Monday, January 16, 2017

Re-Post: What IS a Living Book?

I've had so many conversations of late where moms have asked my opinion about living books, I find I can't do better than repeat what I said the very first time I posted a blog to this website when it was brand new, back in the winter of 2011. I hope you enjoy the re-run.

Which book do you first remember reading as a child that pulled you into its world, where you became completely engrossed in its characters and events?A friend asked recently. 

With barely a pause I could tell her. Without much effort I could be there all over again, on the Alm with wind buffeting me as I labored up the steep cliff to the pasture where the carpet of rock roses stretched before me, the bleating of goats filled my ears and my mouth watered for the golden, toasted cheese that would be set before me in the rustic hut where Heidi lived with her grandfather—where I lived with the grandfather. Heidi, by Johanna Spyri was the first book I read like that, that thrilled me with its realness.

I can see it in my mind's eye now, the six-year-old girl I once was perched on her top bunk, absorbed in the adventure of Heidi. She was more than my friend. To be honest, I was Heidi: frolicking on the mountain, smelling the fresh hay of my bed, twisted with the heart-sickening longing for home when stranded in the Sesemann house in Frankfurt. So vivid was my life inside that story that when my mother called me I had a little trouble recalling that she was downstairs not far down the mountain. And when I reached the end there was that blissful satisfaction with the exquisitely happy ending. I immediately started reading the book again.

History repeats itself. Thirty-five years later, on a different bed, I was reading Heidi to my youngest daughter. I could not put it down. She wouldn't let me. When I said, “The end,” she said, “Mama, please read it again!” So I did—all the way from page one through to the end. In those days of reading together, I didn't need to ask her where she'd been or what she'd been doing while playing outdoors. I knew she'd been running with Peter and visiting the blind grandmother.

I've read this book to all six of my children. Naturally, I've read dozens, probably hundreds, of other enthralling books since Heidi, but that was the first one that carried me away from the paved city in the flatland of Michigan to the remote Alps, from things American to things Swiss, from the taste of peanut butter to fresh goat's milk. Certainly, part of its magic was those differences. Even after so many readings, though I know every single detail that will unfold in the story, each time I begin it with delighted anticipation. Of course I read it with different eyes, life having provided me with ample new experiences of people and places. I'm more apt now to live inside the mind of the bitter Alm-Uncle or the fearful Grandmother, the grieving Doctor, or the jealous Peter.

Great books can be enjoyed on so many different levels. Sometimes they carry us off to somewhere we've never been, and that's why we love them. Sometimes they transport us into other times that fascinate us with the differences in lifestyle and the sameness of people. Sometimes they grip us with danger or calamity or tests of endurance in circumstances far beyond the range of our past, present, or future experience. If you've read a good book, you know all about this—this living somewhere else in someone else's life. It's part of the draw pulling you to the next book.

All this said, I chuckle to myself with inner amusement and chagrin at the recollection of once asking some homeschooling friends to explain to me what a living book was. Like so many moms that now ask me that question, I was specifically searching for clear guidelines in choosing good books for my children for educational purposes. If, in the first place, one of them had simply asked me the question my friend did the other day, the one that got me on this Heidi tangent, I would have immediately understood. Of course Heidi educated me. In fact, Heidi would be an excellent geography book.

Obviously, moms who ask, “What is a living book?” know that books do not move and breathe and have being. Books are cardboard, paper and ink, and glue (though the best ones are stitched). The best books reveal the living ideas of another mind that was very much alive when the potent ideas were put into words. We read and our living mind grabs hold of and runs with those ideas, feeds on them, is nourished by them. When I was a child, Heidi was a story of wonder and surprise. Now that I have put away childish things, it still is, yet so much more. It is a story about trust and forgiveness and gratitude and miracles. This is why the book endures as a classic, a pleasure to young and old, a treasure for life. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Last Month’s Reading

I closed several books during the dark month of December, the dark month that is more festive and bright with celebration than any other—just one of the paradoxes of life. With all the Christmas preparation, I had several books to keep me company and to enhance the enjoyment of the season. This rounds up the wonderful pile of books that enriched my life in 2016.

1. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

If I had to pick five favorites of the year, this is up there. The title is not a spoiler because the tale of how those nine Americans got there and won is gripping. This nonfiction reads like a suspense fiction story. A lot of important things in life went by the wayside the day I read this one. If you want heroes and hope for your sons, here’s a gem. Picture young men deprived in childhood of common comforts due to the ravages of the Depression, sacrificing to get into college, and then battling brutal conditions to succeed as a rowing team in order to finish school and enter manhood. I’m not kidding, you have to read this book—and so do your own young men.

2. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.

I read this with my 12-year-old son this fall and was gratified by his engagement with the story. We had read about Julius Caesar in our history books, in Plutarch’s Lives, but I knew he was on board when he would practice speeches from the play without being prompted and recite to me while I made dinner.

3. The Confession of Brother Haluin by Ellis Peters.

It struck me in early December that I hadn’t read a Brother Cadfael this year, and it was just the soothing mystery-solving intrigue I needed. This was a particularly intriguing story of a monk whose fall and near death from a roof sets off a series of events that reveal his past and bring resolution to his life in the present.

4. Village Christmas by Miss Read.

Here’s another plentiful series, but one I’ve never experienced before a friend sent me two of her series on audio as a Christmas present. It is reminiscent of Mitford and Cranford, simple, sweet stories just perfect for cold winter nights with a crackling fire and cup of tea. If you want comfort reading, Miss Read is a heartwarming author. This one is a Christmas tale of two spinsters whose perfectly ordered life takes a turn when the new neighbors have an unexpected gift for Christmas.

5. No Holly for Miss Quinn by Miss Read.

Another tale of the village of Fairacre and a working woman’s world altering when a Christmas emergency takes her to her brother’s chaotic vicarage. Her Christmas gift of service to them turns out to be a life changing attitude shift for her.

6. Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome.

My youngest and I started this series a year ago with the goal of reading one each summer. We began this one last summer, but it took us till December to get to the end. Still, when life is getting cold outside, it’s great to remember that summer frolics are coming again. If your children haven’t met the imaginative and courageous crew of Swallow yet, Ransome’s tales (based on his own childhood days in the lake district of England) of children who lived in a far quieter and freer world will inspire and entertain them. There’s just enough worry, just enough mishap, just enough, danger to make you keep reading, and lots of ordinary and satisfying normal kid interaction and fun to make the characters lives believable and the pace of the stories long and luxurious like summer days. This is a great series for boys and girls alike, from eight to 18 years, and gives modern children some valuable ideas about their capabilities.

7. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens.

As the year drew to a close, I was incredulous that I had gone a year without reading a Dickens and set about remedying that imbalance right away. This book was published in 19 installments originally. Therefore, reading a Dickens is equivalent to reading a six or seven novel series. I am constantly astounded at the variety of characters this author can invent. This particular story gives a lot of hope that greed and grasping for wealth can be overcome in individuals and change the course of events. There is something about reading the action-packed story at a
leisurely pace that somehow leaves me feeling so much more satisfied than the concise and snappy modern novel manages to do for me.

8. An Essays Towards a Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason.

I read Mason every day, and tramp around in all the volumes, jumping in and out according to my need of the moment, but this is the only one I read from the first to last page through this year. Many people feel it is the best to read first because she outlines and expands on her principles and summarizes her thoughts from a lifetime of educating, but what always strikes me is how consistent and cohesive her approach is, and one of my comforts and confidences in Mason rests in knowing that from Home Education, her first publication, to this last one, her method did not change.

9. New Grub Street by George Gissing.

Okay, I am not too proud to admit there is a great author of the nineteenth century I had never heard of till this year, but rather, am delighted to discover it. G. K. Chesterton considered him perhaps the greatest novelist of that century. He wrote 23 novels in the last 23 years of his life, so he definitely was prolific. I was absorbed in his story in this book, its plot and characters, and got so many ideas from what he was showing that I will have to return to this as its own blog post soon. For now, is it tantalizing enough just to say that the author was exploring the shift in reading and the publishing world of the nineteenth century? So my observations and fears for reading in our generation are not new. Novels continually reaffirm to me that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to man.

10. Manalive by G. K. Chesterton.

A 17-year-old boy in my book club (yes, there truly are teen boys who enjoy meeting with older married ladies to discuss novels!), wanted to read this for our December meeting. Like many of Chesterton’s books, I had to start over three or four times before I was tracking with him, but what a fascinating trail this was. Who can make the most obvious truths so clear and in such bizarre approaches to them that you laugh at yourself for having accepted so many ideas as obsolete or irrelevant as Mr. Chesterton? His piercing insights are always presented with such humor and brilliance that I am not only left with the impression of his marvelous mind, but also unforgettable lessons to carry with me thereafter.

11. You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith.

I was introduced to this author in Desiring the Kingdom, which was one of our discussion books the first year I attended CMI. This past spring, I got to hear him speak at a local lecture offered by King University, hence, my subsequent purchase of this latest book. My husband and I read this together starting last April and just finishing the day after Christmas, but reading slowly was a plus for conversation and pondering. This philosopher puts philosophical truths in plain language for the layman and the ideas he explores in this book are revolutionary for our individual life, corporate worship, and destiny as a nation.

And now: on to a whole new year of reading!

For the joy of reading,


Monday, December 26, 2016

Books at the Finish

Where does the year go, we usually wonder. At least part of this past one was spent in reading all kinds of books. I’ve posted those I finished each month through October, and here are those I finished reading in November, but postponed listing because of Advent. I look forward to one more week of reading before turning to a new year and new possibilities within the covers of new and old books for young and old readers.

1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenit͡syn.

I’ve never read anything by this author before and can now agree with others about his masterful storytelling. This book describes an entire day in a Soviet prison camp in the 1950’s. It was vivid and enlightening about the era that was mysteriously prominent in my childhood. Though dim in hope, this man’s survival by cunning, humor, and empathy for his fellow man shows the indomitable spirit of man even in life’s grimmest circumstances.

2. The History of Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray. I have grown to appreciate this author in the past few years and this historical novel added to my appreciation. It informed me about a period of English history I was very vague about and his character portrayals and plot development is intriguing. I always think I know some people just like the ones he brings to life. Incidentally, this is the prequel to The Virginians.

3. The Control of Nature by John McPhee. Pardon the puns, but this one will rock your world. The enormous earth changing attempts of man to try to circumvent or reroute nature’s purposes are astounding, both in engineering feats and nature’s effortless defeats. The rerouting the Mississippi, volcanic lava flows, Californian mud slides are some of those battle zones he highlights in his usual absorbing narrative. This would be great ecology or earth science reading for high schoolers.

4. Prayer by Timothy Keller. I actually have read slowly through this book twice this year. It is a carefully researched and thoughtful presentation of the principles and practice of prayer throughout the Christian church and full of principles for making prayer a living part of a Christian’s daily life. I’ve read lots of books on prayer throughout my life and this is the most eye opening yet.

5. The Miller’s Dance by Winston Graham. In a period of near exhaustion, I decided to indulge in finishing out this 12 novel series. I have enjoyed living withthe Poldarks this year. This one shifts focus to the second generation, whose struggles are reminiscent of those of their parents, Ross and Demelza.

6. The Loving Cup by Winston Graham. The series continues and this one is a bit suspenseful and apprehensive of the consequences of the choices being made by its young people.

7. The Twisted Sword by Winston Graham. The setting of this novel is the upheavals in France after Napoleon’s banishment and subsequent escape and attempt to regain control. Naturally, the Poldark family is caught up in the climactic account of the Battle of Waterloo.

8. Bella Poldark by Winston Graham. This final novel focuses on the youngest Poldark children, the changing social mores of England entering the modern era, and is a quite satisfactory wrapping up of the long life of one couple from post Revolutionary America to the industrial age.

9. The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin. I reread this systematic theology for the third year in a row and continued to glean valuable knowledge for life and practice. His mind and heart amaze me and the thorough and logical progression he sets forth is easy to follow to reveal the scope of a Christian’s foundational beliefs. I have of course heard this book quoted all my life, but was inspired to make it part of daily reading by Marilynne Robinson’s habit of continuously reading Calvin. One author inspires us to read others.

For the joy of reading,