Ah yes, Wednesday…the calendars have turned over once again to this magical day. The world is treated once more to the latest in literary engaging prompts from the lovely people running the T5W group over at Goodreads. Yay! These always end up prompting faaar more deep reflection then I expect once I actually sit down to write them. Because of that, they’ve become some of my favorite posts. The idea this week was to highlight five books that I feel differently about after I’ve had time to think about them or reread them. After several days of thinking, talking it out, and starring at my bookshelves, here’s what finally made the cut! This may have ended up being my most eclectic Top Five Wednesday yet…
5) Tom King’s Vision – This one may be a bit of a surprise, give how critically acclaimed it is, but I felt I could (sort of) honestly include it. And I wanted to make sure there was at least some sort of comic representation on the list. I was so excited to start this series! I loved what was being done in the book. I loved it’s message, purpose, meaning, and visuals…but at the end of the day it was just too sad for me. Is that weird? I go to my comic books primarily for fun, joy, and inspiration. As the posts on this blog illustrate, I clearly enjoy the deeper theological/societal commentary that comic books can offer. In fact, I don’t think I’d be reading them again now, as an adult, if they didn’t have that facet to them. But Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta are just too good at their job. In presenting the Vision family’s quest to be normal and accepted in a world that refuses to welcome or understand them I was left feeling significantly weighed down after each issue. So I began reading the series quite eagerly…only to stop reading it after the fourth issue. I wish them well in their adventures! But Vision just isn’t the book for me.
4) Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit – In what will easily become THE trend of this post, this was a book that I’ve grown to appreciate more as I’ve grown and learned more. As a sophomore in college, I’d never read anything like it and immediately fell in love with it. After college I revisited the book and then went on to read more of Quinn’s fiction. Once Daniel Quinn works his way into your mind, he stays with you. And for good reason!! What is said in this book about humanity, civilization, theology, anthropology, ethics, education, and the environment blew my mind then…and the accuracy and importance of those messages have only resonated with me more as I’ve learned more about those fields. As the cover of the novel proclaims, Jim Britell of the Whole Earth Review said, “From now on I will divide the books I have read into two categories – the ones I read before Ishmael and those read after.” As far as I’m concerned, he’s right. This book is IMPORTANT. It should be required reading to be human and we should have to revisit it every five years!
3) Augustine’s The Confessions – Writing in the late 300s C.E., Augustine would become one of Christianity’s most important voices. Whether east or west, Catholic or Protestant, Augustine helps shape all Christian beliefs. For a thousand years his writing was seen as second only to scripture in its importance and authority. However, Augustine had issues. For a long time I was frustrated with him and his theological outlook, placing a lot of the blame for Christianity’s at times seemingly (and painfully) exclusive focus on sexual sins at the expense of more stirring social justice inequalities on his shoulders. While Augustine’s writing certainly helped shape our cultural understanding of things like sexual ethics (and note, even if you don’t consider yourself Christian, it’s a safe bet – if you’re a Westerner – that Augustine has affected your understanding in some way), to resent Augustine for what others have done with his teaching is as illogical as it is unfortunate. Years later I returned to Augustine and his brilliant and moving Confessions. While I still have issues with some of his theology, the beauty of his writing is clear to me.
Essentially his Confessions was the west’s first tell-all-memoir or autobiography. He was a man forever caught between two worlds: his mother’s Christianity and his father’s paganism, his intellect and his faith, his lustful desires and the man he wanted to be, and I think this is one of the reasons he has continued to resonate with readers for over a millennia. Every year I read a chapter of Confessions with my sophomores and every year they love it, saying it feels as if it was written by someone they know. Despite being a saint, Augustine’s Confessions is not the story of triumphal conversion but one of a solemn act of renewal. The problems Augustine faced in life would continue to plague him throughout his life. He would always struggle to be the man he wanted to be. I think this is another reason why Augustine still appeals so deeply to modern readers. We can all empathize with those feelings. Lastly, for Augustine, writing held the intimate embrace and healing intelligence of language. He also saw it as prayer, as a conversation with God. I’ve found both of these experiences to be true of my own writing. I was bothered by Augustine for many years…but now I can see the deeply human experiences he expresses so honestly. And we need him for that!
2) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – I first read The Great Gatsby in high school Who didn’t right? I remember enjoying it then. Compared to some other high school reading assignments (I’m looking at YOU Bridge Over San Louis Rey…UGH!) this book was short, easy to read, kind of fun, and I “got” it. But I didn’t really get it did I? How could I really understand the themes in this book in high school? Just as academic knowledge changed my understanding of Ishmael, my emotional growth changed my relationship with The Great Gatsby. I’ve read it a few times since high school, once in college and twice since I’ve graduated, and my respect and appreciation for the book continues to grow.
As I’ll write below, growing up has given me the emotional depth to appreciate stories I wasn’t able to fully understand or immerse myself in when I was younger. That’s only natural. Gatsby’s fixation on Daisy is a painfully perfect example of idealization. She was his “What if…?” girl and he made her into something she wasn’t. That’s something that most readers can connect with, turning someone into who you want/need them to be and not who they really are. She was a desire, an obsession for Gatsby and that consumed him in the most unhealthy way. Daisy and Tom’s marriage is a moving example of being stuck in a flat relationship that neither has the courage to leave or, worse, that they’ve simply accepted as “good enough” because it’s safe and easy. Nick feeling like an outside observer despite his emotional involvement, Jordan’s hidden depth, the commentary on wealth and its corruptions…the list goes on and on. All of these themes were beyond my emotional understanding at seventeen but I get them now. As a result, what was a so-so read in high school has become one of my favorite novels.
1) Paulo Coelho’s The Zahir – I’ve written before how much Paulo Coelho’s work moves me. It’s not that his narratives are simply well crafted and enthralling (which they are!) but they’re also filled with deep, honest, and nourishing spiritual insight. More than any other single author I’ve felt the Divine move through the words of Paulo Coelho and offer me happiness, comfort, and guidance. I turn to Coelho for enjoyment but I also believe I pick him up when I need his vision…even if I’m not aware of that at the time. I first read The Alchemist when I was in college and have never been so moved by a book. I read it at least once a year, every year, taking more from it each time. That’s sort of the way my relationship with all of Coelho’s writing goes.
That was what’s happened with The Zahir too. Shortly after The Alchemist, I began my journey to read everything he’d written. I did and I loved it all. But when I recently returned to The Zahir, reading it for the second time two or three years ago, I found something I hadn’t before. The story follows an unnamed narrator as he struggles with his wife Esther’s disappearance. What Coelho illustrates about human emotion, connection, and the true nature of love was something I could never appreciate or understand in my early twenties. I remember liking the book…but it wasn’t the most memorable of his novels for me. Experiencing it again a few years ago, in my early thirties, I found an entirely different novel. I think when I came to the book the second time I had lived more of life and I’d certainly experienced more of love and the Divine (which, if we’re being honest, are really the same thing at their highest and purest level). The book resonated with me in ways few ever have and has become my second favorite of Coelho’s works. This novel tells a story which, if you’re ready to hear it and able to understand, paints the beautifully honest portrait of the true nature of unconditional love. Where Gatsby is the picture of where obsession and desire can take you, The Zahir shows how love filled with obsession and desire cannot be love. Love, in its truest form, must be free of obsession and desire. All love wants of the Beloved is their own happiness in whatever form that takes.
I’d like to go on and on about how incredible this novel is and how much it now means to me but I’m not going to for two reasons. First, the attempt to articulate the emotional and spiritual transformation this book helped create in me is beyond my abilities as a writer. It’s too intimate, too personal, to be able to explain. It’s not that I don’t want to share it but rather I don’t know how to. Second, why would I go on and on about one of Coelho’s novels when it’s always going to be better for you to read it yourself? Seriously, you should spend your afternoon with a little Paulo Coelho. Let your heart guide you to whatever seems right and hopefully the Spirit will move through you too. In my experience, there’s no bad time to read Paulo Coelho. He’s always good for the heart, the mind, and the soul.
And that does it for another Top Five Wednesday! Unlike last week, I’m not filled with any irrational rage from intensely thinking about unlikable characters. HOWEVER, I enjoyed the trip to the comic shop for New Comic Book Day after posting last week so I think I’m going to make this a little tradition.