As an ardent reader, I relish both good stories and perennial wisdom. This week I share a few of my favorites with you.
Thankfully, Dick and Jane did not quench my love of reading. I lose myself in a well-told story.
I read to find heroines and role models, to understand villains and evil. See the world afresh. Escape. Time travel to other places and by unfamiliar means – horseback, sleigh, trans-Atlantic steamer, dragon- back (Anne McCaffrey’s specialty). Drench myself in strange tastes, smells and dialects. And find myself anew, with widened eyes and a wiser heart, some enhanced capacity to be more human. Enchanted by language. Refreshed to return to my own daily “story.”
Hefting a book in my hands, I treasure the tactile – the feel of the binding and texture of the paper. I’ve kept notebooks of quotes, even extended passages. I’ve underlined and scribbled in margins, highlighted and tabbed with post-its.
I love being pulled forward page to page…and if the story is a good one, I ration the pages to slow myself down and savor the experience.
Winter comfort reading…fiction to be savored with afghan and tea
Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin (1983). The language and imaginative scope of this novel still absorbs me on my – 10th? 15th? rereading. Peopled by outrageous underworld characters, a master mechanic, a consumptive heiress, an epic competition between high-minded and low-minded daily newspapers, an elusive bridge-thrower, a howling White Wall, and a powerful white horse, all in the roiling streets of Manhattan during some time that never was but we dream of. Especially now that Helprin has engraved such a city in our minds.
All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.
The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett (2007). Trailing her yapping corgis around a corner of Buckingham Palace, the Queen of England stumbles upon a traveling library. I revisit the life-changing pleasures of reading as she discovers her own. Full of Britishisms and good humor.
’The Queen has a slight cold’ was what the nation was told, but what it was not told and what the Queen herself did not know was that this was only the first of a series of accommodations, some of them far-reaching, that her reading was going to involve.
The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver (1988). Taylor escapes Kentucky “in a ’55 VW Bug with no windows to speak of, and no back seat and no starter.” Headed west, she stops for a scant meal and leaves the bar with her “head rights” to the Cherokee nation: an abandoned, abused toddler. Taylor and Turtle end up in Tucson at Jesus is Lord Used Tires, which houses an auto repair shop and a sanctuary for Central American asylum-seekers. Full-bodied and warm-hearted characters, each down on their own hard luck, take care of one another, creating their own miracles along the way.
We looked where (Turtle) was pointing. Some of the wisteria flowers had gone to seed, and all these wonderful long green pods hung down from the branches. They looked as much like beans as anything you’d care to eat…It was another miracle. The flower trees were turning into bean trees.
Perennial wisdom … dip in, savor, open at random and contemplate
I take on a different reading persona with these works of perennial wisdom. These are not cover-to-cover reads. I do start with forwards and prefaces and introductions for context. I often read the acknowledgments at the end: I enjoy getting a sense of the lineages to which such books belong and the village that may have surrounded an author’s or translator’s work. Then I read I-Ching style: open at random, read a few passages or pages, close the book and reflect on what light the words shed on any given current personal or world predicament.
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, translation and foreward by Stephen Mitchell (1984). First published in 1929 by Franz Xaver Kappus, recipient of these 10 letters from the Bohemian-Austrian poet. Kappus was a 19-year-old military cadet and aspiring poet. While addressing a life in poetry and art, Rilke’s words remain rich guidance for a vibrant inner life in the 21st century.
…it is clear we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition.
Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass (2005). This volume is built around talks I first listened to on cassette tapes as I was running a gingerbread-baking business out of my kitchen. He spoke about the “mellow drama” of his own journey. And he mixed his personal stories with commentary on the themes of this ancient scripture, “themes…that touch on the various yogas, or paths for coming to union with God.” The 700 verses of the Bhagavad Gita originally appear among some 200,000 verses of the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. This “song” takes the form of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna, his charioteer, as Arjuna is about to go into full battle with his own family members.
Again and again the Gita turns our perspective upside down…It shifts our sense of what our lives are about. So as we begin to adopt the Gita’s perspective as our own, we’ll notice that our focus starts to change. Instead of always preoccupying ourselves with trying to get what we think we want or need, we’ll start to quiet, we’’ll start to listen. We’ll wait for that inner prompting. We’ll try to hear, rather than decide, what it is we should do next…we’ll discover that we’ve lost our lives – and found them.
The Instruction Manual for Receiving God, Jason Shulman (2006). This slim volume offers more than one-hundred “seed passages” for contemplation, along with commentary and suggested practices. He lays out an open-hearted path to accepting the wisdom and limitations in our human imperfections, and to encountering God at every turn. I have been studying this nondual work with Jason for over twenty years. He is the real deal.
There is a Japanese saying: The elbow does not bend outward. It is a smart saying. The freedom of the elbow, the wonderfulness of the elbow, is precisely because of its limitations. This is our awakened attitude. We are free to be completely human. We are not free to be aliens or cartoon creatures. We are free to be ourselves, with all of our imperfections and bruises.
An invitation: pay it forward and add one of your titles and why it makes your own list of favorite books!
Watch for Part II: fiction and non-fiction for writers and cross-cultural explorers.