January 4, 2012
Best of 2011--An Entirely Subjective Treatment
I'm generally reluctant to call any one book I've edited the best. To do so feels more like a betrayal than a compliment. Designating one book as "best" is, after all, implicitly designating all the books I worked on (minus one) as "not the best." That makes this month's theme here at Strangely Dim, "Favorite Books of 2011," a little problematic for me.
Besides, one of the things that distinguishes a publisher from, say, an instant oatmeal maker is that each of our products is entirely distinct from every other. When we compare books to one another, we're comparing apples and oranges, not apple-cinnamon-flavored and "Shrektastic(TM)-Flavored" packets of otherwise identical dust and flakes. We wouldn't have contracted a book--or gone through all the trouble of editing, designing, marketing, manufacturing and selling it--if we didn't hold it and its author in high regard from the outset. So the short answer to the question "What was the best IVP book of 2011?" is perhaps frustratingly evasive: "Every book is the best in its category, which happens to be a category of one." See what I did there?
Nevertheless, the assignment persists. But I'm an oily little devil; I've refashioned the assignment as "my favorite editorial experience(s) of 2011." Sneaky, no? Just try and stop me . . .
Anyway, for me, 2011 began and very nearly ended with the release of two books that had special personal significance: After Shock, by Kent Annan, which came out in January, and The Cost of Community, by Jamie Arpin-Ricci, a November release. Both books remind me of my 2010 visit to Haiti, and specifically of my celebration of the Feast of Pentecost on the floor of a leveled church.
The connection between After Shock and Haiti is painfully obvious. Its author, Kent Annan, is the codirector of Haiti Partners, a ministry dedicated to education in a country where public education is woefully underdeveloped. Less than 30 percent of Haitian children actually get schooling past the sixth grade. A seemingly insurmountable task of educating particularly rural Haitian children falls to NGOs and other nonprofits, like Haiti Partners. Their work wasn't helped by a devastating earthquake, one of the most destructive in history and the subject of After Shock.
My trip to Haiti was planned before the 2010 earthquake. We were celebrating the release of Kent's first book, Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle, by sponsoring a small group of contest winners to spend five days with Haiti Partners staff. I had invited myself along and raised funds from some very gracious friends and loved ones to get me there. The earthquake just punctuated the poignancy of our experience, as we watched communities try to recover even as Haiti Partners helped get their schools back up and running.
Kent was writing After Shock even as he was taking us from town to town, introducing us to teachers and other friends, and helping us process what we were seeing. At one point he and I hopped out of our truck so I could take the book's cover photo; it was intended to be a placeholder till we found a more appropriate picture to take its place, but we never did. Eventually the book was even a finalist for an award for book cover design.
We celebrated Pentecost down the road from the church that graces the book's cover. The only things left standing where we worshiped were some support beams and the tabernacle where the elements of communion were stored. We shared communion that Pentecost Sunday, in commemoration of the birth of the church, as described in Acts 2. On that first Christian Pentecost tongues of fire descended on gathered believers till they started preaching the gospel in a great variety of languages, till they started sharing all they owned with each other and so tying their fates together.
I was in the midst of my own ecclesial earthquake in the spring of 2010, having left a church after a somewhat bitter experience and still trying to figure out what a church ought to mean to me, and what I ought to mean to a church. Sharing communion with people who had lost everything and who were yet able to eat the Lord's Supper together with glad and sincere hearts renewed my commitment to practicing my faith in communion with others and restored my hope that even a fundamentally broken church can be an instrument of God's grace and peace.
One of the people who traveled to Haiti with me was Jamie Arpin-Ricci. He had submitted a book proposal sometime between when we selected him as a winner of the contest and when we boarded the plane; I brought his book contract with me for him to sign, because I get a little giddy over that sort of thing. Jamie got terribly sick while we were in Haiti, so we weren't together often, but our every interaction reinforced for me that he was going to write a really meaningful book.
Jamie's community in urban Winnipeg (the coldest city on earth, in contrast to the unearthly heat of late-spring Port-au-Prince) is rooted in the teachings of Francis of Assisi, whose mission was rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' longest recorded sermon and a good distillation of his ethic. Jamie's insight into the demands of the gospel not just on the individual but on gatherings of people was helpful to me as I processed my Pentecost experience. Our conversations in the many months between contracting and publishing his Cost of Community helped me continue to wrestle with my relationship to the church. Francis, the Sermon on the Mount and Jamie's community in Winnipeg, all their radical circumstances notwithstanding, are good guides for following Jesus.
While we were between appointments in Darbonne, Haiti, a fellow walked by with a donkey in tow. A man leading a donkey, for the uninitiated, is the logo for Likewise Books, the line that houses both Jamie and Kent's books. So they and I grabbed the rope and pulled it tight, and someone snapped a picture. I'm told that I almost got kicked in the face by the donkey for the privilege, but it was totally worth it.
It was an honor to walk alongside Kent and Jamie as they brought their books to life, to sit at their feet as they wrestled with the problem of pain and the cost of discipleship. Buy and read both their books, but read them slowly; they're meant to be chewed, not devoured.
I would be remiss in recounting my favorite editorial experience(s) of 2011 if I didn't mention an author dinner at the first-ever Wild Goose Festival. Seeing so many authors eating together with glad and sincere hearts was a kind of validation of the several years now that we've spent teasing out the role of a publisher in Jesus' command to "go and do likewise." In many ways any effort to publish in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, Jesus' parable that inspires the Likewise line, is deconstructive. To parse such a simple story, such a simple command, into a regularly replenishing supply of new books is perhaps to spin it into hopeless abstraction. We're protected from such accidental subversion, however, by the authors we work with, who are doggedly concrete in their discipleship. To go and do likewise is, for them, first and foremost not just to mull over an idea but to go out and put it to the test--to take Jesus seriously enough to act on what he said.
Two of the authors on hand for that dinner had books come out this year that cut straight to that chase: Mark Scandrette, whose Practicing the Way of Jesus both demands and demonstrates that our discipleship cannot be not merely private and intellectual but must be communal and embodied; and Margot Starbuck, whose enthusiastic Small Things with Great Love makes loving your neighbor as you love yourself seem less like a burden and more like a great adventure. Those two books were only about 2 percent of the total output of IVP's publishing program in 2011. But as a favorite editorial experience, being with them--and the twenty-some other folks around the table who were likewise committed to making the gospel undeniable and unavoidable--is right up there with remembering the birth of the church in a building without walls in Haiti.
That's my best of 2011, as effusive as it is evasive. Editors can't do much, but we can do at least that.