reading for work
some days, my workday unfolds like this: i wander over to the books in my stack that teeters as it rises toward the ceiling. i pull out the one that tempts the most. i pour a guzzle of coffee. i reach for a pen, for i don’t know how to read without one (making me a potentially reckless patron of the local library). i cozy my bum on the chair. i study the cover, read the flaps at the front and the back, then i turn to page one. i await the first sentence. first sentences signal plenty: do i want to read on to the second? or is this going to be an obligational exercise? (because i’m an occupational reader, i can’t give up after just one paltry sentence, nor even one that clanks when what i’m after is take-your-breath-away.)
i hum the loudest when i find myself tumbling into the text, when whole chunks of an hour go by, and i am as busy with my scribbling as i am with my inhaling of words, of ideas, of penetrating thoughts.
my job is to read books for the soul. i still can’t quite believe that counts as work, and that — rather than collecting garbage cans, or chopping carrots for vats of soup — i’ve somehow found my way to reading for work. reading soulful books for work.
and by my definition the soul is a broad-canvased endeavor. the soul is without boundaries, stretching from star-stitched night sky to the meadow where queen anne’s lace nods in the breath of morning’s breeze. by my definition the soul is that thing that catches the beauties, the depths, the light and the shadow of life and life beyond our feeble capacities.
in my book, the soul — that thing that i’m reading to stir — is the catch basin of all that is sacred, of all that is dispatched from God. it’s our job, us little people with our creaky knees and our hair that won’t do the right thing, it’s our job — or so i believe — to rumble through life on full-alert, on the lookout for those barely perceptible moments when the shimmer of light on a leaf, or the way the dawn ignites the horizon, signal to us that God is near. no, God is here. and if we listen, say put our ear to the wind, or to the chest of someone we love, or if we simply sit quietly and all alone, we might hear the still small voice that whispers of love, of courage, of bold and emphatic action, of whatever is the holiest thing you needed to hear. because God does that. God wants us to bump up against wonder. God wants us to feel the walls of our heart stretched and stretching. God wants us to rustle under the newness of a thought, or an inkling, that’s never struck us before. or the God i love does, anyway.
as i was reading away this week, reading mary oliver’s newest book, a collection of essays titled, “upstream: selected essays,” as i was reading lines like this one — “I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field.” — or — “Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” — or — ” I can hear that child’s voice…its presence rises, in memory, from the steamy river of dreams….It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.” — as i was reading those lines, i thought about how, for me, religion seeps in most deeply when it seeps in softly, tricklingly, when it’s not klonked over my head, with a two-by-four of this-is-what-you-should-know.
i let that softness, that newness sink in. my God comes at me gently, with a subtle tap to the noggin. or the barest wisp of breath against the nape of my neck.
and then during another part of another workday, when i was gathering notes for a lovely circle i am entering this evening, a circle filled with doctors and nurses and health care workers who believe in, and practice, narrative medicine, the art of gathering the stories of those whose lives will be entrusted to their care, their compassion and their steely intellect, i turned to two of the great thinkers in my lexicon, vladimir nabokov and rebecca solnit. i read, again, their instructions for reading and for writing. and i realized, they too, rooted and root their life’s work in soulful tomes.
nabokov instructs us in how to read: “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. it is there that occurs the telltale tingle…”
solnit, author of countless brilliant prose passages, instructs us in how to write: “listen to what makes your hair stand on end, your heart melt, and your eyes go wide, what stops you in your tracks and makes you want to live, wherever it comes from, and hope that your writing can do all those things for other people.”
and so i go, as instructed, to read, to try to write, to capture those fleeting sparks of the divine, to catch them with my soul, and clutch them dearly to my heart.
not so shabby, for a long day’s work.
where do you find the soulful words in your life? and how do you imagine the soul, and its capacities for catching all the passing sparks of the Divine?
once my latest roundup of soulful books runs in the chicago tribune, where it’s now found on the thursday books page every six weeks or so, i will post it here, of course.
and a note, for anyone who’s curious, about book selection: i’ve chosen to only write about books i find rich or enriching, and i don’t get to write about nearly enough of those, limited to only three per roundup. knowing the courage it takes — the self-exposure — to put any words to the page, i’ve made it my policy that i will not write about a book that i find short on what i’m after. i know how much it hurts to be criticized, and i will not subject another soul to that. life’s too short. and there are too many gloriously good books to read and write about. wonders to behold, indeed.
I love the smell of a book. And I am very tactile. The pages must feel good and I’m not a fan of deckled edges. And the first sentence needs to grab me. But, when I read fiction (mysteries and spy books) I read the beginning and the end. If I like it I’ll return to the middle.
Andrea Lavin Solow Sent from my iPad
i love the method to your fiction. kind of chuckle that you read the end (i too have been known to peek). the hope of all the authors whose work you pick up: “may she make it to the middle!”
But all of Barbara’s books entice me to sit and read. Nothing else matters. Blair’s do, too
Andrea Lavin Solow Sent from my iPad
xoxox. blair sends a hug for that. i know he does. xoxox
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful…. You, my friend, are a gift to my soul…. More from me soon. xoxox
xoxox and you are a gift to mine…..
It is your writing, dear one, read at the end of a busy week, that reminds my soul just what is important in life. It inspires me to write also…nothing I’ve acted on yet!
bless your heart. can’t wait to read — maybe, some day — whatever you write. i know it is already beautiful (in the formative pre-writing stage, where your keen observations sift around and make sense of things….)
What PJT said. Your writing. “God wants us to bump up against wonder.” You bring wonderment. Writing from my ghastly phone, so will be brief. xoxoxo Nancy
dear darling, you know that every time i write the word “star” i think of you. just home from watching a spectacular sunrise at the lake. what a gift, the morning sky, as God pulls out the paint brush and streaks the wildest colors across the canvas……
much love from my morning house to yours…..
So grateful that part of your calling is to gather people in a circle and write about the moments that make up a lifetime. I can’t wait to read Mary Oliver’s new book
“gathering circles,” not a bad job description. xoxox you will love MO’s newest. do you too read with a pen??? i don’t think i’m able to read without one. no one taught me that in second grade, though…..wouldn’t it be grand if books came with pens slipped in the jacket covers???
i loved seeing you the other night. and thank YOU for being all about the business of circle-making! xoxo