The changing patterns of life have in recent days opened up – for many of us – new possibilities for how we employ our time. With less written in our calendars and more time at home we are drawn by the need for innovation and fresh perspective. I happen to live in a house with a lot of books and I recalled a book by English author Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing.
She tells the story of how she went looking for a particular book and in the process stumbled on many works read long ago –and some not read at all. Hill’s vast collection were not neatly ordered so searching was a common practice. She found the book she was looking for but the process took her well beyond a simple task completed. It led to a decision to give a year to reading books in
her possession and discover them afresh or for the first time. At the end of her narrative Hill provides a list she calls ‘The Final Forty’. The Bible and The Book of Common Prayer (1662) are at the top of the list – Dickens, Hardy, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Edith Wharton, P.G. Woodhouse, Dostoevsky and T.S. Eliot show up on the list. (By the way – Howards End is a novel by E.M. Forster)
During this time of “keep-safe-stay-home” I have embarked on a similar though less ambitious journey to revisit and rediscover works collected over many years. I should note that on my bookshelves you find primarily non-fiction – though there is balance in our overall collection with plenty of fiction and fantasy that my wife Marion reads and re-reads. And these works are common fare for conversation about characters and ideas.
What lines our personal bookshelves discloses much about our interests, but more importantly provides glimpses into one’s history – a resource for memories and the evolution of one’s thinking. Books well-read can have a transforming influence on the reader. Some may speak into
a particular moment or circumstance of life while others become like old friends, an ongoing resource for instruction, inspiration and the nurturing of heart and mind.
Markings, by Dag Hammarskjold, I bought not long after it was published in 1964. Hammarskjold served for five years as Secretary General of the United Nations until his death in a plane crash in Zambia in 1961. Markings consists of material found in private papers after his death including a letter giving permission to publish it. It was translated by Leif Sjoberg – to whom he wrote the letter and W.H. Auden – the renowned poet – who writes an informative and insightful Foreword.
The book is a collections of “markings” in a personal diary of “negotiations with myself and with God”. It consists of brief statements, poems, aphorisms, quotes and reflections. I can’t recall how I stumbled on to this book or what moved me to buy it. But I know I carried the small paperback edition with me over many months and read and reread its challenging and at times cryptic comments.
Hammarskjold takes up a “mystical” version of the faith – but not escapist. One line I still remember:
“The road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.” This book was for me a rich and invigorating resource that could provoke thought, action and transformation. The recent revisit has been a delight and a challenge. What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden But this: I have only my own burden to bear.” (pg 85).
The Classics We’ve Read, The Difference They’ve Made, edited by Philip Yancey is a volume I have valued greatly and gleaned much from its eighteen well-known Christian writers. The chapter by Walter Wangerin Jr. Hans Christian Andersen: Shaping the Child’s Universe notes how children meet the problems of the world with their imaginations (often lost in adult life) and how the fairy tale honours and feeds the imagination. He tells how the child may view “real world” problems through the windows of the fairy tale allowing the problems to shrink to a child sized proportion and enabling the child to triumph and be a survivor in an otherwise confusing world.
Eugene Peterson faced a crisis in which he needed to reinvigorate his experience of God and passion. Both were essential for him as a pastor and a writer and both were diminished by current cultural patterns and influences. Characters in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky “furnished my imagination with living images”. He notes how in The Idiot Prince Myshkin,
“strikes everyone who meets him as simple and naïve. He gives the impression of not knowing how the world works …. innocent of the real world. An idiot.”
What Peterson learns from Prince Myshkin is that unlike others, he has no personal agenda – his own needs don’t clog up relationships. Being in the company of the Prince has li
ttle to do with morality – doing or saying what is right. It has to do with beauty and goodness. These cannot be known in abstraction, for they only occur in living, loving persons. They cannot be observed only encountered. The Prince provides the encounter both in the story and in the life of Peterson. (pp.24-25)
Karen Burton Mains takes up the theme of A Moral Vision in writing about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As a young twenty-two year old living in a world that was good and beautiful – she entered into the dark and difficult world of 20th century Russia where she learned that she would not be complete or useful until she understood suffering. Solzhenitsyn served “an eight year term at hard labour for criticizing Stalin in a private letter to friends.” The writings of Solzhenitsyn provided some guidance for her. His book The Gulag Archipelago was a work of moral force that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970.
In his Nobel acceptance speech read in his absence – he wrote, “The writer must be a truth-teller. Live not by lies! In the struggle against lies art has always won and always will…. Lies can stand up against much in the world, but not against art… one word of truth outweighs the world.” In that same speech Solzhenitsyn contrasts two kinds of artists: the one who imagines himself as the
creator of an independent spiritual world…. And a second kind who “acknowledges a higher power above him and joyfully works as a common apprentice under God’s heaven”… Solzhenitsyn identifies with the latter. Mains finds firm footing in this author’s work, strength of resolve and a capacity to sustain resistance against falsehood and evil.
The author Anthony Trollope (1815 – 1882) is highly revered in our home. Marion has in hand forty five of his novels and a considerable number of secondary sources on the man and his writing. Among the latter I recently stumbled on The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct, by Shirley Robin Letwin. I have long thought that though a “gentleman” may have many admirable qualities there was little to disclose depth of character or to inspire full trust. The first few chapters of this book have supported m y inclination to hesitate. For the gentleman there is a morality to be followed – though it is more a matter of social convention than deeply held conviction. It does not rest on anything given or fixed but instead on the constraints of civilization.
The book is a sustained investigation into the social history of the gentlemen especially in the late 19th century. The few chapters I read brought to mind a chapter i n another work I read some decades ago. Nature, History and Existentialism by Karl Lowith edited by Arnold Levison 1966. Lowith was a philosopher of Christian persuasion who explored the historical interplay of ideas. I took this volume from the shelf and went directly to the essay titled: Can there be a Christian Gentleman?
The argument made is that most cultures link morals with manners and the author notes that: “It is the privilege but also the predicament of Christian ethics that it’s extreme standards of love, humility and self-surrender cannot be standardized and adequately embodied in habits and manners.” (p.205) The gentleman he notes, “is not a creation of Christianity but of civilization, even if civilization simulates the virtues of Christianity”. (p.207) Lowith’s essay is an exercise in discernment – seeking to bring clarity where lines are often blurred. Here he concludes that the terms – gentleman and Christian – refer to two quite different identities and practices.
Creative and thoughtful writing are works by and for the imagination. This turn to books at hand has provided fresh awareness of treasures within easy reach and prompts me to keep digging.