The Enlargement of Being (by reading): Novels
The summer I was eleven, I discovered the Anne books for myself. I'm pretty sure my Mom had read me Anne of Green Gables aloud before, and I'm pretty sure I liked it. But when the sunny hours stretched long (and in Texas far too hot for outdoor play) one July day, I reached for the second book in the series. Suddenly, the Anne books became a world that blossomed in my imagination, a place and a people almost as real to me as those of my house and family. Anne called her pond a 'lake of shining water', she made 'kindred spirits', she wove the ordinary of house and farm and kitchen into a drama of discovery so that each person around her appeared like a figure in a fairy tale, each house a living story, each day a gift set in her hands by a grace beyond her ken. I dwelt in her vision and began to see my own world afresh. My engagement with ordinary life was different after my sojourn with Anne in P.E.I. The rich mystery that Anne made of the everyday livened me to a new and heightened awareness of my own world as gift. The descriptions of landscape and person that I discovered in the Anne books instigated my own forays into writing as I attempted to see and begin to describe my own life in her charmed and sacred terms. The Anne books offered me that 'enlargement of being' that C.S. Lewis describes as one of the great gifts of story in his pithy little volume An Experiment in Criticism.
As he so fervently states, 'in reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.'
These are exactly the qualities at back of the novels I'm gathering to recommend in my new book. I'm hard at glorious work on Book Girl, gathering quotes and making impossibly long lists of my favourite books. In honour of the (supposedly) lazy days of summer and as a fit start to this project I've used these first weeks to revisit the novels that allowed me that 'enlargement of being' so rejoiced in by Lewis. I'm reading back through a few Anne books, I've revisited the lonely, revealing inner narrative of Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson, savouring its slow, slow growth in grace. I've traveled back through The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, and remembered the way that reading connects us to each other and this sweet and weary old earth. There's no way I can make it through this summer and the writing of this book without a bit of Goudge's sacramental enchantment in The Little White Horse. And since I am regularly teased about being a Wendell Berry apologist, I think I'd better revisit Remembering: A Novel (Port William)too, as its one of the books that helped me to understand my old-souled self and my place in this strange, modern world. (And my goodness, his Selected Poems have ministered to me of late.)
But now, I need to adventure a bit. Obviously, I have dozens of beloved novels on the lists already. But I want to adventure a bit before I set them in stone. Below, I have a list of novels, a few essays, and a bit of poetry, none of which I've yet read. These are the books I've heard about, been told I should read, or just had covers I couldn't resist. I know there are countless thousands of titles I could read or recommend, but I'm looking for the books whose stories enlarge my vision, not randomly, but with greater insight into the workings of love, the ways of grief, the real wrestle with frailty, or the forward march of hope. Books, in other words, that teach me what it means to be human, and what it looks like to reach for the wholeness of love in its thousand different ways.
I would love to know the books that you would list as the sort that help you to live and live a bit more to the full. I'd love your thoughts on any of the books below. And I'd love to know what you're reading yourself. If there's one thing I want Book Girl to be, it's a fellowship of readers, so consider yourself invited. And let the reading continue.
I'm off to snatch a few more minutes with Lila...