My Life, an Open Book

An acquaintance mentioned liking this essay, so I figured I might as well post it as a kind of archive essay. For my Fall 2005 class in English Education the professor asked us to write a “literary biography” essay, and this is the result.

* * *

My parent’s house is something of a library. Bookcases line nearly every wall, and the books that fill them overflow into stacks, boxes, sheds, tables, and conversations. This is one of the main things I remember best about my childhood – picking up one of these books, and opening a new universe. When I was a child, both my parents were always reading to me; in the morning my mother, who homeschooled my brother and I, would teach us to read and write using silly phonics songs, and simple children’s books. I remember being especially partial to pop-up books, and The American Girls series, which have their own line of dolls based upon them, of which I bought several. Every night my father read a children’s book, or chapter from a novel; from the Little Fur Family (complete with furry cover) and Good Night Moon when I was very young, to The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Tales of Robin Hood, full of many “mighty buffets” landing on various pates, as I grew. It was my father’s custom to always read the isbn number on the little children’s stories before beginning the main event, just to hear the vehement protests of my brother and I. By the time we got to the end of the Little House on the Prairie series, I was sneak-reading the upcoming chapters to find what happened next. I loved hearing my father try to sound like Gollum in The Hobbit, and and begged him to continue those nightly readings when I was far too old to actually need the help.

Though I remember quite clearly many of my early experiences with reading, from the read-alouds with my parents to my mother teaching my brother and I with all the catchy phonics songs, rule-breaker jails, and phoneme farris wheels available, to sneaking a look at whatever they happened to be reading, I was and am much less conscious of the language that I actually use in day-to-day life. For one thing, I don’t speak as I would like to in normal conversations; ever since jr. high or so I have picked up the incredibly annoying modern habit of putting “umm” and “like” in pretty much every sentence. It’s a bit strange too, since I neither think nor write like that, but seem to have picked it up in conversations while all the while being annoyed by it myself. For another thing, I talk far too much whenever I’m excited about something, often saying the same thing again and again, rephrasing it each time, to try to get a point across. Also, although the environment I grew up in provided me with quite a decent vocabulary, for one reason or another, the vocabulary I often choose to use is not really the kind I relate best too, but is quite often aimed at getting a pat on the back from others, sometimes at the expense of a change of meaning. In general, the spoken language I usually employ is far from eloquent and rather bloated, so I prefer not to dwell too much on it.

From around Middle School on, my reading experience has consisted on a long series of enthusiasms; of finding a series or subject, and reading absolutely everything the author had ever written, then moving on to the next series to be devoured. This trend in especially noticeable in my ongoing love for fantasy novels, which tend to come in series’ of more than ten volumes. During jr. high and high school I have had nearly no assigned reading, with Red Badge of Courage being a notable exception (which I disliked for that very reason). During that time I was still homeschooled, and I suspect my parents engaged in a suggestion campaign to get me to read worthwhile literature, subtly recommending books, giving them as gifts, and leaving them out where I would find them. That way, I would not only read, but would not consider it an imposed drudgery, to be avoided as much as possible. Yes, I was something of a contrarian; most young people are though. There is some profound psychological difference between discovering a piece of literature for oneself or through the recommendations of peers, and reading the exact same thing for a grade. Well, one of the results of this approach on my parent’s part is that I have very rarely encountered a book I didn’t like; indeed, there is such an excess of excellent books in the world, there is no reason to read those of lesser quality. Of course, there were also the much lamented textbooks, but they fall into another category entirely. All of my various reading enthusiasms are mixed up in my mind so far as order and chronology is concerned, but not in influence or imagination. It must be said, that whatever my favorites are, and I have many, I have never experienced a literary “conversion” as many seem to, for I have always approached books with an expectation of wonder and delight.

One genre which has captured many a reading child’s imagination through the years is the fairy tale, or magical adventure story. From this enthusiasm I was by no means exempt. I found the Arthurian legends, as related by Howard Pyle, particularly entrancing, with their heroic battles and rescues, romances, ideals of chivalry, and their own special language and style. Pyle wrote in a flowery, formal style, somewhat reminiscent of the King James Bible, which I always felt vaguely guilty for not liking as much as the stories. I was also quite attached to the fairy tales of George MacDonald, and when I later came to discover modern fantasy novels I liked them for many of the same reasons. But much of my imagination was first shaped by the legends, which I still have a great fondness for. Many people complain of the moralizing found in older children’s tales, but I actually enjoyed the religious tone of MacDonald and Pyle, and found the occasional occurrence of thinly disguised sermonizing (MacDonald was a pastor as well as being an author) quite charming and inspiring.

As a young teenager, the basic criteria for whether I was willing to try reading a book was that it must take place at least a hundred years ago, and I must be able to find at home or in the library. Under these conditions, I read about the British navy during the Napolionic War in the Horatio Hornblower series, medieval England in Ivanhoe and A Distant Mirror, and France of the Revolution in Les Miserables. At a friends house I randomly picked up The Inferno by Dante, which led me to discover The Aeniad of Virgil (Dante’s guide through Hell), then the Iliad and Odyssey, ancient Greek and Roman myths, and Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. I’ve found books are like this more often than not, with one always trying to lead to another, and references crisscrossing through the books, and each expecting a prior knowledge of something else. Usually I just ignore the references, and if I miss out, oh well. I must admit, however, my motives were not altogether pure in book selection – I kept going in The Inferno because it grossed out a friend, and I half suspect that I would never have trudged through the Iliad had there not been a certain prestige attached to completing that work without labeling it “boring,” a word which I have always abhorred. Peers seemed to find an interest in long, antiquated books somewhat impressive, and I always made sure they knew just how old and how long mine were.

When I was perhaps eleven or twelve, I found a new series of books, Redwall, by Brian Jacques, which introduced me to an entirely new concept in literacy: the internet book club. My family had just gotten a computer, I, discovered Redwall, and I wished to see if anyone else shared my enthusiasm. To my delight, many of them did, and I spent many an hour discussing every detail of the twelve volume series of good mice, squirrels, hares, etc. fighting the hordes of evil “vermin” – rats, weasels, foxes, and other disreputable characters. As funny as the images of heroic sword-wielding mice, and mail-clad stoats warring over a mouse-controlled abbey may seem, and at the time I admitted it to be pretty silly, we loved them, and wrote pages upon pages of adventures and discussions. We wrote recipes for woodland feasts, pass-along stories, riddles, poetry, debates, held drawing contests and every other Redwall related project that can be imagined. I probably wrote more for those online book clubs than for all my previous writing assignments combined, and enjoyed every bit of it.

Although I have spent most of my time exploring novels of once upon a time in a land far, far away, my favorite author, who has had the greatest impact on how I think, was actually a Catholic journalist for a London newspaper at the dawn of the twentieth century. This writer, G K Chesterton, is sometimes remembered as a master with no masterpiece. It was he who introduced me to the fine art of the essay-article, which I have later come to love in the work of Dorothy Sayers, Jacques Barzun, and others, and to write as well. While these essays make up the main body of Chesterton’s work, he is best known for a series of popular mystery stories about the priest Father Brown, along with the more weighty (in content, not in tone) The Everlasting Man, The Man Who Was Thursday: a nightmare, and Orthodoxy. The last is something of an extended essay on religion and humanity, and the splendid romance of Orthodox Christianity, in the form of what Chesterton calls a “slovenly autobiography.” Orthodoxy grabbed my attention and my heart from chapter 1 (The Maniac), and has since endured reading and re-reading, being quoted incessantly, and an enthusiasm on my part which has not faded since the moment I first found it. This book lit up my mind with wonderful paradoxes, observations on what it is to be human, and on the author’s society, and with a dazzling new vision of the world that felt as though a veil that lies always over the true nature of things had for a moment been pulled back. Chesterton’s great genius lies in always treating the world we see around us as being really, at it’s heart, that same universe we love so to encounter in fairy tales and romances; that it really is shocking and artistic that the sky should be blue rather than orange or green, and that the laws of nature are just as magical as the rules of fairy godmothers – and he convinces the reader, at least for the length of his article, that this really is so.

I have often longed for a command of the kind of the thoughtless eloquence that Chesterton and others possess, but have never quite learned the trick. Tricks of speech, puns, and paradoxes are all wonderful, but they don’t seem to be natural to me. I don’t seem cut out to speak in poetry of the magic of the universe; whenever I try, it always sounds contrived and out of whack with the rest of what I’m saying. One device I am quite fluent in, however, is the use of sarcasm. Thanks to a slightly cynical view of society, one of the works I was rather alarmed to find related to was Notes From Underground by Dostievsky. The main character, while something of a creep, is very much an exaggeration of the flaws which are so evident in myself at times. He hides away in a little cave of a house, thinking way too much about trivial matters, congratulating himself that even if he is a mouse, he is still an “intellectual mouse,” and obsessing over perceived slights and annoyances. He is the kind of person Chesterton again and again warns of being in imminent danger of driving himself insane. Of course, few real human beings take these traits to the morbid extremes of that man, but when it comes to thinking, writing, and speaking I do share in those qualities to a certain extent, rehashing minor points of disagreement, quibbling over minor details of phrasing because they sound too trite or popular.

Though I was first introduced to fantasy novels when I was quite young through Narnia and The Hobbit, but didn’t come back to them until late jr. high, when I read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. After that I was hooked. The fantasy books most significant to my life have been a series called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. They were the first books I’d encountered with an anti-hero, who in this case was a leper from modern America who got transported to a magical fantasy land, and thought he was just going crazy. I hated Covenant at times, but kept reading, and discovered a wonderful tale that I spoke about incessantly to anyone who would listen, and some who wouldn’t, for several months. The Covenant series has had a deep effect on my idea of the connotations of certain words, especially “service,” an important concept in the books.

One important thread that has run through my reading, as it has through my life, is that of religion. Sometimes this is explicit, as in the writing of C S Lewis, and sometimes implicit, as with Tolkien or Lawhead. Most of my reading has been Christian, as am I, and what I read has done a great deal to shape my understanding of God and the universe. Though much might be said against Catholicism among the people I know, the Catholic imagery of Chesterton, Victor Hugo, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles Williams will always stand against it in my mind, and cause me to love that great faith tradition with all my heart, for the sake as these writers and others. More implicitly, the books I have read have built in my imagination a world very much created and ruled by a Christian Deity, and this has had a rather profound effect on how I view everything around me. This past Spring and Summer I have been reading many more books of religion, particularly pertaining to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which I am very interested in. Such books as For the Life of the World, about the sacramentality of creation, The Truth of our Faith, The Orthodox Church, and On the Incarnation (St Athenasius), are not really foreign, though they deal with topics never discussed by anyone I know, because these very ideas of faith and worship and virtue are woven into the fabric of nearly all the Western novels I have been reading all my life, as an undertone, a moral, and an assumption.

The most interesting kind of language to me, which I care deeply and tend to talk and think about a great deal, is that of Christianity; of the Church. I grew up hearing and reading two different discourses which were close enough to each other to share meaning, yet dissimilar enough so as to often be in conflict. On the one hand was modern American Evangelicalism, and on the other that of Christian Europe of the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. The other day I happened upon a blog a friend keeps, where she was commenting on the style of speaking she and some others I’ve heard refer to as “christianese,” which she seems to heartily disapprove of. Quite aside from the fact that I never understood the logic she used (that we should refrain from speaking to each other using strictly religious language because someone listening in might be confused), I have always had a somewhat different perspective, relishing the words and images that lend depth and meaning to our millennia old conversation on religion in the West. Upon finding questions such as “have been scrupulously honorable in all my business dealings?” or “have I been lazy in body or languid in spirit” in an Anglican prayer book, I experienced a delight undulled by the realization that I was being both lazy and languid. It is beautiful to hear phrases such as “blessed art thou, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages” in a service; some of the prayers read just like poetry. The language employed in regard to virtues, vices, theosis, wisdom, and other similar topics make infinitely better sense to me than that of dominance and subordination, oppression, pedagogy, gender roles, and stereotypes which composes much of modern political and educational speech. I think that particular lens must not have come with my binoculars, and always sounds so harsh, angry, and combative. It wields a large stick ready to smash my ideals and replace them with discontent.

In my house, the language of literature and of religion have always been employed together, so that if my father and I are having a long, interesting conversation, chances are it’s going to be about religion, utilizing some author or other (most likely Chesterton or Kierkergaard) for support. If I ask my parents a philosophical question, I’ll likely get a quote from some great writer. The ideas and imagery of literature are the best known form of expression for nearly anything important within my family, and all the reading I’ve done is in part a result of that. I might read Homer to be pretentious, but I’ll read Dostievsky because I will never understand the graduation letter my parents wrote me last year until I have. I desire to read Concluding Unscientific Postscripts because there is no other way to finally understand what on earth my father means when he always says that “truth is subjectivity,” but not in a relativist sense. Of course, this made me stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, going to an Evangelical church, where no one had even heard of Kierkergaard, and has made socializing somewhat trying, seeing as I would invariably attempt to start a conversation with “so, what have you been reading lately?” Jacques Barzun says that only one out of one hundred fifty national merit scholar candidates interviewed could actually answer that question, which may explain my relative lack of success using it as a conversation starter. I am, however, grateful to my parents for introducing my to the delightful world of reading, writing, and literate thinking through many excellent books, and look forward with anticipation to all the wonderful books I have yet to read.

6 thoughts on “My Life, an Open Book

  1. Thank you for posting this essay. I enjoyed reading it again, it’s delightful. My reading of it is punctuated with exclamations of “Yes, me too!” (Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien), and “Oh, I haven’t read that” (Aeniad, Iliad), and “I didn’t care for that one” (Redwall, Covenant, sorry).

    I love your title (“My Life, An Open Book”) and thank you for sharing it.
    Rich

  2. Good, thanks… Should I write an addendum?

    BTW, I think that a full appreciation of
    Redwall
    requires being about twelve years old, and discovering virtual communities for the first time, so I can understand not liking it; I probably wouldn’t like it now, either, except on account of nostalgia.

  3. I enjoyed learning a little more about your spiritual formation – I too am so thankful for a love of books my parents feed in every way. I cannot well explain religious truth apart from the language of literature as well as that of scripture. I too love The Book of Common Prayer, a gift to me, though I never have been directly nor indirectly Anglican- my favorite author was (smile.)

    You are quite the thought-filled young women. I remember my mind being so much stronger at 23. Thank you for the challenge of your essays. I am very interested in learning more of your Eastern Orthodox perspective. What I have encountered has been quite beautiful. About my only long term reference is Frankie Shaeffer – a convert later in life as well.

    I appreciate you taking time to read some of my musings…it pushes me a bit to know that you are out there. That is a good thing.

    • Thank you for your kind comment. Ach, though, I found Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing Alone to be a most unfortunate book. There is, of course, a strong inclination for people who have left a church to air our baggage; it’s true of the ex-Catholics I knew as a protestant, and is just as true of a lot of us ex-protestants. Even so, I couldn’t get through Mr Schaeffer’s polemic.

      That Anglican writer you so like — is it L’Engle? I’ve only read A Wrinkle in Time and those that follow it; they were ingeniously creative.

  4. I have not read Frankie’s book, I have only heard him in radio interviews…I grew up reading and discussing Francis Shaeffer’s (his father) materials. That is unfortunately how little interaction I have had with people and perspectives of Eastern Orthodoxy. I have some textbook derived basic, historic knowledge, but that’s about it. Pretty sad.

    Madeleine is definitively my favorite. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art is a series of essays that I found to be L’Engle at her very best. Her discussion on iconology was extremely helpful to me.

    Thanks for the dialogue. I enjoy what you have to share.
    Read any good books lately?

    • I haven’t read Walking on Water,, but I’ve heard good things about it, and want to sometime.

      Lately… Yes. that’s pretty much all I’ve been up to this past year, but I’m not sure in particular. War and Peace is fantastic, but that was last fall. Plato’s Symposium, which we read a few weeks ago, is fascinating. How about your “box of new books?” Anything especially good in it?

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