Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


We Read For Beauty


When I sat down to write the introduction to Book Girl, I remember curling up on my couch in the rain light of a broodingly gray autumn day, soaking in the quiet, searching my mind for the words to encapsulate exactly what it was I wanted to give my readers in this 'book on books'. I was pregnant with my Lilian, just beginning to feel the otherworldly, precious tumble of her movement inside of me and my mind keep wandering toward her in thought, toward the books I wanted to read with her, the goodness I so deeply wanted to pass on. I realized, in a moment of epiphany, that the things I so longed to give to her in the reading life, and to my readers in Book Girl, were the same. They boiled down, when I finally started scratching them out, to three wishes that I described as follows:

"The reading life is like one of those potent graces bestowed by fairy godmothers on princesses in old fairy tales, the sort to help a young heroine grow in all good things, to love life in its fullness and beauty, but also to make her strong in resisting the forces of evil stepmothers or wicked fairies already gathered round her cradle... I firmly believe that books will help my daughter come into the full strength of her womanhood in all its intelligence and joy, its capacity and grace—and I’m firmly convinced they’ll do the same for you. The gifts of reading boil down quite quickly to three basic wishes, bright as any in a fairy story. They are the wishes, the hopes that ache in my heart as I read aloud to my little girl, the ones that echo back to me from my mother and shape my prayers for you as this book begins.
I want your heart to be stocked with beauty.
I want you to be strong for the battle.
I want you to know you're not alone.

In three posts over the next few weeks, I want to say a bit more about each of those wishes and share a brief list of the books that have most nurtured those qualities in my own life, books you'll find explored in more depth in Book Girl. 


First, beauty. Oh friends, we so often start in the middle of the story when we talk about why we should read; for education or morality or compassion. These are true and right reasons, practical and necessary. But these have to do with actions, with shaping how we work in the world and I think the first reason we read its to shape our very essence, to form the selves from which we act. We read first, to shape the person inside, to outfit the inner landscape of imagination and expectation from which we look out upon the world, and that is a world in great need of beauty.

What do I mean by beauty? I mean a bone-deep knowledge of the goodness of the world; the heaven-crammed splendor of creation, the gift of a mystery that is every other human soul we meet, the possibility of redemption, of friendship and laughter, the reality of grace invading every corner of existence. By beauty, I mean an encounter with God 'at play' (in Gerard Manley Hopkin's terms) in the world he created for joy and is redeeming in love.

If we are to wrestle well with the pervasive realities of our fallenness and frailty, we need to have some sense that our origin was good, that we were meant for wholeness and love. We need to know that our story was meant to be one of health, and I believe that books helps us to glimpse this powerful reality. Great stories form us by showing us the way that love works as a creative power in the fallen world, drawing us to renewed creation.

In reading, for me, that has meant my perennial return to the works of Madeleine L'Engle, especially her essays. In works like Walking on Water or the Crosswicks journals or The Genesis Trilogy I have drawn strength and vision from her affirmation of God as a lover and a father, a Creator who crafted a rich and joyous world, whose voice still echoes in starsong and baby's laughter. When I think of her books, I think of imaginative spaces in which I am able to 'taste and see' the goodness of God in her celebration of the cosmos in its loveliness, in her way of seeing the interconnectedness of people and place. 

A conscious knowledge of beauty as a force came to me also and early in the Anne of Green Gables books. The older I get the more I marvel at the way Anne teaches her readers to see the world; her vision is almost sacramental, one that recognises the divine imagination speaking to us in apple trees and wind, the laughter of friends and the daily dance of sunset and starlight. 

More recently, I've revelled in the theology of Alexander Schmemann, who insists upon a right understanding of the gift of creation as central to our grasp of who Christ is and what he works. I love his quote here: "All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food."

And I find it daily in the liturgy I say in Celtic Daily Prayer, the prayer book formed by the Northumbria Community. One of the opening lines in morning prayer is taken from Psalm 16, the request to 'dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord...' Those words frame in my existence morning by morning; they help me to think of my time as the space where I meet God, the realm in which I may daily encounter his reality in the full strength of his goodness.

Does reading for beauty mean I don't read books that speak of fallenness and despair? Of course not. I read books where beauty blossoms up in the darkness as hope. I read stories about people who are flawed and fallen, but who can choose for hope or change, for forgiveness or creativity so that I may become aware of those capacities in myself. I read stories acknowledging the difficult, disappointing world, that then show me what it means to take up the dust of it all in my hands and form something new.

We read for beauty precisely because we are broken and we need to remember that we can be healed.

And that is the first wish I have for my readers when they delve into Book Girl. 

“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”
-Madeleine L'Engle

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