BOOK REVIEW: Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein

Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short IntroductionTibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book outlines the philosophy, theology, history, and future prospects of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a big topic because Tibetan Buddhism is a unique amalgam of Buddhism, indigenous beliefs (e.g. Bön,) and adapted teachings from Yoga and Tantra.

For a concise guide, the discussions of history and philosophy can get deep in the weeds. However, to be fair, Tibetan Buddhism has a long and complicated history, and has produced deep metaphysical ideas, particularly with regards to philosophy of mind. Furthermore, it’s not a unitary religion, having schismed into a number of sub-sects.

Special attention is given to Tibetan Buddhism’s teachings on Enlightenment and death. Even those who aren’t familiar with Tibetan Buddhism may have heard of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” and may not be surprised to learn the topic is given its own chapter. I learned that the Bardo (e.g. a lobby between death and rebirth) was in part hypothesized to help reconcile the idea of Anatta (there being no persistent self, or soul) with reincarnation. [i.e. The question arises, what’s reincarnated if there’s no persistent “I” (i.e. atman, soul, etc.?) The book doesn’t really explain how the existence of a Bardo achieves this reconciliation, but achieving accord with the two ideas appears complicated, and -arguably- spurious.]

The book ends with a look at the religion’s prospects for the future, which are darkened by the Chinese government’s desire to subvert the religion’s influence, but may also be brightened by the fact that the current Dalai Lama has been open to dialogues, and – in particular – has made Tibetan Buddhism arguably the religion with the most cordial relationship to the scientific world. (No mean feat for a religion that is as superstitious as any in the modern world.)

If you’re interested in a concise overview of Tibetan Buddhism, give it a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Why I’m Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political EconomyWhy I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As a foreigner living in India for almost a decade, I’m always looking for books that offer insight into cultural and political realities that remain obscure even after many years in country. I stumbled upon this book and the diametrically titled book, “Why I Am a Hindu” by Shashi Tharoor. I figured the two books might cover the pro / con accounting of Hinduism through two personal accounts of how a couple of thoughtful individual’s perceptions of the religion differ.


Having read this book, chronologically the first, I discovered that the two books might not mirror each other as well as I’d thought. For one thing, this book is really more about: a.) why dalitbahujans shouldn’t be considered Hindu, and b.) why following the dalit cultural framework would be better for India than following Hinduism. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t count off many theological points that rub the author the wrong way, socio-politically speaking. It also displays no shortage of anger (which one could certainly be argued is righteous, but nonetheless detracts from the feeling of scholarly objectivity that one might hope for in such a book.) But, at the end of the day, this is a book about caste, and how the system is used by the few to oppress the many. [It also turns out that both books cast themselves in opposition to the Hindu nationalist movement.]


In short, the author argues that the “high castes” of Hinduism (i.e. Brahmins and Kshatriyas) are parasitic, misogynistic, violent, oppressive, corpulent, and demanding of “spiritual fascism.” On the other hand, the Dalitbahujans are painted as productive, egalitarian, democratic, creative, less materialistic, and capable of creating a sustainable path toward a healthy India of the future. I don’t know whether I came away with a much better insight into the truth of the situation, but as a social scientist I learned that what is true is often not so important as what is believed to be true – the latter can have huge impacts regardless of its objective truth. I say this because the author does make a lot of gratuitous assertions – unsupported statements — and these are particularly difficult to process when they address the motives of high caste people. He also sometimes whitewashes the “sins” of other religions to make the argument that Hindus are the worst / most unreasonable of all religions.


While it’s certainly true that the caste system has been oppressive and that the oppressed are within reason to be angry and to insist upon change, it’s hard for me to get a good read on what is true regarding the details because the author takes a preaching-to-the-choir route and doesn’t really provide the evidence an outsider would need to judge. That said, the book still offers a great deal of value because it tells one what the author (and presumably many others) feel to be the truth of the situation.


I found this book insightful and thought-provoking. There may be better books out there in terms of supporting arguments, but it’s a solid counter to the throngs of books by the Hindu intellectual elite. [FYI – The book will drive typo-haters insane, it’s loaded with missing letter typos, etc.]

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BOOK REVIEW: What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

What Makes You Not a BuddhistWhat Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book provides exposition of the Four Seals (not to be confused with the more well-known Four Noble Truths.) As the title suggests, the author believes that accepting the truth of these four propositions is what distinguishes Buddhist from non-Buddhist (rather than many of the more well-known teachings and practices of Buddhism.)

The Four Seals are easily listed, but are challenging to intellectually grasp (hence the need for a book.) 1.) All compounded things are impermanent. 2.) All emotions are pain. 3.) All things have no inherent existence. 4.) Nirvana is beyond concepts. While I came away from the book with largely the same views on the Seals as when they were presented in the Introduction, I did learn a great deal, and had one epiphany (re: an explanation of Samsara and Nirvana.) [My own views remained: 1.) True to the best of my knowledge; 2.) This remains the most controversial teaching of the lot for me, even with elaborations. I think it does just what we should strive not to do, which is attach a value judgment to things; 3.) & 4.) I don’t know enough to have any firm opinion on these.

I found this book to be well-organized, highly readable, and to use humor and examples to good effect. While I remain “not a Buddhist,” the explanations in the book did move the needle on my way of thinking about a couple things. Along with Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught, I believe this book is an excellent means to gain greater understanding of an oft-misunderstood religion / philosophy. Check it out if you’re curious about whether you’re a Buddhist (whether or not your currently identify that way.)

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Agents of Sanctification [Free Verse]

Some love attributing sacredness --
places beyond place,
times beyond time,
the infinite
&
the infinitesimal.

But anything elevated
to the sacred
becomes a thing 
for which
people will kill 
or 
die.

Often, people don't
make this reckoning 
until the dying 's done: 

-death for a sign
-death for a symbol
-death for a chunk of dead earth
-death for a vaguely evaluated idea

The agents of sanctification
will kill us all. 

BOOK REVIEW: Jesus: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham

Jesus: A Very Short IntroductionJesus: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book explores the life of Jesus, the historical context of that life, his approach to teaching, the nature of his identity, the story of his death, and concludes with the origins of Christianity. The book rests on a couple of controversial ideas, the most influential of which is that the four gospels of the New Testament are valid historical sources and that they’re more useful than competing sources (e.g. the Gnostic Gospels.) Rather than asking the reader to take this as a given, Bauckham does present his argument in the second chapter.

I found this book to be intriguing and worth reading – surprisingly, once I realized it was written by a theologian, and not a Religious Studies scholar or historian. (Theologians have skin in the game of religious teachings, whereas Religious Studies scholars and historians are expected to be more objective with regards to religious claims.) It’s telling that I didn’t realize Bauckham was a theologian right away; he does generally present the material with the dispassionate objectivity of a scholar. However, eventually, he slips into the proclivities of a theologian, such as the stance that in the absence of strong evidence either way one might as well accept the truth of religious teachings. Also, he gives Jesus a free ride on shady behavior (as when Jesus compares a Gentile to a dog – which Bauckham calls “almost rudely negative” before rationalizing away said negativity.)

For me, the discussion of Jesus’s teaching style (Ch.5) was the book’s strongpoint. That chapter shows the reader how Jesus became such a big deal. Believer or not, one will come away impressed with Jesus as a teacher.

If one is looking for a book that considers the gamut of views about Jesus, this isn’t the book you’re looking for – e.g. Chapter 6 on Jesus’s identity doesn’t give time to the view that he was just a smooth-talking preacher whose followers likely absconded with his body – let alone that he was a fiction. That said, there is a great deal of interest in the book, and I found it well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide by Anthony O’Hear

Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide by Anthony O’Hear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book offers concise answers to some of the key questions that circle about the life of Jesus and the religion spawned by his existence. It tells the reader what is known about the life of Jesus, providing insight into what life events are well supported and which are only described in accounts written long after the fact (e.g. the gospels.) It describes which factions believed Jesus was a god and which didn’t. It describes opposing views of what Jesus was (i.e. if he wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill human being, was he wearing a human suit or was he some sort of divine hologram.) A lot of the book is more about Christianity than Jesus, proper, exploring how the religion came into existence, how it changed, why it became schismatic, and how it was influenced by other domains of human activity (e.g. governance and philosophy.)

As the subtitle suggest, the book uses graphics throughout – primarily drawings and monochrome artworks depicting Jesus, events from his life, and other characters in his story (e.g. apostles, disciples, and such.) Besides graphics, the only ancillary matter is a “Further Reading” section that discusses Bible versions and scholarly works on Christianity and the life of Jesus.

I found this book to be concise, interesting, and informative. If you’re looking for an outline of Jesus’s life that offers insight into the evolution of Christianity from a non-theological point of view (i.e. having no dog in the fight of whether Jesus was a god) you may want to give this guide a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dangerous Religious Ideas by Rachel S. Mikva

Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and IslamDangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Rachel S. Mikva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’ve only read this book’s title, it may not be the book you think it is, but I would argue that that’s a good thing. The first thing one might expect from the title is that it’s by an atheist or skeptical agnostic, someone in the vein of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or Michael Shermer. Not that there is anything wrong with such books or authors, but there are a ton of books of that nature, and I’m not sure how much value-added is to be found in new ones. (And more importantly, if one is interested in what is dangerous about a thing, taking into account only views of outside critics presents substantial risk of misconstruing the insider’s perspective.) This book, however, is by someone “on the inside,” a Rabbi and scholar of the Abrahamic traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) [It’s worth noting that Mikva deals only with the Abrahamic traditions in this book. The degree to which the ideas discussed apply to other traditions varies greatly.]

One might be thinking that the book plays Nerf-ball, a religious individual explaining the faults in religion will surely be like “greed is good” Gordon Gekko explaining a market crash, making end-runs around reality to justify a point of view and to minimize the role of one’s belief system in the tragedy. However, when Mikva was elucidating the dangerous ideas of religion, I felt she was candid in her criticisms and that she carefully balanced criticism among the three Abrahamic traditions. The main difference between Mikva’s arguments and that of those mentioned above isn’t so much seen when she’s laying out the dangers, but rather when she discusses the theologians who’ve historically tried to mitigate said dangers.

A second mistake that one might reasonably make about this book is to think that is focuses on the usual suspects of outrage about religion — honor killings, sanctioning of slavery, misogyny, etc. I think Mikva made a wise move in focusing on a few ideas that are deeply engrained in a broad cross-section of religious followers. The central theme of this book is that the danger lies all around, not only, or even primarily, in the hateful ideas of a few extremists, those who misinterpret scripture or who hold onto interpretations that maybe accurate to authorial intent but that are still horrifying to our present-day notions of what is appropriate (e.g. treating all humans like human beings, which was not so much a thing in Biblical times.) Instead, Mikva proposes that dangers lie in ideas that are often not given a second thought, such as followers’ beliefs that they are part of the one and only true faith.

The book’s thirteen chapters can be thought of as taking on three major dangerous ideas. First, in chapters 2 through 6, the book considers the idea of scripture as the literal word of god. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the scriptures of the Abrahamic religious were as vaguely benign as those in some Eastern religions, but the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran all have some cringeworthy ideas in them. Still, it’s hard for a large number of religious followers to accept that these are just books written by humans who may not have had as great of insight into the divine mind as they claimed. So, what to do? Does one accept that it’s alright for a man to sell his daughter into the sex slave trade if he’s cash-strapped?

The second major dangerous idea (Ch. 7 through 10) is that of “otherness.” This is described in different ways, depending on the nature of the religion (i.e. “chosenness” in Judaism or “election” in Christianity,) but it’s essentially the idea that one’s religion is the one and only true religion and everybody else is wrong and immoral. This is the kind of widespread idea that poisons human interaction. [It doesn’t really matter if you’re a smiling missionary or a Semtex-strapped suicide bomber, if you’re approaching other people from the perspective that they are inherently wrong, immoral, and inferior, then you don’t have any basis for a relationship of peace, respect, and understanding.]

The last idea, addressed in a much more compact space, is that there are pitfalls to religion being too fundamentally entwined in what we normally think of the sphere of governance – i.e. lawmaking, crime and punishment, etc. One issue is that ideas about justice were relatively draconian in Biblical times. However, a bigger problem may be that of foisting one’s beliefs on others in an underhanded way, using the State’s monopoly on force to do so.

It should be pointed out that this book is written in a scholarly fashion. This means that readability isn’t has high as it could be. It will send even well-read readers who aren’t theologians or experts in religious studies to the dictionary now and again to learn the jargon of religious philosophy.

If you are interested in the impact of religion on the societal landscape, this is a worthwhile book to check out. If one has read Dawkins, Hitchens, or the like, this book is worth rounding out one’s understanding by seeing how the problems of religion are seen by those on the inside, those who choose to reflect upon the problems, but who aren’t willing to throw it all out to get rid of said problems. I felt the book was balanced and it pointed out some important ideas that are not necessarily readily apparent to everybody.


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BOOK REVIEW: Teachings of the Buddha ed. by Jack Kornfield

Teachings of the Buddha: Revised and Expanded EditionTeachings of the Buddha: Revised and Expanded Edition by Jack Kornfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of excerpts and short writings conveying Buddhist teachings. The pieces range in length from about a stanza of verse to a few pages in length. Each lesson tells what book it comes from and who the translator was, which can be a nice feature if one will be comparing different translations.

Unlike Walpola Rahula’s similarly named “What the Buddha Taught,” which focuses entirely on what Gautama Buddha taught while he was living, this book includes many teachings from long after the life of the Buddha. Which is to say, this is more a book of Buddhist teachings than an elucidation of what the Buddha, himself, taught. [Not to offend, but religious teachings seem to inevitably shift and evolve over time, and so what is taught by various sects of Buddhism today is by no means a perfect reflection of what the Buddha, himself, taught.] That said, the writings toward the beginning of the book tend to be closer to the Buddha, himself – i.e. from the “Dhammapada” and other early Pali works. While the teachings toward the end of the book tend to be more from much later (e.g. from the Zen tradition.)

I found the book to be quite readable and to feature some intriguing food for thought. If you are interested in an English translation of Buddhist sutras, scriptures, koan, etc., this is a good work to check out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill

Witchcraft: A Very Short IntroductionWitchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Witches, like ninja, so excite the popular imagination that everyone knows about them, but most of what we know is incorrect — either by virtue of being exaggerated or being imbued with cultural and narrative coloring. Gaskill’s book shows us the changing landscape of popular belief about witches and witchcraft, and it contrasts those perceptions with what the historical records show. So, for example, while there was undeniable persecution of individuals accused of witchcraft, it was less of a widespread mania than one might have been led to believe.

There were several fascinating discussions throughout the book. One such discussion is how surprisingly widespread the phenomena of witchcraft is, with witches being found in Africa who demonstrate remarkably similarities to those we are familiar with from the stories of Europe and New England. One can imagine how societies in which medicine was rooted in shamanistic practices, e.g. mixing herbal medicine with superstitious rituals, might produce practitioners that the modern, Western viewer would associate with witchcraft.

Another interesting question under discussion involved the psychology of accusations of witchcraft. For example, it’s not like every time a child died the parents leapt to the conclusion that there was some sort of voodoo witchcraft being practiced against their child, but in some circumstances it definitely happened. Under our current understanding of science and medicine, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would reach such conclusions, but it’s illuminating to explore the conditions under which our ancestors did. It tells us a great deal about humanity’s changing understanding of the world.

The book consists of eight chapters and the usual ancillary matter for the AVSI series (preface, graphics, references, and recommendations for further reading.) It begins by asking: “what is a witch, exactly.” It’s not as simple a question as one might think. Is a witch an herbal healer? Is she a malicious devil-worshipper? Is he or she just a neighbor with whom one had a beef, resulting in the use of that person’s perceived nefariousness to explain an unexpected tragedy? Is a Wiccan a witch? (This is addressed later because Wicca is a relatively recent phenomenon.) Is a witch just a popular Halloween costume based on stereotypes and story details? In some sense, the witch is all of these things wrapped into a messy mélange.

Chapter two recounts how the rise of Christianity warped the way witchcraft was viewed. As Christians attempted to both eliminate the competition of existing spiritual beliefs and to fit those who practiced witchcraft into the context of the Christian belief system, a new kind of witch came to be introduced. Chapter three delves into how the popular image of witches came to be associated with older, haggish women. (In the early days of witchcraft, women were no more associated with the practice than were men.) This chapter also has a fascinating section about cases of neighborly disputes playing out through accusations of witchcraft.

Chapter four explores how witchcraft came to be conflated with demon-worship in the popular imagination, and how beliefs about witchcraft were influenced by competing takes on Satan and what powers the devil was believed to have (or not have.) It also discusses the topic of witch hunts, and proposes that, while horrific things happened, there are many more examples of rationality and calm reflection winning the day. As I was reading this book, it sometimes felt to me like the author was acting as an apologist for the forces of persecution, but upon closer reflection I realized that he was just trying to combat an overly exaggerated view of what it was like to be amid witch hunts and trials. From what most of us have heard about the Salem Witch trials one might be led to believe that any woman in the seventeenth century who was accused of being a witch would immediately be drowned by an insane and angry mob. That was [mostly] not the case. Which is not to say it’s not horrible that it happened at all, but it is useful to understand the scale of any problem.

Chapter five investigates the nature of witch trials, and the changing face of how witchcraft was treated under the law. Witch trials have become synonymous with a vicious catch-22 in which a woman is tied to a rock and thrown into a river: if she floats out, she’s immediately killed as an agent of Satan; if she doesn’t, they say “our bad” and reward her with a Christian funeral. Gaskill emphasizes that there were people at the time who recognized and challenged how horrible and insane that approach was. [I often mention Dr. Sherrill’s formulation of the “Outhouse Fallacy,” the idea that because earlier people didn’t have indoor plumbing that they must have been complete dimwits, and the fallacy tends to apply to our popular conception of people of that era.] Chapter six dips further into crazes and panics over witchcraft. Chapters seven and eight consider different dimensions of how fantasy and reality became intertwined in how witchcraft was seen – from Macbeth’s trio of witches to modern Hollywood adaptations.

I read a lot of these AVSI titles from Oxford University Press; they are a good way to get a quick overview of a subject with which one has a limited familiarity, while ensuring the source has a high degree of scholarly competence. This edition is no different, and – in fact – owing to its fascinating topic, it’s probably more engaging than most. I enjoyed learning how my perception of witchcraft varied from reality, and how perception becomes a kind of reality unto itself. If you’re interested in learning about witch hunts, witch trials, and the like, this book provides an excellent and brief overview of the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Gospel in Dickens ed. by Gina Dalfonzo

The Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His WorksThe Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His Works by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book captured my attention because (I must confess) I’m delinquent when it comes to the writings of Charles Dickens. I’ve only read “A Christmas Carol” and that is admittedly sad given the profound impact of (and masterful storytelling in) Dickens’ work. The challenge confronting me is that (excepting “A Christmas Carol”) the works of Dickens tend to be huge bookshelf-cracking tomes, and so I’m seeking a strategy by which to approach his publications – given the time investments involved. Because this is a book that largely consists of excerpts from his various works, I figured it might help me devise a plan of how to tackle Dickens (figuratively.) I believe it did help me in that regard.

The book’s theme is how biblical teachings feature in the works of Dickens. While my own reading objectives tend toward the secular, I figured that knowing about the moral conundrums and growth, or lack thereof, of characters would be a good way to understand Dickens’ canon as stories and not only as reflections of religious attitudes. Moral dilemma is, after-all, a central element of storytelling — universally, and not just with regards to religious or mythological contexts. I feel I was correct in this regard, as well. I did learn about which stories were most likely to appeal to me.

I do believe the book was as much about how Dickens (not by himself, by any means, but as part of an artistic and societal movement of the day) influenced the nature of Christianity (both in his time and beyond) as it was about how the Gospel influenced Dickens. I’m not saying this with intent to blaspheme. It’s just that the nature of the problems and how they were approached is very different between the time of ancient Rome and Dickensian London. So, one has a kind of general teaching of being charitable and kind to those less fortunate and it is applied to policy questions that were nonexistent at the time of the Bible or that individuals in the Bible were silent upon.

There are three chapters or section to the book. The first looks at attitudes toward the poor. If one knows anything about the works of Charles Dickens, it’s that they virtually all deal with down-and-out characters having to make their way through worlds controlled by (often uncharitable) wealthy people. This was true of my beloved “A Christmas Carol,” but I know it’s also a major feature in “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations,” “Bleak House,” “The Old Curiosity Shop,” and others. This first section takes up about half the book. The second section involves the issue of redemption, and it’s about a quarter of the book. The final section is also about twenty-five percent of the book and it looks at living a good life. Each of these chapters has a series of excerpts. Generally, there is a short paragraph of editorial input before each excerpt to explain any necessary background as well as to provide some insight into why the excerpt is included (i.e. how it relates to the book’s theme.) While most of the excerpts come from Dickens’ major novels, it should be pointed out that there are some that come from other works (i.e. nonfiction and short fiction.)

There are some artistic drawings that are congruous with expectations of a Dickens book. Otherwise, there’s not much in terms of ancillary matter, though there is a Forward. I didn’t feel anything else was particularly needed (though a timeline of publications and / or an appendix with concise plot summaries might have made the book a bit easier to use.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the works of Dickens, I’d recommend this book – particularly (but not necessarily exclusively) if you have interests at the intersection of literature and religion.

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