Alas, I have not been writing. I am in the midst of an incredibly heavy marking season, facing dozens–hundreds, actually–of assignments on this two-dimensional backlit screen. The thought of carving out mental space to pour my heart out onto this same screen is wearying. So the crickets sing into the silent night of this blog, and the project of having my 8 year old son ghostwrite for me was met with only limited success. I simply have not been writing.
But I have been reading. And reading wonderful things. I’ve gone back to Madeleine L’Engle after an adulthood away. I’ve discovered F. Anstey’s witty Victorian farce, Vice Versa. I’m reading John Bunyan, Anne Lamott, Óscar Romero, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jean Baudrillard, and Albert Camus. I love Camus. And, as ever, I am reading C.S. Lewis. Through all the busyness and late-night marking sessions, I am still reading.
Lewis himself was an avid reader. I read this week–did you see what I did there?–that John Goldthwaite quipped that Lewis was The Man Who Read Too Much. Certainly as someone who is trying to retrace the man’s literary journeys, it is daunting to consider the vast landscape that was available to him. Indeed, if his twenty-something journal is valuable for no other reason, it is at least an account of his literary adventures (as Joel Heck has cataloged in Irrigating Deserts). His letters are filled with literary references and hen scratched book reviews. It’s impossible to keep up with a reader who says,
“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
In my bedside table list above I mentioned the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson. Admittedly, I am a new convert to Robinson’s work. We assigned the challenging and breathtaking essay, “Freedom of Thought,” to our wide-eyed freshmen this year, so I did some background reading. Her Housekeeping was a beautifully sculpted literary trap, inviting the reader to look through the grimy lenses of a broken family. But it is her When I Was a Child I Read Books, where we found “Freedom of Thought,” that has kept me up at night. Reading it, I feel like I am reading my own inner thoughts, printed in sophisticated prose by an American prophetess I have never met. It is a startling experience, but not altogether unwelcome. It is why I read C.S. Lewis, I think.
Within her essay, “Imagination and Community,” I found one of these self-revelatory passages. She begins the essay appealing to bibliophiles:
Over the years I have collected so many books that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly I wonder how many of them I ever will read. This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books. But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life.
In the winding, image-laced path she tends to carve into the wilderness, much later in the essay Robinson comes back to the idea of her library as she connects reading, writing, and an imaginative community.
I remember once, as a child, walking into a library, looking around at the books, and thinking, I could do that. In fact I didn’t do it until I was well into my thirties, but the affinity I felt with books as such preserved in me the secret knowledge that I was a writer when any dispassionate appraisal of my life would have dismissed the notion entirely. So I belong to the community of the written word in several ways.
First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination.
Second, they gave me a sense of the possible, which is the great service–and too often, when it is ungenerous, the great disservice–a community performs for its members.
Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language, and the artful use of language in the service of the imagination.
Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage.
Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my windows, forgetting to call my mother because one of my nonbeings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think, this is a very odd way to spend a life. But I have my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience, who have helped me to my deepest enjoyments of it. Every writer I know, when asked how to become a writer, responds with one word: Read. Excellent advice, for a great many reasons, a few of which I have suggested here.
And so the community continues. She is in my library now, among my cloud of witnesses, helping me ignore the world, while the world itself shines outside my windows. And she is helping me create my own worlds, encouraging me to become fascinated with my own nonbeings and their strange thoughts, and causing me to forget to call my own mother.
So, although I am not writing, I am reading. Perhaps that is enough for today.