Summer Reading: July 2020

Does anyone else miss summer reading programs? Although I continue to read more during the summer than any other time of year, there was a great satisfaction to completing reading challenges and earning prizes which adult life sadly lacks.

Still, I thought I would share what I’ve been reading lately—that is, when I am not frantically researching for my master’s thesis. This July, I am trying to cultivate a reading list which will prove both timelessly valuable and culturally relevant.

Short Story: “The Other Foot” by Ray Bradbury
This heart-wrenching story, written in the years leading up to the American Civil Rights movement, presents a stunning consideration of race and reconciliation. Using science-fiction, Bradbury paints a painfully realistic and dynamic portrait of prejudice, justice, and mercy which is as deserving of discussion now as when originally published in the 1950s. This and other selected stories from The Illustrated Man can be accessed online here.

Poetry: “East Coker” by T.S. Eliot
As COVID-19 continues to spread and to become further politicised, it is well worth considering the cycles of time and culture. Illness, contention, and fear are, sadly, nothing new under the sun. As Eliot writes, “the whole earth is our hospital,” yet the “wounded surgeon” continues—even now—to be our hope. Written amidst the death and destruction of WWII, this poem speaks powerfully to both the horror and hope of human life. I highly recommend this gorgeous reading by Jeremy Irons.

Essay: “The Suicide of Thought” by G.K. Chesterton
A man ahead of his time, this essay reminds readers that postmodernism is no intellectual island and considers whether intellectual humility has gone too far in producing a movement of deconstruction which destroys itself—not unlike a snake consuming it own tail. In a society which is pondering whether mathematics are sexist, Chesterton’s observations seem prophetic: “We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” (Read it online here.)

Novel: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Excuse my adding another Bradbury, but I love him passionately. This banned book about banned books presents an alternative consideration of cancel culture, in which books and authors are eliminated in an effort to avoid offending a multitude of minorities. “Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters . . . A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it.” (I have extra copies for anyone local who would like to borrow one!)

Novella: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
Although brief enough to read in one sitting, this volume is remarkably deep. With each reading, another chapter absorbs my attention. This time, I was struck most of all by Lewis’ imaginative commentary on individuals clinging to their assumed autonomy above all else, even at the cost of their religious witness or communal harmony. (Another one I have multiples of, in case anyone local needs to borrow one.)

Autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
As Douglass was an outstanding orator, I am primarily listening to this book on Audible. An incredible and important book, Douglass shares the horrors of American slavery with intense clarity and insight, as well as articulates and demonstrates the necessity of faith, literacy, and community in overcoming racism. I also highly recommend the episode of BBC’s “In Our Time,” in which Douglass’ life and legacy are discussed by leading scholars.

Old Testament: Esther
Esther has long been my favourite female Bible character. She is the embodiment of “strength and dignity,” a woman of both conviction and compassion. The story of Esther reminds readers that political unrest and deadly prejudice have always been characteristic of fallen humanity. Esther, however, also serves as a reminder that through dedicated prayer, intentional preparation, and winsome persuasion, we can be examples of grace and truth “for such a time as this.”

New Testament: 1 Corinthians
Throughout this epistle, Paul consistently emphasises that members of the Body of Christ—acting in charity, in holy love—are to seek the protection of weaker members’ consciences and well-being. In an era in which political affiliation is easily confused with spiritual identity, it seems fitting and imperative to return to scripture. Paul here sets an example of humility, surrendering his rights for the benefit of his beloved. The situations we face today are different, but the heart behind them—the heart of Christ—remains the same.

Have any of these selections made your summer list? I would love to hear from you in the comments! I’ve done my best to include a variety of genres and forms and would value any and all feedback and recommendations. I should add that quite a few of my selections are rereads, as I find that in a constantly changing world, returning to the books which formed me and continue to reform me is both consoling and convicting.

Dear Mr. Potter: An Open Letter on Cancel Culture

Mr. H. Potter
The Cupboard under the Stairs
4 Privet Drive
Little Whinging
Surrey

Dear Mr. Potter,

We at the Ministry of Magic are writing to inform you of a significant occurrence of which it is imperative that you be informed. To put it bluntly, you are now thrice-orphaned.

The passing of your heroic father and mother, Lily and James, is a loss we still mourn here at the Ministry; their deaths represent a sacrifice—a light which guided us through dark days and which continues to inspire us in the growing chaos of this new era.

Now, it is with great sympathy that we must inform you that not only are you parentless, but also author-less. Your single authoress, who so confidently created and raised you and, in so doing, broke ground for women, single parents, and abuse survivors, has been caught in the crossfire of a spell which we never expected to see used in our modern, educated era: the dreaded ignorare vim extermina curse.

While we are all no doubt aware of the evils of the banned avada kedavra curse—we apologise for even having penned it!—the ignorare vim extermina is even worse. While the former leads to bodily death, the latter enacts a sort of “cancellation,” in which the victim is erased from culture but not from existence. It is perhaps similar to the effect of dementors—those horrid soul-sucking beasts which are only unleashed on the worst of criminals. Worse, though, your Author is allowed to keep her soul and her body, she has been denied the exercise of her voice, mind, and pen; she has suffered the most devastating of vanishing spells.

Just think, Mr. Potter, how cruel the fate of an Author who is denied the freedom of her pen! It is worse than having your wand snapped and your tongue tied by a misused hex. You must accept our sincerest condolences.

Doubtless this is terrible news for you; we are assured, however, that although your Author is suffering the cancellation curse, you will be permitted to continue managing mischief as usual. The perpetrators of the ignorare vim extermina spell are, as of now, willing to spare you, though we advise you to exercise extreme caution. One ill-quilled Howler will no doubt send you into oblivion as well. As awful as it is to be thrice-orphaned, it would be undoubtedly worse to also be obliterated.

We want also to leave you with the final words of your dear Author, penned just before she was miraculously erased from societal recognition:

“It would be much easier to tweet the approved hashtags . . . scoop up the woke cookies and bask in a virtue-signalling afterglow. There’s joy, relief, and safety in conformity.”

Clearly, although conformity would be the easy choice, your dearly-disappeared Author is choosing to uphold the courage which she sought to imbue in her children, her characters, and her many beloved readers. Now, we at the Ministry are not entirely sure what “tweets” and “hashtags” are, but believe them to be similar to posting on the Hogwarts notice boards or sending messages via owl. Regardless, we hope that these words encourage you, restoring you to the moral of your own story: to be as courageous as a Gryffindor, as kind as a Hufflepuff, as discerning as a Ravenclaw, and as determined as a Slytherin.

We again express our deepest regrets for having to be the bearers of bad news, but we are choosing to trust that, as your dear Professor Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found in even the darkest of times, if you remember to turn on the light.”

Perhaps your Author will return. Perhaps her words will prove stronger than the magic erasers of a culture of cancellation. Until then, Harry, remember to turn on the light.

Yours Regretfully and Respectfully,

Ryanne McLaren

Literary Representative
Phoenix Division, Ministry of Magic
Ravenclaw Class of 2015

Befriending Dante: A Reflection on Readership

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Although I have always been bookish in about every sense of the word, I went through a “rebellious” phase in high school when my AP Literature class was required to read Dante’s Inferno. I was adamantly against it and now, as I reread it for the fourth or fifth time, I can explain away this opposition as perhaps being the fault of a poor translation. Possibly, it also had something to do with the fact that it Inferno not meant to be read in isolation; that popular engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins and ends with hell may be telling of some morbid modern imagination or revealing of a concerning preference for darkness rather than light. Whatever the case, though, I scoffed at Dante without giving him a fair chance and declared that the whole of Inferno was not much more than a fanfiction in which he cast himself as the star. 

Although more nuanced now—having had the privilege of reading the Commedia under the Virgil-like guidance of a world-leading Dante scholar—my basic impression of Dante remains about the same. Laughing into my well-marked copy, I recall my first encounter with Inferno. Such an adorable young hypocrite I was! I belittled this great father of poets and—to think!—without Dante, my beloved Eliot would not have written!

As I mocked Dante for putting himself in a poem peopled with his favorite fictional and real-life heroes and villains, I was at the same time doing the same thing on a much humbler scale. You see, my first real attempt at a novel centers around a girl who is suspiciously similar to myself and who engages vividly in conversation with her favorite book characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Sherlock Holmes being among their eclectic ranks. As I wrote this long-since abandoned draft, I had to address the question which I now realize also occupied Dante: Why am I so compelled to document my own development in the context of people I know not only in life but through literature? 

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again, I’ve come up with a few hypotheses as to why this may be: First of all, loneliness. It’s no secret that we introverts often prefer the company of a good book and likely Dante was similar. He was, however, also an exile, reading and writing apart from the home he loved. His Commedia was not only a product of his imagination but of his isolation. In reading and writing, we enter a community no longer bound by time and space. Just as Virgil is able to leap from history to lead Dante on a narrative journey, people from history, myth, and fantasy hasten to meet us in the pages of books. If we are willing, we can still talk to them as though they are flesh and blood, though we must summon them with paper and ink.

Our loneliness finds relief in the company of books, even those of our own making. By engaging imaginatively with the characters I loved most, my novel draft allowed me to get to know them more intimately and to incorporate them into my own little imaginative circle. Through reading and writing, my sense of community expanded vertically throughout time and horizontally across cultures, worlds, and even dimensions. Similarly, Dante incorporates a diverse cast of characters to regain community, to situate himself solidly within his own Italian cultural and historical context, as well as to establish himself in the continuation of a poetic-philosophical tradition.

My second hypothesis is a continuation of this idea. As relational creatures, we come to know ourselves through our knowledge of and interaction with others. A prominent theological emphasis of Dante’s Commedia is that the truest self-knowledge is attained not through stubborn individuality, but in the mutual humility of community and faith. Through his conversations with various people along his journey, Dante becomes more self-aware, ultimately coming to perceive the Triune God as the divine epitome of self-love and self-knowledge. In growing in relation to others and maturing in his consideration of God, Dante himself is remade.

Similarly, readers often piece themselves together through books, stitching words and stories into patchwork personalities. My outlook on life is lovelier thanks to Anne Shirley, my wit sharper thanks to Elizabeth Bennet, and I like to think I’ve gained some gumption from Scarlett. Reading is an act of self-reflection, considering ourselves in comparison to the characters and writers we most admire. Best of all, the books—and, of course, the Book—which disclose something of our own Author lead us to a greater knowledge of our identity as human beings made in the Image of God.

Finally, it seems that reading (and in turn writing about what we read) serves as moral formation, shaping our desires and decisions. Dante encounters many sinners in hell who, through their own devices, get exactly what they wanted. They loved stories that reflected their own flawed desires and pursued these to the bitter end, continuing to desire those same lowly things in death so that these desires fittingly become their chosen punishments. This is a negative example of bad readership. Using books to reinforce or justify vice is a discredit to discernment, that incredible gift of intelligence.

In Purgatory, however, tales and pictures of virtue are presented, spurring penitent souls to better love and pursue all that is good and true and beautiful. Many good books feature fallen characters; in fact, there would be no narrative conflict were all characters and situations wholly good and perfect. However, if we read like the redeemed souls Dante encounters, we will learn from the good and the bad in books. Through discerning readership, we can engage the whole breadth and depth of human experience without leaving our nooks, honing our ambitions and hopes without the inconvenience of real-life consequences. The more excellence we glean from books, the more attuned to truth and goodness our minds and hearts will become. 

Rereading Dante now is supremely fitting. I know that I am not alone in being perhaps more lonely, more confused, and more in need of direction than ever. Dante, rather than providing an escape, has become a way of engaging my own isolation, wandering, and hope in faith and relationship. He has become a very dear literary friend—albeit a chatty one who I often wish would stop talking politics.

When Dante is lost and fearful in the first canto of Inferno, his favorite poet-philosopher appears to restore him to community and truth, and, through these, to himself. In the same way, rereading our own beloved authors might restore us to ourselves, just as talking to a close friend might bring us back to our senses. Engaging authors and characters-turned-companions provides company in loneliness, conviction amidst chaos, and, ultimately, a reminder of not only who we are but—if the books are good and true enough—who we are meant to be. 

I return now to the notes I took only a few weeks ago when I once more met Dante at the gates of Hell: Through literature, we form productive relationships with those who thought and imagined before us, as well as those who continue to think and imagine beside us. If we, like Dante, engage in humble and eager readership, perhaps we will—unlike my AP reading list—transcend beyond the filthy babbling of Hell and look toward the radiance of Heaven. Dante may begin his epic in pride, placing himself alongside the best poets and thinkers of history, but, throughout the Divine Comedy, he allows their wise words—and, indeed, their failings—to instruct as well as inspire him, to help him develop not merely as a poet-turned-protagonist but as a human being on the journey of virtue and faith.

This, my dearest reader, is the essence of readership itself: to develop together as human beings toward the best and truest communication, community, and—when readership couples with faith—communion. 

Whatever is Lovely

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
– Philippians 4:8
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I prefer to live my life in double-speed. My long legs are well-suited to covering twice as much ground in half as much time. My planner is generally full of meticulously-crafted schedules. I frequently book work back-to-back because the rush of being busy thrills me. Now, regular readers will recall that my need for speed (efficiency, rather, but that doesn’t rhyme) is problematic as a pianist: my propensity to rush often leads to decreased musicality. I do not tend to let myself linger in loveliness when demanding technical passages beckon me onwards. 
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IMG_3060Suddenly, though, my schedule is wide open: my work is shut-down and my social calendar is much less eventful. I still run to stretch my legs, but they no longer have to carry me anywhere beyond my front door. I am not alone in feeling that I’ll surely descend into stir-crazy madness, however, I am beginning to wonder if the sudden decrease in busyness may be liberating rather than limiting. 
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The other day while cleaning up, I discovered anew the wonder of blowing soap bubbles: such delicate, buoyant things! I spent a few minutes—which would previously have been wasted minutes—playing with them, marveling that such a simple thing has gone unnoticed in my life since childhood. Today, while stretching after a long run, I saw the world upside down. How much greener the trees suddenly looked! And how detailed the dust of the path which was at once beneath my feet and above my head.
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I have the time to just be, something I pridefully disdained before in my desire to stay busy. Madeleine L’Engle beautifully expresses the value and delight of this quiet, still, wondering time in the following:
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“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator, who brought them all into being, who brought me into being, and you.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
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If we embrace this slower time as being time, we may notice once more the small, lovely things that give life its color and order even in the midst of pain and confusion. Maybe our afternoon coffees will seem more flavorful, running errands more interesting, speaking with friends more precious. Maybe we will learn to be comfortable in silence again, to enjoy our own solitary company, and to find fulfillment even in apparent inactivity.
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I am reminded of Philippians 4:8, particularly the phrase “whatever is lovely.” Perhaps now we are given the gift of relative freedom from distractions and demands so that we can rediscover the lovely things we so easily overlook. More so, in noticing loveliness, perhaps we will rediscover how to love well.
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IMG_2909We love our lives and surroundings best when we notice small things with joy. I used to keep a running list of ordinary, lovely things in my journal. Perhaps it is time to resurrect this habit. After all, if you read poetry and stories by writers who deeply love their homes, you will find that they love them particularly: in the broken stair-rail, the sound of a parent coming home, the smell of lemons from a neighbor’s tree. We love well when we notice well.
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In the same way, we can use this time to notice each other, for the best lovers are the best noticers. I don’t mean lovers in a necessarily romantic sense; I simply refer to anyone and everyone who actively loves another person, be it friend, neighbor, family, or partner. The friend who is suddenly incredibly active on Facebook? Check on her, regardless of politics. The family member struggling in isolation? Do what you can, even if it means sitting six feet apart for a masked chat. The neighbor who sets out a “sharing table” and seems to have plenty? Add what you can and commend their kindness. 
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As you learn to notice lovely things and to recognize opportunities for love, take the time to notice yourself as well. These last months have forced me to recognize the good things I’ve allowed to become idols as, suddenly, they have been removed. Noticing this is hard—painful even—but it is allowing me to genuinely check in with myself spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. Notice how you are doing and what it is you are desiring. I realize this is easier said than done, but I entreat you to join me in the effort. And remember that noticing ourselves goes beyond self-care; it involves confronting the reality of our lives and loves and seeking to reorient them toward what is truly lovely, that is, worth loving.
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04276F07-9D93-4829-B0B5-429F78724B8CTo conclude, I leave you simply with the following words from my “About” Page: 
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“It’s the little things, after all, that make life so lovely. And that’s really what this blog is all about: finding the small, lovely things which testify to the enduring delight of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.”
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May we use this time not to avoid the ugliness of reality, but to also rejoice in truer loveliness with gratitude and hope.

“The Whole Earth is our Hospital”: Words when Words Fail

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For those of you who do not know, I am currently studying “Theology and the Arts” at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Most recently, my practical criticism class has been reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. As we finished our session on “Little Gidding,” the fourth quartet, my professor sighed deeply. Suddenly emotional, she told us emphatically that above any academic gain, she hoped that we would internalize Eliot’s poetry so that we can recall it in times of need. She suggested memorizing full passages, not to show off in seminars, but to comfort ourselves in times when our own words fail.

Little did we realize, but that class session was to be our last. In the past few days, the pandemic situation has escalated far beyond what any of us could have imagined and, today, the University sent the devastating news that our courses will be completely online and urged us to return to our homes if possible.

In the days leading up to this announcement, I was numb: expecting the worst, but hoping it would not be so. Words, which come so easily for me even in times of stress, ceased. Even my thoughts were unclear and I felt ironically trapped at the thought of leaving. As I often do in times of distress, I sought movement and height, climbing the spiral stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower at the Cathedral and thinking of nothing more than measuring my steps and minding my head. At the top, I removed my battered, much-annotated copy of Four Quartets and began to read my favorite, “East Coker,” over St. Andrew’s.

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Not only was I indeed standing on “Old stone to new building” as Eliot writes in the first movement, but I felt that at such a height and in such an ancient place, I truly was glimpsing the cycles of time that he describes. I felt that I was gaining perspective and could truly believe—as the cold wind whipped my hair across my eyes—that “there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane.”

The most heartwrenching, yet comforting words came in the fourth movement of “East Coker,” however. Indeed, I believe the Word enters into this movement. I will include the first and third stanzas, but encourage you to read the full movement or poem here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-four-quartets-east-coker-annotated

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. . .

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. . . “

The phrase “The whole earth is our hospital” is especially poignant. How true this has become. And yet, our “wounded surgeon”—paradox though He seems—will not abandon us. He knows suffering.

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We cannot naively ignore the state of the world as sick, spiritually and physically. People are suffering illness and death, as well as selfishness and resentment. Disappointment is rampant. Eliot’s poetry timelessly engages such atrocities yet points to a Saviour who did not simply remove our self-made trials but entered into them alongside us as living and dying flesh. Being able to recall Eliot’s words when my own failed has been an unmeasurable blessing and one which, ultimately, drew my heart back to the Word who is both my beginning and end.

Maybe it’s Because of Winn Dixie

I’m reading Gone with the Wind again for what is somewhere between the fourth or seventh time. It seems that anytime I am between books, unsure what to read next, or feeling unsettled, I turn (second to my Bible) to that enormous novel for no better reason than that it is a darn good story.

But my relationship with Gone with the Wind has grown to run deeper than just loving its tale of hard times, moral dilemma, and, of course, gumption. I first read Gone with the Wind as a stressed-out sophomore in high school. I saw its spine in the school’s library and, although my Kaplan AP study guide glared reproachfully at me, I could not resist cracking it open and reading its first page.

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

Talk about an intriguing opening line! In it, Margaret Mitchell’s beautifully direct yet alluring voice is already clear and called me to continue deeper into the story of Miss O’Hara. And, though AP exams were looming, I rationed out a chapter each night in the copy that now is bedraggled and overread and never far from my bedside table.

My freshman year of college drove me back beneath the covers of Gone with the Wind. Once more, the story swept me away and restored my own sense of gumption. Like Scarlett, I was able to “square my small shoulders” and boldly face the world. Again and again, each spring semester I found myself returning to Tara and Atlanta and the fascinating courtship of Scarlett and Rhett Butler.

Once I began traveling internationally, I downloaded a Kindle edition so that I could continue my annual reread. The novel has been a constant as I’ve flown around Europe, studied in the UK, and hopped between Southern California and Arizona during long, uneventful summers. Now, it is keeping me company during a grueling layover in Amsterdam as I head to Scotland to begin my postgraduate studies.

In reflection, I’ve known and loved Gone with the Wind far longer than I even realized; in fact, you might say that I was introduced to it through a mutual friend. At a party a week ago, I was suddenly anxious. There were too many people, too many colors, too much noise. And I had too much to do, too many unfinished chores and unpacked cases waiting at home. I wanted to sink through the floor and cry. But then I found, nestled on a bookshelf, a copy of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie and felt the tension diffuse as if I’d sighted a dear friend with whom I could enjoy comfortable silence even amidst the chaos of the party.

So I sat down and, as I did many years ago, began to read. Opal and Winn Dixie and the Preacher greeted me with welcome arms and I felt companionship in their worries and homesickness. And as I read on, I remembered that in the pages of this children’s story, I was first introduced to the novel that has come to dominate my adult reading life.

Reading Because of Winn Dixie, now and as a child, brought a sense of calm when I needed it most and, I think, planted the seed that eventually led me to Gone with the Wind. So I suppose all this is really a thank-you letter of sorts— to Margaret Mitchell, for her epic novel, and to Kate DiCamillo, for introducing us. Dear authors, your words have been friends to me in so many places and stages; I only hope to inspire others to read them and, one day, to have my own stories shelved beside them.

 

Bedtime Stories

As I grow older, it is often more difficult to fall asleep. I know I’m not alone in this. Age brings with it more anxieties and activities than the sheep we might otherwise be counting and, honestly, the only cure I’ve found (aside from melatonin) is to return to reading bedtime stories.

As I recently realized, reading a bedtime story is quite a distinct practice from simply reading until one can no longer keep one’s eyes open. You see, I recently finished Donna Tart’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Goldfinch, a gripping and well-crafted work of art. However, while it was sure to keep me reading until I fell by necessity into sleep, The Goldfinch was a terrible choice for a bedtime story.

Somewhere in-between being unable to fall asleep, reading novels that produced restless sleep, and using other distractions (my phone, Amazon Video, etc.) to avoid sleep, I fell to pondering these words from the Psalms:

When I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

Psalm 63:6-8

To rest well throughout the night, my soul first needed to rest in truth and hope, in the simplicity of biblical salvation and the enduring delight that it promises. Fraught with despair, drugs, and deceit, The Goldfinch is an excellent commentary on the human condition, especially the paranoia and fear of a post-9-11 society. However, as I read it, I found myself falling asleep with a feeling of deep discomfit that invaded even my dreams. While it is essential to engage with difficult topics (both in literature and in life), I found myself increasingly disenchanted by the seeming hopelessness of this novel.

But then I met a little prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, to be exact. And in this book, I found a story that children can understand perfectly and grown-ups can use to relearn what they once knew. A commentary on life complex enough to keep readers wondering yet simple enough to read aloud, I found in The Little Prince the food-for-thought and story-for-the-soul that I craved.

This small, blue picture book does what the enormous yellow novel could not: both present humanity honestly, not shying away from the flaws of our fallen state. However, while The Goldfinch depicts a doomed, adult redemption in the love of beautiful things which are bound to fade, The Little Prince offers redemption by inviting us to become like children once more— that is, it invites us to perceive the small, the simple, and the saving.

The Little Prince wants only a drawing of a very small sheep. The protagonist of The Goldfinch hoards an invaluable work of art. The Little Prince sees the cyclical downfalls of various men and can find them only silly and sad. In The Goldfinch, they are seen as inevitable. While both are edifying in their stark portrayal of all that is wrong, The Little Prince, in a sweet, uncomplicated manner, reminds readers of all that can be set right:

We can love something and, in loving it, make it unique. We can see something whimsical and refuse to be disenchanted with the world around us. We can ask questions without ceasing, knowing there must be answers. We can travel without fear, for we know where our true home lies.

In reading The Goldfinch, I was painfully presented with the tragic state of the world, humanity, and myself. A strategically-broken mirror, it remains a powerfully-written source of conviction. But falling asleep in a state of despair and dejection? 10/10 would not recommend. Save that sort of reading for the daytime, or at least by the light of a fire with a cup of tea in hand to ward off the depression.

The Little Prince, however, brings both conviction and clarity. Opening its pages and listening to the bell-like voice of its young adventurer allows readers to shake off the dust of the day and sink into a state of reflection and reorientation. In traveling alongside the Little Prince, we realize intuitively what our grown-up rationality cannot grasp:

but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’

Matthew 19:14 (ESV)

With the proper story, we might be better able to perceive not only the good, true, and beautiful with the clarity of innocence of youth, but rest in the words of the classic bedtime prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Guide me safely through the night,
Wake me with the morning light.
Amen

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
When in the morning light I wake,
Show me the path of love to take.
Amen

The New England Primer

Dear Mr. Dickens: An Open Letter

My dear Mr. Dickens,

I hope you are well and not at all rolling over in your grave. (It is, after all, nearing Christmas and renditions of your famous holiday tale are promenading before audiences who are mostly wondering whether they actually turned off the oven or whether the turkey they pretend to like is burnt positively to a crisp.)

I digress. I hope that you are enjoying some heavenly library and continuing to dream up wonderfully real characters, quirks and all. (Though sadly characters with fewer flaws if you are in some higher home…)

Now that the well wishes are done, I must humbly beg your pardon; I insulted you years ago, though perhaps we can lay the true blame on my mother, who insulted you first. But whether or not insults are hereditary failings, I must ask you to forgive me. I called you “long-winded” and “gold-digging,” for I heard that you were paid per word and perpetuated your propensity for prolific phrases to procure profit. (How’s that for alliteration?)

I was wrong to mock you for a trait that I share (love of words and liking of being paid for them). I also concede that I was incorrect in my accusations. You were not, as it turns out, paid per word, but rather per installment. This is most sensible, as you wrote novels in monthly installments and it seems a shame to only be paid upon the completion when readers were already enjoying your creations. I freely confess that I made these claims without reading anything aside from the aforementioned Christmas tale and even this is dubious as I my only memory of it is from the Muppets’ version. And so, I apologize most sincerely for my unbased bias.

My readers might pause here, thinking that the length of some of your works does lend some credibility to my prejudice. But here is where we must become more thoughtful. Are your books —David Copperfield for instance— actually pedantic in prose and sprawling in size? Or, are our attention spans as readers poorly lacking? Are we even reading these narratives correctly?

Life is so rapid these days and we demand constant simulation. Not only does my phone weigh much less than Copperfield, it promises more laughs and terrors per post.  Modern literary material is the same; young adult novels especially demonstrate this, focusing more often on the fantastic elevating the ordinary instead of finding what is naturally noteworthy  in this ordinary.

It is so easy to be absorbed by rapid-fire adventures and super human characters, but have we lost something? Have we lost an enchantment with our own humanity? Even just a few chapters into David Copperfield, I am rediscovering a love for the quirks of the human race. I am disgusted by characters that are as flawed as I am and cheer for those that cherish the same silly little hopes that I do. I am enraptured once more with the thought that in all my eating or drinking or whatever I do, I am somehow doing something marvelous because I am, as much as and more than any character, a unique human being set within the context of my culture and, above all, creation’s narrative.

But I am getting carried away and I will tell you now, Mr. Dickens, that I intend to write many more blog posts as I live alongside young Copperfield. For that is what it is, after all: living. There is to be no skimming, no rushing through this book; the very length and style do not allow for it! And where once I might have cursed you for this, now I bless you, sir. I am grateful that your writing, at once elegant and snappy, makes me slow down, return to a fascination with the ordinary, and truly live in community with your characters as they develop alongside my own life.

I once more offer my humblest apologies and my deepest thanks.

Your abashed and admiring reader,

Ryanne J. McLaren

 

Re-re-re-reading

I just finished reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind for the fourth(?) time, though, honestly, I’ve probably read parts of that book three times, parts of it six. I just can’t seem to stay away from it and end up rereading at least half of it every late spring/early summer. Whatever the exact number, I can say with certainty that there is deep and personal value to rereading a book with this regularity.

Reading #1: I read it mostly for the story and to escape what still was the most stressful semester of my life (though by now I have handled far worse).  Click the link below for my original reaction (minus some of the crying). I actually credit this book with inspiring me to start this blog in the first place!

https://abookishcharm.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/gone-with-the-wind/

Reading #2: Also read mostly for the story, but after my first year of college and living away from home, it felt good to return to something familiar. As soon as I moved back home for the summer, I baked muffins and had to make up some of the ingredients, so I decided I could rebrand them as “Melanie’s Muffins.” (recipe/post at link below)

https://abookishcharm.wordpress.com/2016/06/01/melanies-lemon-berry-muffins/

Reading #3: I was lazy and wrote nothing, but I folded the corners of one in every ten pages because I had a paper idea and was gathering evidence. (Please don’t berate me for abusing my book like this…sometimes an idea strikes and sticky notes are too far away to save the poor top corners.) After now two years of the honors institute at my university, I was reading on a new level and beginning to make connections I still find fascinating to ponder.

Reading #4: Very little reading was done, but I skimmed some of my favorite parts and carried the now-worn paperback around with me for a couple weeks as a shield against end-of-term stress. I did bring it to a pool party, though, where a friend borrowed it and left me to grouchily wish I had not been so generous (below).

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Reading #4.5: I actually read all of it this time. I even caved and bought a Kindle copy so I could read it on the plane to Ireland, justifying the purchase by telling myself that the O’Haras were Irish so it was only fitting. This time, I could not stop thinking of paper ideas… Grad school, I’m coming for you!

Beyond the intriguing literary ideas I unearthed through several re-readings, though, I was interested to see my growth as both a reader and a person reflected in my reading. The first time I read for fun, the second for comfort, the third for insight, the fourth(ish) for development of these ideas. Similarly, as a person I have stepped out of my comfort zone, have found the joy of investigating new ideas and places, and now have the joy of looking back and seeing the development I underwent along the way.

I do not reread many novels, though I know in my literary heart that I should. However, having this one novel to return to over and over again has been wonderful and I know this will not be my last rereading. Just as Scarlet returns to Tara to reconnect with her past and plan for her future, I have been comforted and inspired by this fourth(ish) rereading.

To those of you out there who have never read this book, GO READ IT. And to those of you who have never reread a book, either choose one or find one worth reading once and then again. (Shoot me a message and I’d be happy to help you out!)

Non-Writing Writer

I was inspired this morning as I walked to practice piano for an upcoming recital… this would have been great, had I been inspired to practice. Rather, I was inspired to set the opening of Wordsworth’s The Prelude to music. 

My roommate (bless her) stopped me just in time: “Ryanne, if you write a melody and add lyrics, you’ll also want to add harmony and piano. You don’t have time!” 

Valid. 

But I felt strongly the annoyance of being unable to create due to the pressures of my ordinary, required pursuits. 

So I wrote a little rhyme to vent: 

A non writing writer’s a monster they say:

A little too frazzled and nearly insane.

She lives in an enchanted, storybook world 

Yet can’t venture in, for life is a whirl.

One single word leads to many and two-

Well, they multiply to be more than a few. 

And should she dare to compose a small line 

She risks the danger of falling behind;

The everyday life has no cares for the muse,

Though the poet’s soul, she hardly did choose. 

So cursed with a mind that brews up ideas 

And a heart that ever ceaselessly feels,

She stumbles about with a businesslike stride 

And forces her little brainchildren to hide

And wait for a time when life will relax 

It’s grip made of boring and ord’nary tasks-

So she might finally write them all down,

These inkling ideas that, impatient, abound.