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- Shawna

 

 

Re-reading Gilead, Reading Birds Art Life

Re-reading Gilead, Reading Birds Art Life

I continue to be interested in how we read, and in the accidents of reading. I'm interested in the books one returns to with love and admiration. There will always be new books to read, and I'm interested in how those new books capture our attention, and what suddenly becomes the hot thing that everyone is talking about. I was thinking the other day how it's too bad that new books are mostly talked about in the context of other new books - the ones that just so happen to come out in the same season. What happens when you read a new book alongside one that you've read before?

I recently re-read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. My book practically pops open to this quotation: 

“When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all.”

There are a lot of reasons to read and re-read this book. I think it's, quite simply, a masterpiece. Somewhere I read that Gilead, among its other meanings, means 'testimony' or 'witness.' And the book is the story of an older man who knows his days are numbered, writing to his young, miracle of a son. When I read Gilead, the parts I have underlined in my numerous readings most have to do with how the narrator describes his son so lovingly. For example:

"There's a shimmer on a child's hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colours in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colours you can see in the dew sometimes. They're in the petals of flowers, and they're on a child's skin. Your hair is so straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you're not prettier than most children. You're just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it's your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined."

It always surprises me to find that there are people who don't like Gilead, which is, I repeat, a literary masterpiece. But then there's no accounting for taste, haha. 

There is a line where the narrator remarks, "I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness."

And isn't that what all good writing does: preserves beauty, preserves the mortal loveliness of this life. 

I've been a big fan of Kyo Maclear's children's books and have gifted them many times and make them my staff picks at the library where I work. In particular I love her Virginia Wolf. I held off on reading the review of Birds Art Life by the always fabulous Kerry Clare on her Pickle Me This blog until I'd finished but as usual she gets to the heart of the book. It's a sort of sad/hopeful memoir that contains a kind of loneliness that speaks to me. The author seeks small quiet, song-filled experiences and this for me, is tremendously endearing. 

She says, "I like smallness. I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny." 

Over the course of a year, she connects with a birder with whom she goes on small excursions, and she looks after an ailing father, while also parenting and writing. Her birder friend says, "I like the idea of songs sung by those without big voices. You know, small birdsongs that rise above the noise of the city." Maclear then asks, 

"If you pour everything into the tiny vessel of a song and wear out your heart what is that? Is that small or big? If you close to put yourself out there on a small stage, singing for the small somebody inside of you, knowing how quickly songs wane, is that modest or gargantuan? 

On the same subject she also quotes Pete Seeger, who said, "I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big." 

This book, it seems to me, is about many small, delightful things right alongside some more 'life-y' things, all of which add up to something big. I'm so happy that I read it. I've only given a glimpse into the book which is one I know I'll return to. 

Reading it in the same span in which I re-read Gilead? These two books work really well together because they're both able to simultaneously hold sorrow and joy and they both get at the mortal loveliness of this life, in completely different ways. 


Please note that the links to buy these books are affiliate links - which means that I receive a small portion of your purchase price when you buy them through the link. xo

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