I’m making a valiant effort to thin out my very thick personal library. Like any parting, there is grief, but I’m choosing instead to grip the joy and gratitude I’ve garnered from my books. When I picked up this 1232 page brick I faced the glacial reality that I would never read all the words again.
The next best thing was to read the bits I’d underlined in neat pencil.
Because I’m a wee bit obsessive about my books, I knew I had to copy those adored sentences into my commonplace book.
Two long road trips, several shorter drives, the odd minutes gleaned here and there… and I’ve added 30 pages to my journal of quotes from Les Misérables. All the joy, people. All the joy/grief/delight/disgust/admiration of this magnum opus comes flooding back.
It was the next best thing to reading every word. And so many quotes!
One thing remains. Giving this book a good home. A place where it can sit on a shelf, get a few loving glances with the whispered promise to read it sometime.
If my penciled copy of Hugo’s masterpiece sounds like something you want (free), leave a comment. In a week I’ll make a decision where it goes and mail/hand it to that person. Otherwise I’ll donate it.
I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than forty years. — Frederick Law Olmsted
So many surprises in A Clearing In the Distance. Olmsted was an autodidact. A slow starter, a dabbler in disparate enterprises, he kept afloat with his father’s loans. He himself was his father’s ‘Central Park’, the long investment whose glories would become apparent in the future. Fame first came as a journalist. He sailed to China; he bought a farm; he traveled to Europe; he started a magazine; he managed the largest gold mine in California.
It is the breadth of Olmsted’s curiosity that makes his writing compelling.
Other reading intersections: Erik Larson’s The Devil in White City made me thirsty to know more about FLO. Michael Pollan referenced Olmsted’s ideas in Second Nature. By chance, I’ve landed in books set in the late-19th century. The wider I read, the greater my familiarity grows and the joy of recognition sparks.
For those who like biographies, history, and books with an index and maps: 4 stars
Here are this year’s favorite books in quirky categories, along with sample quotes.
Hello, Again (the second time together)
Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. ATGiB
I love mankind, he said, but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular. TBK
Think Tanks (books that made me pause and ponder)
We’re happiest when we’re absorbed in a difficult task, a task that has clear goals and that challenges us not only to exercise our talents but to stretch them. tGC
Work is necessarily toilsome and serves someone else’s interest. That’s why you get paid. SCaS
Franklin could never see chaos without thinking of order. BF
Waiting is the primary recreation of Russia. You could try getting used to it. tFT
Where Have You Been All My Life? (a book I wish was available years ago)
We spent that midsummer reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the backyard, and I will always remember my surprise when the children laughed in the right places. MM
Sweet Comfort (sure, they’re about food, but the prose is delicious)
And, please—enough with the supposed health concerns. I mean, it’s not as though the obesity epidemic was caused by overconsumption of duck legs. NK
It is my most religious belief that a recipe is just a story that ends with a good meal. tPCC
But cooking is a way of paying attention, of really being in this world. When you look closely at a mango and inhale its scent, everything else stops. Life feels rich and easy. G-FG&tC
Cover Story (the cover drew me in)
Core Strengthening (soul-building books)
Over and Over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy. MOC
The opposite of a slave is not a free man. It’s a worshiper. TRoG
Upper Story (two memoirs and a history a cut above )
Rome is a broken mirror, the falling strap of a dress, a puzzle of astonishing complexity. It is an iceberg floating below our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface. FSiR
At Yale, many of my friends had never spent time with a veteran. In other words, I was an anomaly. HE
Fear settled over the men like silt in a tide. DW
For the Children (for me, too…my husband & I are reading HP series for the first time)
If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals. HPG0F
Books can ignite fires in your mind, because they carry ideas for kindling, and art for matches. LB&BB
Whatever it means to be friends, taking a black eye for someone has to be in it. WW
(Amazon affiliate links included: thank you!)
Judging by the cover, this looked self-published (it’s not); my expectations were minimal. I was pleasantly surprised by the writing, and found the story of Everett De Boer’s family’s work with the Dutch Resistance compelling. Journey Through the Night is four volumes (written in Dutch 1951-1958, translated in 1960) published as one.
The De Boer family is likeable. The architect father has pluck, the mother is kind-hearted, oldest son John is capable but inclined to hesitate, and impetuous Fritz can’t keep out of trouble; the other siblings have cameo roles. They are Christian — the winsome kind whose faith is more acted upon than spoken of, not off-putting.
What impressed me most in a world of checkpoints, false IDs, and fascist occupation was the advantage of being relaxed and calm, casual and nonchalant. Terror is perilous.
The De Boers had recently read Isaiah 16:3 Hide the outcast, don’t betray the fugitive, when a young man knocks on their door, seeking refuge. A procession of Jewish families and resistance fighters are hidden and helped. Such a small thing, and yet it changed the course of war: simple courageous people opening their homes and risking their lives for all kinds of strangers.
What I discovered while reading this book:
DKW cars (Dampf-Kraft-Wagen = steam-driven car) photo courtesy of Wikipedia
The Dutch National Anthem —another example of music bolstering courage
“OSO!” (Orange Shall Overcome) the slogan of the Dutch Resistance (here’s a link to learn more about the Dutch Resistance)
The Dutch writer Anne de Vries is a male. (Rainer Maria Rilke comes to mind as another writer with a conventionally female name.)
and no one could stop the course of God’s justice – not even Hitler.
Don’t let impatience make life miserable for you.
One time my brother gave me ten years of old Cook’s Illustrated magazines. Reading through them was like reliving Dan’s culinary phases. Oh, yeah, remember when he was making sausage? There’s the artisan bread recipe! Here’s where he learned to make risotto! Adding nutmeg to stroganoff might not have been an original idea…
I used to think my brother was a genius. (Ha ha, bro!) Then I realized he was merely an amazing reader who followed fantastic recipes.
The first thing I did with the magazines was cut out the Flemish-ish art and frame it.
Because I admire Christopher Kimball’s voice, I recently read through ten years of essays to assay his writing. I immersed myself in them in one week. A very few were ‘meh;’ most had a phrase or thought I copied into my journal.
His overarching theme is one of my own soap boxes, the importance of families eating together, a concept he encapsulates in the word familiar. Here are ten quotes I gleaned.
- We lost traditions that had connected us, and in which food played an important role: the social vitality of a meal, for example, as an occasion for families to talk, argue, persuade, or even shout.
- On many days, there is more sense to be found in a good recipe for roast chicken than in all the news on the front page of the New York Times.
- Today, a whole generation has grown up as a take-out culture. The food is convenient, and some of it is even good, but it has none of the ring of the familiar; it can never be personal enough to become part of our past.
- Dinner slows the clock, allowing us a moment to catch our breath, to savor the stillness of the moment; the first taste of a family recipe connecting us instantly to each other, to our past and future.
- So many of us today avoid cooking because it is difficult and time-consuming, requiring skill and planning. But it is the blessing of common labor — transforming simple beginnings into rich harvests — that is the great joy of cooking and of any life well lived.
- I hate the idea that cooking should be a celebration or a party. Cooking is about putting food on the table night after night, and there isn’t anything glamorous about it.
- Over a lifetime, hands become invested with knowledge, if we allow it. The surgeon, the farmer, the gardener, the artist, and the mother all accrue a lifetime of skill in their hands.
- Cooks are architects, building a present that is worth remembering, investing time and energy in simple tasks that grow in importance as time passes.
- It’s a shame that at the beginning of this new century, the world is watching America and America is watching television.
- Cooking isn’t creative, and it isn’t easy. It’s serious, and it’s hard to do well, just as everything worth doing is damn hard.
After I read the last essay, I read a few articles about Christopher Kimball, the man. I was saddened by his divorce, and laughed out loud at this sentence by Alex Halberstadt: “His real difficulty as an evangelist, however, is the one afflicting most multimillionaires who expound publicly on the virtues of simple living.”
As it happens, Kimball has left Cook’s Illustrated to begin a new magazine called Milk Street. Clever name, I thought, wrongly guessing it was an idiom like in tall cotton. Turns out it’s the street where Kimball’s offices are located.
Last night I started a biography of Benjamin Franklin that a friend wants me to read. When I read that Benjamin was born in a house on Milk Street in Boston, I just laughed. Once again, my reading life has synchronicity, serendipity and sweetness.
I enjoy persuading adult readers to read well-written young adult books. Gary Schmidt’s book is one I recommend, perhaps even more for older readers than for a middle schooler. It made me snort with laughter and it turned me into a sobbing, sniffing mess.
Doug Swieteck has a lying, blustering, bullying, abusive father. His mom tries to compensate, neutralizing her husband’s venom to the best of her ability within the strictures of 1960’s mores. Doug’s older brothers are plain mean.
I tried to talk to my father about it. But it was a wrong day. Most days are wrong days.
So convincing is Doug’s voice that I could hear it. “Terrific.” “I hate stupid Marysville.” “You know how that felt?” and Doug’s trademark phrase, “I’m not lying.”
Perhaps we’ve all grown up with someone like Doug, a mixture of bravado and vulnerable. Someone outside the family takes an interest and tries to pull that kid up above his/her circumstances. Doug had his share of tormentors, but also four mentors who invested in him.
There are some things in this world that we cannot fix, and they happen, and it is not our fault, though we still might have to deal with them. There are other things that happen in this world that we can fix. And that is what good teachers like me are for. — Miss Cowper, English teacher
A few things seduced me. One brother is only identified as “my jerk brother.” He is changed by a horrific situation — converted (not religious) — and Doug begins calling him by his name. It is a subtle but significant clue. The smile motif captured me. Pay attention to the smiles.
I listened to the audio version (5 stars for Lincoln Hoppe’s narration–except he mispronounced Cowper— it’s Cooper), but was compelled to read the words.
And see the pictures. Doug Swieteck’s doorway to a better life comes through John James Audubon’s bird pictures. (The hefty Birds of America was the first gift I gave my husband after we married.) Each chapter is named after an Audubon bird; the audio experienced is diminished without seeing the prints.
There is a broad ranged of interests represented in this book: Audubon, Apollo 11, the Vietnam War, Jane Eyre, Periodic Table, baseball, and Aaron Copland. There is drama, devastation, and unexpected grace. I loved the book. Would a young teen love it?
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. — C.S. Lewis
The rewards of deep reading (reading several books on the same subject or by the same author) are plentiful: synthesis, comprehension, analysis. Or just the possibility of remembering the main point. Reading widely pays well, too. The stab of joy, the searing beauty of synchronicity! When I read Book G and it revisits something I read in Book B with no obvious connection between the two? Oh, man. It gets my voice in the high treble range and sets my fingers aflutter.
I thought it would be fun to classify my reading list for 2015 chronologically by publication date. I like old books, yes. But I also have been guilty of reverse-snobbery, where I lift my nose a few centimeters and declare that I’m not all that interested in modern writing. Blech! (autocorrect wanted to change that to belch; that works, too!) As you can see, I’ve overcome that weakness, haha!
2011-2015 (30 books)
Reclaiming Conversation Sherry Turkle
Come Rain or Come Shine Jan Karon
Bread and Wine Shauna Niequist
Earthen Vessels Matthew Lee Anderson
Being Mortal Atul Gawande
Fierce Convictions Karen Swallow Prior
As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust Alan Bradley
Landfalls Naomi Williams
The Wright Brothers David McCullough
All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr
Gutenberg’s Apprentice Alix Christie
Nigellissima Nigella Lawson
Among the Janeites Deborah Yaffe
Wheat Belly William Davis
Every Good Endeavor Timothy Keller
Coolidge Amity Shlaes
The Book of Strange New Things Michel Faber
The Green Ember S.D. Smith
Food: A Love Story Jim Gaffigan
Dad Is Fat Jim Gaffigan
God Made All of Me Justin Holcomb
No Higher Honour Condoleezza Rice
The Forgotten Founding Father Joshua Kendall
Delancey Molly Wizenberg
Lit! The Christian Guide to Reading Books Tony Reinke
The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse Alan Bradley
The Every-Other-Day-Diet Krista Varady
Tsura Heather Anastasiu
House of Stone Heather Anastasiu
One Good Dish David Tanis
Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. — C.S. Lewis
2000-2010 (24 books)
In the Midst of Life Jennifer Worth
The Midwife Jennifer Worth
Waiting for Snow in Havana Carlos Eire
The River of Doubt Candice Millard
Mudhouse Sabbath Lauren Winner
Complications Atul Gawande
Unless It Moves the Human Heart Roger Rosenblatt
The Importance of Being Seven Alexander McCall Smith
The Best Day, The Worst Day Donald Hall
A Personal Odyssey Thomas Sowell
The Shoebox Bible Alan Bradley
Sonata for Miriam Linda Olsson
Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance Atul Gawande
Shadows of the Workhouse Jennifer Worth
Inkheart Cornelia Funke
The Unbearable Lightness of Scones Alexander McCall Smith
Old Filth Jane Gardam
The Man in the Wooden Hat Jane Gardam
How to Read Shakespeare Nicholas Royle
In Thy Dark Streets Shineth David McCullough
The House at Riverton Kate Morton
Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs Larry Smith
Widow of the South Robert Hicks
A Separate Country Robert Hicks
1990-1999 (7 books)
A Pianist’s Landscape Carol Montparker
Down the Common Ann Baer
Poems New and Collected Wistawa Szymborska
Melodious Accord Alice Parker
One Year Off David Elliot Cohen
Girl in Hyacinth Blue Susan Vreeland
Jeremy: The Tale of An Honest Bunny Jan Karon
1980-1988 (2 books)
Godric Frederick Buechner
To School Through the Fields Alice Taylor
1970-1979 (1 book)
The Brendan Voyage Tim Severin
1950-1969 (4 books)
A Grief Observed C.S. Lewis
How Does a Poem Mean? John Ciardi
On the Beach Nevil Shute
The Schoolmasters Leonard Everett Fisher
1900-1949 (7 books)
Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton
The Adventures of Sally P.G. Wodehouse
Pied Piper Nevil Shute
Anna and the King of Siam Margaret Landon
I Capture the Castle Dodie Smith
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres Henry Adams
Jimmy at Gettysburg Margaret Bigham Beitler
The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. — C.S. Lewis
1800-1899 (4 books)
Doctor Wortle’s School Anthony Trollope
Sir Henry Hotspur Anthony Trollope
Henry Heathcote of Gangoil Anthony Trollope
Luck of the Roaring Camp Bret Harte
1500-1599 (2 books)
Henry IV, Part I William Shakespeare
Henry IV, Part 2 William Shakespeare
0- 500 AD (2 books)
On the Incarnation Athanasius
Marcus Aurelius and his Times Marcus Aurelius
Photograph is my granddaughter, reading Goodnight Moon to me.