Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Reading Round-Up: August (and the "Slim Little Volumes")

I’ve been reading a lot of small books lately. The smallness describes their physical size, not necessarily their content. It’s interesting how reviewers often pick up on a book’s diminutive size as if surprised that a book with relatively few pages and a thin spine can contain something of worth. During my ten years of regular reviewing, I know I sometimes lapsed into the phrase “slim little volume,” which I now recognize as lazy writing, a sort of shorthand to express surprise that writing gems can be found in such little packages. It’s a strange sort of assessment. All we have to do is look to the world of humanity to understand how strange it is, since sometimes absolute dynamos (William Wilberforce, Mother Theresa, just to name two) are small in stature.

It’s possible, I suppose, that I’m drifting to smaller books in my non-fiction reading time because in fiction-world, I am still enamored of the work of P.D. James. My twelve year old sometimes gets an almost pained look on her face when she sees me bring home another James novel from the library. “Another P.D. James?” she’ll say a little skeptically, or sometimes just “that’s a loooonng book.” They are long books, full of slow, detailed prose, but I’m enjoying them immensely. I haven’t raced through James’ canon the way I raced through Deborah Crombie’s a couple of years ago. I seem to need breaks, sometimes of a few months or more, between outings. But when I get onto a P.D. James kick, I usually don’t stop with one. And I’m starting to prematurely mourn that I only have a few volumes left before I run out. I’m up to The Murder Room, which means that her detective Adam Dalgleish has actually embarked upon a romance, something I’m still a bit ambivalent about.

Whether or not I am moving toward smaller books because my brain needs a break from hefty mystery novels, the fact remains that the books on my nightstand (or rather in the unwieldy floor pile by the bed) are all fairly short right now. I’ve mentioned two of them here recently: I’m re-reading Justo Gonzalez’ The Changing Shape of Church History and I’m reading Macrina Wiederkehr’s A Tree Full of Angels.

Both of these books take me back to earlier seasons in my life. Gonzalez is the author of The Story of Christianity, my first real foray into the study of church history seventeen years ago. I will always feel indebted that he was my introduction to the discipline; he writes beautiful, readable historical chronicles. I was introduced to Wiederkehr even longer ago, when I worked for the Cabrini sisters (it’s been over 21 years now since I started my four and a half year stint with Cabrini, and I’m still learning from the time I spent with them). I’m pretty sure most of the Wiederkehr I’ve read was in excerpt, brought to prayer rooms on photocopied pages – the sisters and lay people I worked with there always brought beautiful poems and snippets of prose to prayer and meditation time. I’ve had one line floating in my head for two decades now, which I’m fairly certain is Wiederkehr’s, though I’m not sure of the context: “This is a trust song, Lord. I am in your hands like clay.” (If anybody knows where she says this, I’d love to be reminded.)

I’m also reading – or maybe it’s re-reading, I’m not quite sure – C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory. I would have told you that of the five essays included in that volume, I had definitely read two or maybe three of them. I go back to the title essay, “The Weight of Glory,” probably once a year. This summer I decided to move straight on from there and read everything else in order, and so far I’m remembering them all, so perhaps this is a re-read. No matter. Everything Lewis wrote is worth reading and then chewing on again.

Lewis is one of the few writers in my life that I actually sometimes wake up feeling I need to read. It happened again this morning. I find myself thinking “it sure would be nice to spend some time with Jack this morning,” and I reach for whatever book happens to be handy (I’m blessed we have a lot of his books on our shelves, and there are a lot more right down the road at the seminary library). This morning, Jack wanted to talk with me about “Learning in War-Time,” and I was happy to listen again. The slightly browning edges of the page and the note underneath the title “A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939,” gave me a moment’s pause, as it suddenly occurred to me that this voice that feels so fresh first spoke these words seventy-five years ago. It’s strange that a mere one-line description of the sermon itself could move me so much, but it somehow made the whole thing feel more rich and real as I sat there on my bed and the morning sun slanted silver through the blinds. As I read, I found myself feeling like I’d slipped into a pew of the church, right behind a lady wearing a WWII era hat. When I left the pages, no doubt I would find myself traipsing down an English road lined with trees whose leaves were turning red and gold. 
In the “slim little volume” category (sorry, I couldn’t resist), I’m also reading More Baths Less Talking, Nick Hornby’s witty collection of literary columns. This was a Christmas gift from my sister last year, and it’s been mostly sitting on my desk intriguing me with its title. Not long ago I found myself drawn to it on the new non-fiction shelves at the library (“what a funny title!”) and then realized that I’d thought that before and the book was at home on my desk. It’s my first dip into Hornby’s work and it’s delightful. He has a droll sense of humor and an insightful way of cutting right to the heart of a book and what it meant to him.

I’m re-reading Meindert DeJong’s The Wheel on the School. I decided recently that I wanted to get back to my literary devotional project, and saw that I had broken off (sometime last year) in the midst of ideas for a devotional based on this book. At that time it was fresh in my mind because I’d just read it aloud, for the second time, to the sweet girl. I thought I’d better give it a quick re-read to refresh my memory, since my notes were not entirely jogging my brain. But it’s such a beautiful story that reading it quickly feels almost impossible. I’m also having that interesting experience of realizing how different it is to read a book silently (and just to yourself) after having gotten to know it while reading it aloud.

My quest to read everything Gary D. Schmidt has written continues with his early novel Anson’s Way. I’m not very far into it yet, so I will probably take this one (along with the new P.D. James) to the peninsula when we head out on our few-day vacation soon.

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