i sometimes forget to post my roundups of soulful books here at the table, so this morning i am delivering the latest edition, which will run in this sunday’s printers row journal, the chicago tribune’s literary supplement. you’ll find it online now, right here, but i’m saving you the click, and posting below. and as the spirit moves me, i just might post a second post this morning…..i’ve a hankering to write about proper porridge. stay tuned. (turns out i decided to also post here — way down below — the tribune’s holiday gift guide roundup of what you might say were the six soulful books that most vociferously leapt off my bookshelf last year…) so lots of soulfulness to muse this wintry morning. put the kettle on, grab the fuzzy afghan, and commence the art of curling up with a great good tome….
Spiritual roundup: ‘Sabbaths 2013’ by Wendell Berry, more
Sabbaths 2013 by Wendell Berry, Larkspur, 36 pages, $28
There are rare few times in the unfolding of our quotidian lives when we hold something in our hands and know, right away, that it’s sacred. To hold “Sabbaths 2013,” a hand-bound volume of Kentucky poet Wendell Berry’s poems in handset type with wood engravings by Wesley Bates, is to behold the sacred.
It’s as all the finest books on our shelves should be — a work of art, of exquisite attention, at every step of the bookmaking process. Larkspur Press in Monterey, Ky., is that rarest of small-press publishing houses. Gray Zeitz, the founder, is described as “bewhiskered, aproned, and ink-smudged.” He sets type by hand on clamshell printing presses, and his place of creation is said to be equal parts library, museum and workshop. Larkspur’s tagline: “Creating fine books one letter at a time.”
Certainly, these poems of Berry deserve to be unspooled with such care. Each of the 20 poems is a meditation, the closest we might come to modern-day Scripture. To encounter these lines is to brush up against the beautiful, the breathtaking, rooted in the everyday — the birthing barn, the generations-worn kitchen table, the old dog with her gray muzzle.
Consider, for instance, just this one line: “The years / have brought him love and grief. / They have taught him that grief / is love clarified, appraised / beyond confusion, affirmed, lifted / out of time.”
Stripped: At the Intersection of Cancer, Culture and Christ by Heather King, Loyola, 224 pages, $14.95
Cancer is hardly the landscape where one might expect soliloquies on prayer. But prayer, the down-on-your-knees, heart-wide-open petitions that spring from the raw fear of dying and death, is what makes “Stripped” (the author originally titled it, “Stripped: Culture, Cancer, and the Cloud of Unknowing”) very much a book for the soul — and not only for those who’ve been excoriated by the words, “You have cancer.”
More than anything, it’s the quality of King’s writing that catapults this book off the shelf. Her words are sharp-edged as any surgeon’s knife, and, as with all the most powerful writing, hers has the capacity to slip in wisdoms and enlightenments without notice. You’re busy laughing, or wiping away a tear, and suddenly you realize you’ve pulled out a pen to underline words to keep for the ages.
This is not a cancer saga you’ve read before, and where King’s faith takes her is a place few might choose. (She submits to surgery, but decides against radiation or chemotherapy — decisions she made 15 years ago now, and she’s still alive to write about it.) It’s the journey, the straight-shooting, no-punches-pulled, intimate cry of her heart, that makes this a most soulful expedition. One you’ll not soon forget.
Inside Time: A Chassidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar, based on the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, adapted by Yanki Tauber, Meaningful Life Center, 3 volumes, 944 pages, $54.99
It would be shortchanging this three-volume set to call it simply a meditation on time. More apt would be to call it meditations within meditations, a Russian doll of deep thinking on the sacred nature of time and the particulars of the Jewish calendar. What’s found here is a collection of deeply thoughtful essays, exploring the soul of time as defined by the Torah and seen through the lens of Hasidic teaching. You needn’t subscribe to a Lubavitch world view to be enlightened by the epiphanies found in these pages.
At heart, in Volume One, “Time and Its Cycles,” is the notion that Creation wasn’t a divine one-time act, but rather that God creates the world anew in every moment. (Volume Two considers the Jewish calendar from Rosh Hashana to Purim; Volume Three, Passover to Elul.) This notion of perpetual creation, Rabbi Tauber argues, is a powerful antidote to the hopelessness that plagues so much of the modern-day landscape. Most powerful of all, he writes, is the corollary that time is wholly concentrated in the here and the now, inviting a fine-tuned focus on mindfulness.
Consider this instruction, drawn from one of the many charming stories Tauber tells to illustrate his teachings: “We cannot make our days longer, nor can we add additional hours to our nights. But we can maximize our usage of time by regarding each segment of time as a world of its own.”
For the student eager to burrow deep into the great vault of Jewish sacred text, this is a book to hold our attention for a very long time.
Barbara Mahany is the author of “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.” Twitter: @BarbaraMahany
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune
p.s. as i’ve spent the last hour riffling through my files to see how very many times i’ve not posted those soulful roundups here, i realize i must have some reticence about taking up space at the table when the roundups are not too hard to find on the tribune website. looks like i’ve only posted five of 10 roundups, or even included a link. oh my! one you might want to look up would be the gift guide, in which i picked the six books that most leapt off the shelf last year, in the soulfulness department. you can find that roundup here. or, on second thought, maybe i should post it here……
Gift guide: Books for the soul
From a book by Pope Francis to an anthology of world religions, these 6 books are ideal for the spiritual-minded.
By Barbara Mahany
It’s a glorious expedition to survey the spiritual landscape of this year’s books for the soul, to pluck the ones with richest deepest resonance. Poets and scholars, a pundit and pope, all rise to the top.
Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte, Many Rivers, 247 pages, $22
Poet and philosopher David Whyte constructs an alternative dictionary of 52 words — an abecedarian that stretches from “alone” to “vulnerable” — and, in so doing, invites the reader to explore the depths of each entry, beyond the semantic surface, burrowing into the poetic and the profound. It’s a form of prayerfulness, the meditative powers of contemplating a single word. Whyte takes us there in plainspeak, though his is a language that pulses with counterpoints of shadow and illumination. Surely, a certain road to soulfulness is paved with unexpected poetries and luminescence at every bend. Whyte takes you there by heart.
The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Volume 1 and 2, W.W. Norton, 4,448 pages, $100
Weighing in at 8.4 pounds, a whopping 4,448 pages, and tucked in a tidy two-volume book pack, this massive and monumental Norton Anthology, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jack Miles, holds inspiration for more than one lifetime. At heart, writes Miles, it’s an invitation “to see others with a measure of openness, empathy, and good will. … In that capacity lies the foundation of human sympathy and cultural wisdom.” With more than 1,000 primary texts — Volume 1 covers Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism; Volume 2, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — this is an instant classic.
The Road to Character by David Brooks, Random House, 320 pages, $28
Before diving into modern-day parables in the form of biographies — ranging from Augustine to George Eliot to Dwight Eisenhower to Dorothy Day — David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times and opinionator for this oft-imploding globe, pens as fine an exegesis on sin as has been written in recent times. Our sin: “self-satisfied moral mediocrity.” It’s in those character studies of some of history’s greatest thinkers and leaders, 10 in all, that Brooks lays bare what it takes to cultivate deep moral character. And isn’t a moral core, tested in everyday trials, our one best hope at an everlasting soul?
Map by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, HMH, 464 pages, $32
Here, for the first time, is the English translation of all of the poems of Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s last Polish collection, including previously unpublished works. In all, “Map” gathers some 250 poems written between 1944 and 2011. While Szymborska, who died in 2012, focuses her attention on quotidian subjects — an onion, a cat — she plumbs them to probe life’s big questions — love, death, and passing time. And while she might not be as widely read in America as poets Mary Oliver and Mark Strand, her words bore deep. She is poet serving as spiritual guide.
Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis, Melville House, 192 pages, $14.95
This breathtaking amalgam of urgency and poetry mines the spirit and appeals to the moral core. It’s as essential a soul-stirring read as any recent manuscript. Billed as the pope’s pontifications on the environment, it is in fact a sweeping letter addressing a spectrum of global sins. The Guardian termed it “the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years,” bespeaking its relevance beyond the walls of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Padraig O Tuama, Hodder & Stoughton, 192 pages, $23.95
This quiet book of contemplations by Belfast-based poet, theologian and peace worker Padraig O Tuama barely stirred a ripple in the marketplace of books, but where it counts — in the hearts of those blessed to turn its pages — it swiftly became a treasure. More deserve to be stirred by its deep currents. Putting to work poetry and gospel, side by side with story and Celtic spirituality, O Tuama explores ideas of shelter along life’s journey, opening up gentle ways of living well in a troubled world. The reader can’t help but be drawn in, slip-sliding into the harbor of the author’s soulful words.
Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune
A version of this article appeared in print on November 29, 2015, in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline “Food for the soul – Poetry and profundity in these true gifts”