loves to study and illustrate plants. Since her mother died, Charlotte has been her father’s assistant, secretary, and all around right-hand person.

But Charlotte is now 22, and her uncle, the Admiral, thinks it’s high time for her to go into society and find a husband. Charlotte has no interest in either society or matrimony. She loves her work, and she doesn’t think her father can possibly do without her.

But then a long-time correspondent, a Mr. Edward Trimble from New Zealand, shows up on the Withersby’s doorstep. He seems the ideal solution: he can assist Charlotte’s father so the Admiral can introduce Charlotte to society.

Besides Charlotte’s lack of interest, being presented to society is fraught with another  major problem. Charlotte’s father has never had any interest in society. He has always been the somewhat eccentric absent-minded professor type. With only her father as her main companion for life, Charlotte doesn’t know how to dress or act. Fortunately she finds a friend in Miss Templeton, who likes Charlotte’s quirky ways. Miss Templeton is younger but also tasked with finding a husband, something she dislikes as much as Charlotte, but for different reasons.

Charlotte hatches a plan. Since she can’t seem to escape her fate, she’ll go after a husband just to make her father realize that he can’t do without her. Then he’ll call off this nonsense.

But Mr. Trimble proves himself an able assistant, so that her father seems to be able to get along without her very well. And her plan to attract suitors, assisted by Miss Templeton, succeeds only too well.

I’m afraid I didn’t like Charlotte at first. Even the person who came to love her called her “the most maddening, most vexing, most exasperating woman I have ever met.” I didn’t mind the fact that she didn’t know how to fit in society, and I even agreed with her that some conventions seemed silly. But at first she seemed to see only her own viewpoint. Yet, as I got to know her, and as she broadened her horizons and learned a little humility, she grew on me.

One of my favorite quotes from the book:

Conversation, my dear Miss Withersby, is a very fragile creature. You must nourish it if you would have it survive. Its favorite food is a question.

Siri Mitchell’s books are far more than romances. I loved her note at the end of the novel where she explained the different influences that went into this story: women who contributed to the study of botany but could not be published under their own names, the conflicting views of botany between scientists and religious people, the eccentricity of botanists, the unusual collections and plant projects of the times, the Opium wars between Britain and China, the nature of introverts, the concept of a helper in the Bible, Victorian gender roles and expectations. She wove all of these together seamlessly, with warmth and humor. Above all the book illustrates the main theme of being who God created you to be.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

 

Book Review: Loving People

I’ve mentioned several times here that I struggle with my own selfishness and with not being more loving (not thinking of romantic love necessarily, but generally loving others) . Recently I was discussing with a friend that overcoming selfishness is not a once-and-done effort. It requires an every day yielding to God instead of ourselves.

So when Loving People: How to Love and Be Loved by John Townsend came through on a Kindle sale, I got it. I had heard of Townsend but never read him before.

Early in the book, Townsend says:

You may have noticed that the title of this book has a double meaning. Loving can be both a verb (the action of demonstrating love) and an adjective (the description of someone who demonstrates love). The intent here is to bring attention to the reality that both meanings are necessary for each other to exist. If you want to be a loving person, you must actively show love to people. And if you want to love people, you are to be a person characterized by loving.

A few more of his introductory comments about love:

Care and love aren’t the same thing. Almost any of us could say that we truly care about some people. We can freely admit that, and we are glad these people are in our lives. We want what’s best for them. But the reality is often that we don’t know how to treat those we care about in the most loving way. We want to be the best for those people, but we don’t know how to love them in the way that is best. That is, we would like to be close to them, to be a positive influence for them, and to bring them to intimacy and a better life. But there is a disconnect between our care for those we love and how we address or approach them.

Love is much more than good feelings or intentions. It has direction, movement, and purpose. But while we may feel love, we may not be doing love. Most of us don’t know how to experience and become competent in the art form of love.

We cannot force ourselves to feel anything. Feelings are the result of changes inside us. They aren’t a cause; they are an effect. Trying to will ourselves to feel love doesn’t work. Yet when we say that love is only a feeling, we reduce it to something less than what it truly is. As I said earlier, love encompasses and experiences feelings, but love is not limited to feelings. It is much more—genuine love involves the heart, soul, and mind.

In this book, I define love simply as “seeking and doing the best for another.” When we love someone, we bend our heart, mind, and energies toward the betterment of someone else. That is what loving people do. It involves the whole person. It is ongoing and intentional.

As the architect of love, God lives out this definition. He is constantly seeking and doing what is for our best, things that help us connect, grow, and heal. He is actively doing whatever it takes for us to be the people he designed us to be. The ultimate example of his love is, and always will be, in the sacrifice of Jesus for an alienated and broken creation: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

He proposes that love is made up of the following components:

  • Connecting—making an emotional bond
  • Truth-Telling—honesty that serves the other person
  • Healing—repairing brokenness
  • Letting Go—giving up what should be surrendered
  • Romancing—the unique love of being a couple

He spends more than a fourth of the book on connecting, which he defines as “a heart-to-heart attachment that goes beyond knowing about someone to actually knowing that person.” He gives multiple examples: one involved a wife who shared problems and frustrations about her day, and her husband, thinking he was being helpful, suggested possible solutions. But she didn’t want solutions, at least, not yet. She wanted the connection: she wanted to know she was truly heard and understood. By contrast, disconnection isn’t just missing someone who is away for a few days, but rather “the inability to feel and experience the warmth of connection over time. It is the absence of the security of being attached. It is the lack of bonding inside.”

I thought truth-telling was an odd inclusion, because of course you don’t lie to people you love. But Townsend means truth-telling as more than just not lying: it means confronting the other person in a kind and loving way when they need to be confronted. “If your loved one’s life is going down the drain, someone needs to say something. Be that person.” “People who are truly loving will confront, limit, and quarantine people who consistently make wrong choices. So keep that distinction in mind: love seeks the best, but it does not enable bad behavior.”

Under healing, he says: “Loving people are the primary agents of restoration.”

About letting go: “Sometimes love means knowing when it is time to let someone go or to let him do something he is going to do. When you accept reality and give up efforts to control someone’s life or change who he is, you are being loving . . . Letting go is the ability to surrender and to allow what is real to exist. By letting go, I mean giving up efforts to control, manipulate, or force someone to do something different.”

About romance: “Romance is a wonderful aspect of love, but it is not as broad or as deep as love itself. Romance must fit into and serve love. Love can never serve romance.”

He discusses the components of each of these aspects and gives numerous examples, illustrations, and balancing considerations.

This book is not a Bible study, so it reads differently from one. Surprisingly absent from a book by a Christian about love was any discussion about the classic biblical passage on love, 1 Corinthians 13 (except for verses 1 and 13). But Townsend provides a biblical basis for most of his points. In the chapter on connection, for instance, I thought, “This is all well and good, but where do you get this from the Bible?” Well, from the One who made the greatest effort to connect with people who were not only uninterested in Him, but opposed to Him. “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18).

The last chapter, “Putting It All Together,” didn’t really put it all together for me. I had hoped it would recap the main points. Instead, it contained instructions to “assemble your team” and “measure and evaluate your process of growth.”

I got a lot of helpful points and thoughts from the book, but I can’t say, “Aha! Now I’ve got it!” Townsend brought up aspects of love that I had not heard or read in other pieces on this subject, but he also did not address other aspects that are usually considered.

While Townsend had a lot of good things to say, his style just didn’t gel with me. Not to say there is anything wrong with his style: he is a best-selling author, after all. But many of the conversations he described in the book are just not the kind I can imagine anyone I know having. Real people did have them, but I guess they were very different personalities from mine and my family and friends.

The best advice I’ve heard about love came from a book I have not been able to recall or find again. But the writer said that for years she berated herself for not being more loving. She was a missionary in a difficult area, and she found herself too often irritated with unloving thoughts towards others. The more she tried to become more loving, the more frustrated she became. But then she started to think about God’s love for her, gracious and undeserved. And without even being aware of it at first, resting in His love overflowed into her own heart and actions.

That’s not to say we can’t learn from books like this. I was particularly convicted about connecting, truly listening and empathizing instead of just offering my two cents to fix the other person’s problems.

I’ve heard similar definitions of love before, that’s it’s a self-sacrificing desire to meet the needs of the loved person. And I’ve heard that it’s not just a feeling. Yet I struggle with doing the right thing, but with resentment. That’s part of having a sin nature, I guess, and we’ll never have it down perfectly while here on earth. Maybe in some ways love is doing your best for another despite resentment. But that’s not how God loves. And I want to love more like Him.

What helps you to be a more loving person?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)