One of the great joys of my retreat was being able to do a lot of reading. Lately I find myself getting sucked into my iPad too often in the evenings and spare moments, and I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like.
I began by finishing The Color of Water by James McBride. I borrowed this from a colleague far too long ago and was relieved to finally be able to return it this week.
I loved the first section of this book, which alternates between the story of the black author and his white mother. By the time I began my retreat I was reading the Reaching Important Conclusions and Tying Up Loose Ends part of the work, which was lovely but not as satisfying as the more narrative beginning.
One particularly opportune quote: “Love is unstoppable. It is our greatest weapon, a natural force, created by God.”
Next up was The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. This is the first book about writing that I’ve read since starting to think of myself as a writer. I was intimidated by Dillard’s description of her torturous writing process. I felt foolish calling this thing I do on steno pads in the back of rehearsals during stolen moments by the same name as her labor. But that’s why she wins awards and has legions of fans.
After breezing through that short volume I went on to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I have been meaning for a while to begin exploring her work but had put it off because I was afraid she’d get too far into my head. She did in the most wonderful way.
I have been attempting, in my own work, to trust in description rather than always rushing into This Is What This Means. Authors like Didion remind me that when done well, description does the explaining on its own.
She approaches her topic with an attitude which I would describe as sacramentality of place (would she use similar terms? Doubtful.) Though she describes California, a place with no particular meaning for me, and though her family has been the same place for generations, which mine cannot boast, she documents her “place” with a relatable sense of significance and sanctity. I’m hooked.
Finally, I moved on to my big read: The Brothers Karamazov. This was my third time through it, having first tackled it (and been tackled in turn) in my early twenties. The first time through I fell in love with Alyosha, as every idealistic young woman should. The second time I was shocked to find myself relating to Fyodor Pavlovich, especially during the moment when Zosima tells him “Be at ease, and feel completely at home. And above all do not be so ashamed of yourself, for that is the cause of everything.”
The phrase I carried with me this time around was from the long section of Zosima’s speech. He tells Alyosha “you will bless life and cause others to bless it, which is the most important thing.” I’m at a time in life when I’m struggling for clarity on what it means for me to live out my vocation to Christian discipleship. The phrase “bless life and cause others to bless it” might do for a while.
[A word of advice for those of you looking to read the Russians: if you are not using the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations, you’re doing it wrong. They are so readable; if I had read a different translation of War and Peace my reading might have taken even longer than it did. ]
Since my return I’ve moved on to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak at the urging of a colleague. Last time I read one of the students’ assignments it was The Chosen, which I was reading when my sweetheart first worked up the nerve to talk to me as we sat next to each other on the train. Who knows? Maybe this young adult novel will change my life too. Or maybe I should just make sure I’m careful with whom I make small talk.
What are you reading right now? Any recommendations for me?