Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Literary Day of Days

I sometimes mark the birthdays of favorite authors or poets here. But today, November 29, there is an embarrassment of riches. For me, this is the day of all literary days to celebrate each year!

Today we mark the birthdays of:

Louisa May Alcott (1832)
Clive Staples Lewis (1898)
Madeleine L'Engle (1918)

It just doesn't get much better than this.

If I were hard pressed to choose ten, and only ten, of my all-time favorite authors, the authors of my heart who have done the most to help shape my imagination and my thinking, these three would all be on the list.

I've loved them at different seasons of my life. I probably discovered Alcott first. I read many of her books during my childhood and adolescence, but particularly "inhabited" Little Women, visiting its pages over and over again. I read it so many times that I had certain portions of it memorized, and certainly random lines of it still come back to me even now.

I loved the world of Little Women so much that when D. and I made an unexpected trip to Concord one autumn a number of years ago (while looking into seminaries in the Massachusetts area) and turned onto the street where Orchard House is located, I caught my breath in wonder before I even realized what house I was looking at. Orchard House was the house where Alcott wrote Little Women, and in many ways was her model for the March home where Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy grew up.

She must have captured it brilliantly. I have never before had such a strange sense of homecoming to a house I'd never even seen.

It's hard for me to recall whether I began reading Lewis or L'Engle first. I'm pretty sure it was Lewis...I think I read at least The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian the year I was ten, with the other Chronicles coming not long after. Certainly I'd read them all by the time I'd gotten through the junior high years, some of them several times each. For my sixteenth birthday, I got a hardback copy of Paul Ford's Companion to Narnia and an electric typewriter. That might give you some idea of how Lewis influenced my story-loving, story-writing life.

But Lewis has remained a huge influence, not only through his wonderful Chronicles (though they're still dearest to my heart of all his work, I think) but through his other fiction and through many of his non-fiction books. I go to Lewis so often that I sometimes feel as though he and I are friends; we can just sit down together, or more likely, I can sit on the floor right next to the chair where he sits and puffs on his pipe. I admire him not only as a story-teller, but as a Christian theologian: for me, Lewis remains one of the sanest, healthiest voices of the 20th century.

And then there's Madeleine. She's the only one of the three that I feel comfortable calling by her first name, perhaps because she is still a living author, perhaps because I've actually written her letters several times over the years and received wonderful, warm and personal replies with her extravagant "Madeleine L'Engle" signature scrawled at the bottom of the page. (I even invited her to our wedding, because her book Two-Part Invention had shaped so many of my early thoughts about marriage. She wasn't able to come, but she sent a beautiful note of thanks and blessing.) It was probably Madeleine who made me realize how much I wanted to be a writer in the first place. Her characters -- especially Vicky Austin and Katherine Vigneras -- retain huge places of honor in my personal literary canon. I can always go back to a Madeleine book, fiction or non-fiction, assured that I will find, like a tune I've heard a thousand times, repeated notes of beauty: about the ordered purpose of lives lived under the sustaining care of a good Creator God; about the richness of names and naming; about the importance of our ordinary, every-day actions.

Alcott, Lewis, L'Engle. A trio of literary saints, if you will. Near and dear to my heart. Happy birthday to all three!


mrspilkington said...

(visiting from bonastra...)
lovely post! thanks for letting us share in your celebration.

Erin said...

Oooh, an embarrassment of riches - and an embarrassment to me that I didn't realize it! ;) Lewis and L'Engle especially. And that's so neat that you've corresponded with her! She seems like a really fascinating woman. Anyway, I echo the triple birthday greetings!

Beth said...

Thanks for stopping by from bonastra! I do enjoy that group, though I've been lurking a lot of late. :-) Glad you enjoyed the posting!

Beth said...

I think it was either last year or earlier this year that it suddenly dawned on me that all three authors shared a day. Wow! They've all meant so much to me in very different ways. L'Engle and Lewis especially, because they've been dear since childhood but also written plenty of great nourishing fare for my adulthood. I confess I've not read Alcott much recently, but she really did shape a lot of my reading imagination as a child and she will always have a place in my heart because of that!