These Farmhouse Bookshelves (In a Time of Violence)
(an installment in my occasional series of book recommendations; this post contains affiliate links)
These are violent days. What good are books? Of what use is poetry?
In his elegy for W. B. Yeats, the poet W. H. Auden famously wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Yet the poem itself complicates this view.
Poetry may or may not change a thing, but if we feel compelled to sing, why not sing, as Mary once sang, of justice?
If we feel compelled to read, why not shed the burden of our own particular skin and view the world through another’s eyes? For a little while?
Here is one more.
A favorite book on our family shelves is Brown Girl Dreaming, a recent Newbery Honor Book by Jacqueline Woodson. My twelve-year-old daughter and I both loved it. The poetry is accessible but incredibly rich.
In a similar vein, I recommend Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. Written in verse, this story communicates difficult truths and complicated historical experiences with grace and lyricism. It is one of the sweetest, saddest, loveliest books I have read.
When I was a new graduate student living on the south side of Chicago, I first read the classic 1952 novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. That was years ago, and I don’t remember the book very well. What I do remember is the shock I felt reading a novel told from the perspective of a nameless black man. For the first time in my life I recognized how the skin we walk around in can remake the world around us. I had never even imagined a world like the one inhabited by this invisible man, but there it was, and while I read the book, I lived in it.
Like most summers, this one is too loud, too crowded, too hot. But, as I write in Roots and Sky, this cuts two ways. There are also too many lilies in the garden and too many squash on the vine. My way of dealing with the too-muchness of it all is what I call “comfort-reading.” This means I am finding most of my reading material on the shelf at my local Goodwill thrift store: fifty cent Agatha Christie paperbacks, an old Martha Stewart gardening book without its carefully photographed jacket, an Englishman’s memoir of life in Provence that must have been on everyone’s beach-read list the summer of ’89.
I revisited the Goodwill bookshelves only yesterday and found two treasures. The first was a copy of The Taize Picture Bible: Stories From the Scriptures in almost perfect, vintage condition. I have heard such good things about this illustrated Bible for children over the years, but it has long been out of print. I paid $1.97 and couldn’t believe my luck.
The second was a pristine paperback copy of Elizabeth Enright’s Thimble Summer, the winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal. I didn’t buy it only because I recently found a vintage hardback of the same title at my local used bookstore. It has been our evening family read-aloud for a week now.
My ongoing quest to discover read-aloud books all four of my kids will submit to listening to (actually enjoying the book is a higher standard; I am satisfied if two of four children say they “like” the book) has recently met with failure upon failure. The last success I remember is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, a book that has a lot in common with Thimble Summer.
On the recommendation of a friend, I recently began reading The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island. After my friend explained it was a book about an old house written by a landscape historian, she said, “I think you’ll like it.” I said, “I think you’re right.”
More factual and straightforward than a historical novel, yet much more readable and compelling than a history textbook, The Manor tells the story of one of the first great European houses in North America, and the family who lived in it and preserved its history for centuries. One house might not seem so important, but the door of this house opens up a story of northern slavery that has since been either forgotten or willfully ignored.
The first Sylvesters were Quakers, and the story of their lives is revising a story I have always taken pride in. My own farmhouse was built by Quakers, and I have long given credit for the beauty of this part of Pennsylvania to the generations of residents who have sown peace and justice into the very soil of this place. That story is still true, but The Manor tells an older, darker tale. According to this story, the blood of enslaved Africans touches every aspect of our earliest history and every one of my seemingly peaceful, green hills.
Seeds of brutality and injustice were sown into our country’s soil from its earliest days. It is a small thing to know that the atrocities of slavery on sugar plantations in Barbados could not have been sustained without the animals and crops raised on New England farms, yet somehow that knowledge has brought the shame of slavery home to my own heart.
Those Barbadian plantation owners lived in homes built like fortresses. They exploited, in fact, they brutalized their workers and so they feared them.
Slavery is long gone, but we still reap that terrible harvest. We worship safety. We are afraid of black men, but it is the black men, and their communities, who pay the price for our fear.
When I hear that one more police officer has killed one more black man, I cannot throw a stone at that officer. I remember how, years ago, fear would rise up in me if I followed the sidewalk beneath a graffiti-splattered viaduct and saw a young black man in baggy pants approaching from the other direction. It took years of living in that south-side Chicago neighborhood to learn that I was always so much safer than any of those young black men. In ten years, I was never the victim of a crime, but neighbor after neighbor, innocent after innocent, male and female but always black-skinned, died of gun violence while I lived, untouched, in their midst.
Separation breeds fear, and fear breeds violence.
But if violence is a failure of the imagination, as the poet William Stafford said, then perhaps poetry can make something happen?
Comfort-reading has its place, but I must also read to bring dark things into the light. Especially, those dark things in my own self.
What if we tuned our imaginations to the songs of others not like ourselves?
If poetry makes beauty and creates hope, can it also help us to act justly and love mercy?
Can it help us walk humbly with our God?
With these questions in mind, do you have any book recommendations for me?
If you are looking for a quick Saturday read, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “What Hospitality Looks Like In A Castle.”