“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” C.S. Lewis
I started writing this piece about a year ago…and obviously didn’t finish it. About a week ago, I received an email from a friend who has been hosting monthly small group virtual gatherings for artists and thinkers. (I just realized how long that description is. Let’s diagram it…okay, let’s not.) Instead of an assigned reading to discuss or a “guest” speaker (meaning one of us introducing an idea or artist), he asked us to bring three artistic works we keep returning to over and over again. I always struggle to narrow such assignments down, so I dug out this list…and didn’t find it that helpful in whittling my list of influences down to three. But in the process of trying to select which three works I wanted to share, the idea came to pick those that most evoked wonder in me. All of these works I find true and beautiful. Each inspire me in different ways. Some resonate with my deepest longings or sooth my deepest wounds. Others seem to pull me out of myself, while others warm my soul with memory.
I wanted to focus on those that evoked wonder, partly to help put a different spin on it, partly to be positive, and very much because I figured that would help me avoid talking about the wounds. How foolish of me. The best books make me cry—not always from sorrow or sentiment, but because the beauty hits some deep ache in my soul, the kind of ache that has some good in it. Perhaps it is the ache of truth, both beautiful and terrible, but many times it is the ache akin to longing, something so fierce inside my soul, that sudden thirst and hunger and drive I have felt since I was a little girl. I remember sensing it the most with my grandmother—the things she grew around her house, the way the humidity hung in the air and the tiniest breeze wafted through her house in summertime and gave it an entirely different scent than most places indoors nowadays, the walks we took through the woods, the hairpin curves up the mountain, the way the rain pelted all of those trees at the house I remember living most as a kid, the fresh smell of hay and manure, the adventure of crawling through the barbed wire to run barefoot across the field to a neighbor’s house—something about those everyday, simple things put a restlessness in my spirit that made me, like Douglas in Dandelion Wine, realize I was alive. The memory alone either makes me want to kick up my heals and run and cry and shout all at the same time or puts a sudden frenzied idea of getting in the car and taking off for God only knows how long and where. But far deeper than the frenzy is the good ache that longs for something I know I cannot have now. I don’t always know how to explain it. But if often makes me cry, that longing. Perhaps Lewis said it well in describing Tolkien’s work. I’ve wondered before if there could be a better compliment: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold stone; here is a book that will break your heart.”
The ache I describe and wonder aren’t exactly the same, and I’m not even going to try to analyze the differences, but I do think there is a connection. Maybe I’ll eventually write about that, who knows.
So here they are, the books I can’t escape you might say, but NOT ordered by priority, because I can’t seem to do that.
Harper Lee~To Kill a Mockingbird
Ray Bradbury~Dandelion Wine
L.M. Montgomery~Anne of Green Gables
Louisa May Alcott~Little Women
Antoine de Saint-Exupery~The Little Prince
Lewis Carroll~Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
C.S. Lewis~Til We Have Faces, Mere Christianity, The Four Loves, Surprised by Joy, The Chronicles of Narnia*
J.R.R. Tolkien~The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, “Leaf by Niggle,” The Silmarillion**
William Shakespeare~A Midsummer Night’s Dream
G.K. Chesterton~The Man Who Was Thursday***
Corrie ten Boom~The Hiding Place
Charles Dickens~A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities
*The best of the Narnia is The Horse and His Boy. Just sayin’.
**I have to actually finish this one, but I keep going back, not just to attempt to finish, but because the creation story is so captivating.
***I’ve read this one about three times, and it always leaves me delightfully puzzled. I can’t help myself.
Bonus: In my search for a picture for this post, I came across this collection of pictures of people reading…https://bookmarin.com/en/bookart-30-stunning-classic-paintings-of-reading-people/
The image of Jo March reading (from the 1994 adaptation with Winona Ryder) was taken from…
Atlas, Nava. “10 Women Writers Who Were Inspired by Jo March of Little Women.” Literary Ladies Guide. 2 September 2017. https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/literary-musings/10-women-writers-who-were-inspired-by-jo-march-of-little-women/ Accessed 18 July 2021.