Reading is a solitary activity.
Or, is it?
When we give books (whether tangibly or through a recommendation) a solitary pleasure is transformed into a shared joy.
This is what I thought as I put together these recommendations for you. I remembered the special friend who knew I would love this book of poetry. I remembered how she flew all the way from Chicago to Pennsylvania to stay with me, and I remembered when she put this book in my hand. She was right. I do love it, and it’s the fact of being so well known, as much as the book itself, that I am grateful for.
I also remembered the blogger who posted her love for this novel on facebook. I remembered the Chicago preschool teacher who kept copies of this writer’s books in her classroom. I know that the right books have a way of finding us at just the right time, and I hope I will always be a conduit for that magic.
I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book. – J.K. Rowling
At the risk of sounding foolishly repetitious, I want you to know that this is a magical book: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel by Rachel Joyce. It’s a quiet book. Even simplistic at times. It flirts with sentimentality. And I loved it so much. This is a book that goes on working its magic in your mind and heart long after you’ve turned the last page.
This is a novel about an accidental pilgrimage. Harold Fry steps out of his front door believing he will go only as far as the mailbox at the end of his street. Whether personal demons come out to chase him or some invisible force pulls him along, the result is that Harold puts one foot in front of the other until he has walked from his southern coastal English village 600 miles to the Scottish seaside.
Though I guessed the plot twist from the beginning, I still found this to be a beautiful, quietly devastating novel. It looks squarely at failure (Harold’s failures, his wife’s failures, our many, human failings) without losing hope. Harold’s story is sweet, clever, enjoyable, and profound.
‘If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there. I’ve begun to think we sit far more than we’re supposed to.’ He smiled. ‘Why else would we have feet?’ – Rachel Joyce
I was introduced to the picture books of Elsa Beskow eight years ago in my daughter’s Waldorf classroom. Waldorf education places a high value on fairy tale and the natural world, and I don’t think you can find that combination more clearly, or more beautifully, expressed anywhere but Beskow’s books.
Beskow was Swedish, and she wrote and illustrated dozens of titles between the 1890s and 1950s. One of my favorites, Peter in Blueberry Land, first appeared in 1901.
This is a story about a little boy searching for wild blueberries and cranberries for his mother’s birthday. Unable to find any berries, he sits forlorn on a stump in the forest until the tiny King of Blueberry Land takes pity on him. By the King’s magic, Peter shrinks in size and enjoys a day of pint-sized adventure with the many sons of the blueberry king and the red-capped daughters of Mrs. Cranberry.
We read this story over and over this summer because, well, blueberries! It’s one of those books that quickly becomes a kind of imaginative shorthand for the whole family. Wouldn’t that fern over there be a giant tree for the blueberry boys? we say. Or, Do you think Mrs. Cranberry shelters under a giant mushroom like that one?
The large format books are beautifully bound, but they can be hard to find. I discovered my copy of Peter sitting next to a display of butterfly-patterned china in a London department store. Last week, I spotted a large format copy of Children of the Forest in the gift shop of our local botanical gardens. The smaller, gift book editions are readily available on Amazon. We own a mini gift edition of The Sun Egg, and we return to it frequently even though it’s small. The baby seems especially enamored of its size, but I won’t let her play with these.
His mother was very pleased and said it was one of the nicest presents she had ever had. ‘Where did you find all those berries?’ she asked. But Peter smiled and shook his head. It was a secret between him and the King of Blueberry Land.
Sounding the Seasons by Malcolm Guite was a gift from a friend last spring. I’ve spent the summer reading and rereading these “seventy sonnets for the Christian year.”
Guite is a poet, priest, and musician from Cambridge, England. His sonnet sequence strongly reminds me of the seventeenth-century devotional poetry of George Herbert (a poet I’ve recommended here before), but it is also modern, cutting right to the heart of our contemporary preoccupations.
These poems stand alone as poems, but they are also beautiful accompaniments to the church calendar and to daily worship. By rights, I shouldn’t even include this title when claiming to give you “a peek at my farmhouse bookshelves,” because this book hasn’t seen a shelf since it arrived. It lives on my coffee table, on my bedside table, and stacked with my Bible on my desk. I carry it around with me, and I read it, at least a little bit, every day.
Some of you may have seen the sonnet I shared yesterday. Here’s one more:
First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water,
As though behind the sky itself they traced
The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.
Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream …
So every trace of light begins a grace
In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling:
‘Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream
For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking.’