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Reverential Reading

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It is a sacred charge, being the last to read an aging book.

Each caramel-colored, brittle page detaches from the paperback binding with a whisper as I turn it, and I gently scotch tape the inner pages together before reading further.

I find myself pondering this simple little novel from the dollar-shelf with a meditative mindfulness that would more befit an ancient religious scroll.

Every book should be read with such reverence.

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The Books on my Doorstep

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Like many of you, I am a book addict, so although the arrival of two brown, rectangular packages on my front porch was far from unusual, it nevertheless occasioned a quick intake of breath and a widening of the eyes, if not an actual skip of my heartbeat.

The best part about such parcels is the element of surprise, in that I often don’t remember what I’ve ordered during my mad midnight searches for a satisfying read. The other best part, which is unique to this particular delivery, is that I have been stuck in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 British satire “Vanity Fair” for nigh on four months, and I am a mere one hundred pages from the end of the eight-hundred-page tome. I can see the light of approaching freedom as sure as the days are (finally) getting longer!

William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray – Doesn’t he look like a jolly fellow?

I always read a long, dense novel during the winter, usually of the Russian variety but sometimes an Anthony Trollope, which are lighter but still qualify as dense by virtue of their length. But Thackeray — well, I don’t know if I’ll read another one. It’s not entirely the  book. This winter has been insufferably long and cold and dark and dreadful. It’s not Thackeray’s fault my brother died in December. Still, good riddance to both the book and the winter.

Presents to Myself

It was this anticipation of escape from England in the Napoleonic Age that imparted an extra dose of excitement as I tore into those rectangular packages yesterday. Here, because of your intense interest in my personal life and inner musings, is what I found:

  • Portofino by Frank Schaeffer: This is the first in a trilogy, recommended by one of my favorite friends who is also an author with a great nose for a great read. He used to be an English professor and he reads incessantly. If you don’t know Brian McLaren and his books, especially if you are spiritually inclined, you should visit his website. I was attracted to Portfino because it’s set in Italy, a country that won my heart in one two-week stay four years ago, and because the reviews call it “richly ironic and satirical . . . hilarious . . . laugh-out loud funny.” I need that. It pokes “gentle fun at the foibles of religious zealotry without disparaging the deep dedication behind it.” There’s apparently a character in it who always packs a ski sweater and a small Bible in case the Russians invade and send them to Siberia.
  • Elsewhere by Richard Russo: This is Russo’s recent memoir. I only just discovered him a few years ago, and I enjoy his novels for a light read. He’s amazing at creating characters and local color, and I figure those quirky folks and locales must come from his life experience; I want to meet them. Because I like writing memoir and would like to learn to write it in longer forms, I plan to read a lot of quality memoirs this summer. Do you have any suggestions for me? I’ve got quite a collection started, but am always open to recommendations.
  • Anna: A Daughter’s Life, by William Loizeaux: I am reading this out of a deep respect and fondness for the author, a writing professor I had at Johns Hopkins. This, too, is memoir, and no doubt memoir at its best. Bill taught memoir and personal essay, and this book is about the loss of his infant daughter. It is about grief, which will resonate with me, and it’s based on Bill’s journals, which also tracks with my journaling habit. “Stunning, clear-eyed, and lyrical . . . remarkable eloquence, passion, and honesty,” says the Washington Post (reviewed back when the Post had something useful to say). This sounds exactly like the Bill Loizeaux I know.
  • 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye: My appreciation for poetry is really quite new, so this is a big step for me. Nye’s is only the second book of poetry I’ve ever purchased. I once bought a book of Wendell Berry’s poems because it needed to be on my bookshelf – he’s an icon. I had read an excerpt from Nye’s poem “Different Ways to Pray” a year ago and found it very moving, so I put her book on my “to buy later when I like poetry better” list. The time was right.

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Here is the opening of Naomi Nye’s poem “Different Ways to Pray”:

∠∠∠

“There was the method of kneeling,

a fine method, if you lived in a country

where stones were smooth.

Women dreamed wistfully of

hidden corners where knee fit rock.

Their prayers, weathered rib bones,

small calcium words uttered in sequence,

as if this shedding of syllables could

fuse them to the sky.

∠∠∠

There were men who had been shepherds so long

they walked like sheep.

Under the olive trees, they raised their arms –

Hear us! We have pain on earth!

We have so much pain there is no place to store it!

But the olives bobbed peacefully

in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.

At night the men ate heartily, flat bread

and white cheese,

and were happy in spite of the pain,

because there was also happiness.”

 

Lovely as her poetry is, I will not allow myself to begin any of these new literary adventures until I make peace with Mr. Thackeray. The daffodils are blooming, and it’s time to leave my winter read behind. Way behind.

What are you reading that’s good? Don’t forget to recommend a memoir for me! Happy Spring.

 

Related Posts:

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/for-book-lovers-only/

Other bookish blogs I like:

http://emilyjanuary.wordpress.com/best-of-my-bookshelf/

http://teabooksthoughts.wordpress.com/

Although I’m not a huge beer-drinker, check out my friend Oliver’s blog Literature and Libation. He’s a talented writer.

For Book Lovers Only

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This morning I was doing some housecleaning. Perhaps you felt the shift in the cosmos? I wouldn’t have been doing anything so drastic if it weren’t for the fact that I’m inheriting a new dining room table from some friends, and it’s much bigger than my old one. Rearranging is in order and that means digging out.

The first task in cleaning any room in my house, after gathering hundreds of papers into piles to do deal with later, is books. They accumulate around me like treasures in an archaeological site; when unearthed, they provide clues to how life was once lived in vaguely chronological layers.

Dusk mask in place and dust rag in hand, I offer a few fun finds you might like:

My New Favorite Author

The Shadow of the Wind, which I recently finished, was on top of the mound. Not only did this book expose me to my new favorite “undiscovered author” (who seems to be known by everyone else on the planet), Carlos Ruiz Zafon, it also opened a new world of book lovers to me.

A few months back, I queried my “friends” (or so I supposed) on Goodreads for recommendations of good novels in which I could completely lose myself. Much to my surprise, I got recommendations from total strangers all around the country!

Pretty cool.

Zafon’s book was recommended by a guy named Steve, I think in Seattle, with whom I’m now friends. I’m mining his reading list.

Sifting Through Spiritual Stories

This spring I co-led a spiritual practices group at my church, so I had hauled out many books in that vein and left them lying around.

Holy Silence is a quiet little Quaker book that I rediscovered when we studied meditative silent prayer in our group. I’m fond of J. Brent Bill’s books. They simply say “Quaker” — small, unassuming things with black and white drawings on the covers. The books contain nuggets like, “Quakers call the presence of the Holy Spirit working within us a ‘sifting silence.’ It separates the worthwhile from the worthless.”

I think we could all use a little more of this sifting silence in our lives.

In the same stack of spiritually themed books, I found one of my absolute favorites. It’s the first one I read by Father Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M. I love, love, love this guy. I had lent my signed copy of Everything Belongs to a friend years ago and only just got it back.

I know everyone’s journey is different, but for me, this is one of the most profound books I’ve ever read.

Rohr talks about “spiritual capitalism,” trying to acquire new things and knowledge to attain spiritual growth. “In reality,” he says, “our growth is hidden. It is accomplished by the release of our current defense postures, by the letting go of fear and our attachment to self-image. Thus, we grow by subtraction much more than by addition. It’s not a matter of more and better information…Once our defenses are out of the way and we are humble and poor, truth is allowed to show itself.”

Another spiritual book that I just got a few weeks ago but which was already being buried under the detritus of my life is Anne Lamott’s new one, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. I never regret spending time with Anne; she always makes me laugh out loud. This one’s a very short book, so I’m waiting until the proper time to savor it. Maybe I’ll read it all in one sitting later in the summer when I have some time alone.

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Me Giving Writing Advice to Anne Lamott

The Goddess and Mona Lisa

The Goddess and Mona LisaMy Friend Joe  B.

My Friend Joe B.

A friend of mine passed away last winter and his wife did a wonderful thing. She held a big party for all his friends and family at which she laid out his things and said, “Have at it. He would want you to have his stuff.”

Clothes, musical instruments, tools, houseplants….and books. Tons of books. I helped her shelve them in preparation for the party, so I got first pick. A couple I particularly liked were As Simple as Snow by Gregory Galloway, and Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwartz. I enjoyed thinking about Joe reading and reacting to them as I made my way through the stories.

Writing Books

I fear that I’m in danger of becoming one of those writers who spends so much time reading about writing that she never gets down to actually writing. I have a ton of books on writing, and I enjoy reading journals by writers about the writing life. I’m currently reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, which I find eerie because she’s living and writing in a little white house in New Hampshire, like me, and her days are so similar to mine. Taciturn neighbors coming to hay the fields, same flowers blooming, black flies biting, raccoons gadding about in the trash.

I have several volumes of Gail Godwin’s journals on writing. I find her writing inconsistent, so she’s not one of my favorite authors, but some is quite good, and I like her “voice.” So I think I’ll enjoy the journals when I get around to them.

I was especially glad to find a Natalie Goldberg that’s been MIA for a long time. It’s my go-to writing book, called Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. It has great writing prompts and is far better than most of those types of books.

One of her prompts led to a moving experience for me, writing about a bicycle I had when was eleven – it was olive green.

“Why would I get a green bike,” I wondered, “since I don’t like green?” I came to realize through my writing that in fact I had stopped liking green as an adolescent because it was my father’s favorite color and I was angry at him for his drinking. A simple but profound realization that is helping me redeem my relationship with my late father and also with the glorious color green.

Reading Books

Near the bottom of the piles was a book that I’m truly looking forward to falling into. For now I’m leaving it out of my boxing-up project so that I don’t lose track of it again. A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel is not the type of book I usually read. At almost 400 pages, it’s a dense tome of nonfiction. But ever since I first flipped through it in the used book store, I feel excited at the prospect of tackling it.

As Manguel writes, “We come to feel that the books we own are the books we know…to glance at the spines of the books we call ours, obediently standing guard along the walls of our room, willing to speak to us and us alone at the mere flick of a page, allows us to say, ‘All this is mine,’ as if their presence alone fills us with their wisdom, without our actually having to labour through their contents.”

This challenging read has been standing guard long enough – it’s time for me to labor through its contents!

I hope you get to enjoy some good reading this summer.

Any suggestions for me?

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