Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Speaking with the Dead (and the not-quite-dead)

***The third in a three-part series. Read part one here and part two here.***

The shrieking book from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

I’ve found that good books speak so loud that they make me want to talk with them (and sometimes even argue with them). In some of the best books I’ve read, the margins end up teeming with my own thoughts, questions, and accusations. And in rare cases, the book responds. 

A page from our well-loved copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This is something that I think I’ve somehow always known, but never fully realized until I read The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne Valente. At the tail end of the book, the author describes a conversation she had with one of the characters (a dragon-like creature who is also part library), in which they discuss their love of books. Last week, I shared her first two reasons why books can be so life-changing, and now I present to you her third (and final) reason:

Three: People are Books…When you read a book, it is not only a story. It is never only a story. Exciting plots may occur, characters suffer and triumph, yes. It is a story. But it is also a person speaking to you, directly to you. A person far away, perhaps in time, perhaps in space, perhaps both. A person who wanted to say something so loud that everyone could hear it. A book is a time-traveling teleportation machine. And there’s millions and millions of them! 

This is something that’s easy to forget when we hold an inanimate object in our hands. Yes, it is a book, but that book is also proof that a living, loving mind has lived and felt that she or he had something worth saying to the world. It’s as if a thought has been frozen, waiting for the warmth of our own mind to thaw it and bring it back to life. She continues:

When you read a book, you have a conversation with the person who wrote it. And that conversation is never quite the same twice. Every single reader has a different chat, because they are different people with different histories and ideas in their heads. Why, you cannot even have the same conversation with the same book twice! If you read a book as a child, and again as a Grown-Up, it will be something altogether other. New things will have happened to you, new folk will have come into your life and taught you wild and wonderful notions you never thought of before. You will not be the same person—and neither will the book. 

Hopefully you’ve had this experience at least once—you pick up a book you read when you were younger, only to find that it says something completely different. I begin to wonder if someone has played a trick on me, until I continue reading, and realize that the lenses though which I’m reading the book have been polished and warped (and sometimes scratched). The book is—at heart—familiar, but made less-than-familiar by the life I’ve lived since first making its acquaintance. Sometimes the book makes more sense to me. Sometimes less.

Bruce Wayne trying to read while dreaming in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Perchance to Dream"

Finally, Catherynne ends her wisdom on the life-changing nature of books by reminding us of the very personal nature of both writing and reading:

When you read, know that someone somewhere wrote those very words just for you, in hopes that you would find something there to take with you in your own travels through time and space.

A book is a universe, a voice, and a gift. The more that we read truly good books, the larger we become on the inside, giving our hearts much more room to grow than the narrow cage of an isolated mind. Yes, books can do this, but somehow they can also do more…

Catherynne gives an alternative meaning for this third principle, but you’ll have to pick up The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There to find that out. And these were only taken from the bonus materials after the story itself, so hopefully you’ll want to pick up a copy for yourself (and an extra one to lend out to folks). And if you don’t want to wait to get one in the mail, you can also get a digital and / or audio copy immediately

Oh—and don’t forget to read the first book in the series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (also available digitally and auditorially[?]). These are books that are sure to give you something meaningful to take with you in your own adventures through time and space.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Reading Books, Reading People

How can being “bookish” actually help you to connect with other people?

A Benedictine monk reads in a monastery (borrowed from here).

When someone uses the word “bookish” to describe themselves or others, it’s easy for us to picture a solitary monk, spending his entire life in silence, with only the written word as a companion. And this same image might come to mind when seeing someone in public with her or his head buried in a book—secular monks cloistered in plain sight. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Available in physical, digital, and audio forms

As I mentioned in my last entry, Catherynne Valente has managed to make visible the subtle magic of reading in her book The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. In exploring why books can be so life-changing, she gives three reasons—the first was “A Book Is A Universe and the Universe is a Book.” Here’s the second:
Two: Books Are People. Some are easy to get along with and some are shy, some are full of things to say and some are quiet, some are fanciful and some are plainspoken, some you will feel as though you’ve known forever the moment you open the cover, and some will take years to grow into. Just like people, you must be introduced properly and sit down together with a cup of something so that you can sniff at each other like tomcats but lately acquainted. Listen to their troubles and share their joys. They will have their tempers and you will have yours, and sometimes you will not understand a book, nor will it understand you—you can’t love all books any more than you can love every stranger you meet. But you can love a lot of them. And the love of a book is a precious, subtle, strange thing, well worth earning.
You see, the ways we can learn to love books and love people are essentially the same. The more we open ourselves up to the world of a book, the more we should be able to open ourselves up to the many worlds of the people who surround us. 

Here’s how Catherynne concludes:
And just like people, you are never really done with a book—some part of it will stay with you, gently changing the way you see and speak and know.
When we approach both books and people with open hearts and open minds, they can help to transform us into something much better and brighter than we possibly could have become on our own. And one of the beauties of both books and people is that there are always more that we can get to know. 

Our heroine, September, befriends a wyverary (part wyvern, part library).

Along similar lines, elsewhere in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland one of the characters explains why being bookish can be such an adventure: 
Of course, a library is never complete. That’s the joy of it. We are always seeking one more book to add to our collection.
If we can learn to see our lives as expansive, ever-growing libraries (of both books and people), we can also learn to love more frequently and fiercely. This is “bookish-ness” in its highest and holiest sense.

Next time, Catherynne’s third (and final) piece of wisdom on the importance of reading books.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Universe in a Book

Sometimes it’s hard for me to put into words the reason why words have changed me. Luckily, I’ve found someone who was able to do just that. 

One of the most imaginative, thoughtful, clever, and just plain magical books I’ve ever read was The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente (which, if you haven’t read, stop what you’re doing and read this right now—the book is available here, and the audiobook here). Her follow-up book in this series, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, was just as good (available here and here). 

It was at the very end of this second book that Catherynne managed to capture why books can be so life-changing. She gives three reasons, the first of which I’ll quote below (stay tuned for the next two): 

One: A Book Is A Universe and the Universe is a Book. Inside a book, any Physicks or Magical Laws or Manners or Histories may hold sway. A book is its own universe and while in it, you must play by their rules…This is why sometimes, when you finish a book, you feel strange and woozy, as though you have just woken up. Your body is getting used to the rules of your own universe again. And your own universe is just the biggest and longest and most complicated book ever written—except for all the other ones. This is also why books along the walls make any place feel different—all those universes, crammed into one spot!

I always get excited when I walk into a room full of books—be it a bookstore, a library, or my own living room—and Catherynne helped me to understand why. Rows upon rows or worlds, stacked back-to-back, are just waiting for us to enter them and to be changed by them. 

Jesus College Fellow's Library, Oxford

Stay tuned for more…

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Mystery--and Beauty--of Death

Death is a mystery, but it can be a beautiful mystery.

When I first saw this painting by George Frederic Watts (c. 1870), there was something about it that made me stop and take it in for a long while. At first I only noticed the dark tone of the painting and the sad looking people standing before a somber-looking angel, which seemed like a good fit for its title: “The Court of Death.” But I felt compelled to keep looking, and that’s when I noticed the variety of people coming before this dark angel.

Here, a reluctant-looking king lays down his crown, a crippled man looks up hopefully, a knight lays down his sword (I swear the skirt on his chain mail is black and blue), and an elderly man stands off to the side, deep in thought. Although the social and economic status of these individuals couldn’t be more different, in the end they come together as equals. For me, that was a powerful thought that reminded me of life’s transitory nature, and the importance of becoming a good, just, and charitable person. 

However, one of these things was not like the other. Just above the head of the sword-less knight was a woman who was noticeably lighter than the others—an impassive (or is she emotionally drained?) soul, leaning against the angel of death for support. As I thought more about this woman with her white sheet draped over the angel’s leg, my eyes returned to the imposing heavenly figure at the top of the painting, and it was then that I noticed him cradling something in his lap. The painting was small, and the colors so dark that it was hard—almost impossible—to make out such a small shape.

After I left the gallery, I searched for images of this painting and found that Watts had painted something similar, titled “The Angel of Death” (c. 1870). In this much lighter scene, the image in this angel’s lap is easier to see—it was an infant. This realization had every reason to make me sad, but instead I was struck by the beauty of this scene. Of all the ranks of the dead who came before him (or her), there was a special place in this angel’s heart for children who had passed away. 

After spending time with this painting, the idea of death was so longer a fearful mystery for me, but a mystery that was full of beauty. 

And maybe even life.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Secret Magic of Everyday Life

It's easy for me to get dragged down by the undertow of everyday life and for me to feel that I'm living in a quiet, slowly-moving, and unremarkable world. Sometimes it takes a fantastic, otherworldly story to save me from drowning in the seeming ordinary-ness my own day-to-day life. I was reminded of this recently as I read The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (book available here and audiobook here). 

This is a fascinating book about the power of stories, how they can affect us, and how we can affect them (if you haven't read it, you really should). Bastian is an extraordinarily ordinary boy, who upon reading a magical book, becomes a part of its story. At one point he meets Atreyu, the hero he had been reading about, who ends up becoming fascinated with Bastian's world and the seemingly mundane experiences of Bastian's daily life:
It surprised [Bastian] that Atreyu should take such an interest in the most everyday happenings. Maybe it was because of the way Atreyu listened that these everyday things took on a new interest for Bastian, as though they contained a secret magic that he had never noticed before (chapter 18).
From Bastian's perspective, Atreyu's world was the magical one. However, from Atreyu's perspective, his own world was ordinary, and it was Bastian's world that was truly magical. The experiences of these two characters hadn't changed at all, but how they saw their own stories was fundamentally changed by interacting with someone (or something) outside of each other's own limited, personal experience.

When I read truly imaginative books, I begin to sense that same sort of "secret magic" that exists in my own life, as well as the lives of those around me. It is this initiation into the magic of my own life that keeps me reading.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Relationships, Fairy Tales, and Magical Transformations

One of the many kinds of magic that fairy tales possess is the ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, through the simple waving of a story. George MacDonald knew this magic well, and his writings have helped me to see my world with enchanted eyes. Case in point—after reading The Day Boy and the Night Girl recently, I somehow gained an even greater appreciation for my wife and the consistent, yet subtle effect she’s had on me (this seems to be a trend in the fiction I read—see my post on how Tolkien’s writing did something similar).

Borrowed from

Here’s the premise of the story: In a heartless quest for knowledge, a witch decides to perform an experiment to see what would happen if one person only knew the light of day, and if another person only knew the darkness of night. She captures two newborn children (a girl and a boy), and raises them in these extreme settings. Eventually, the boy raised only during the day and the girl raised only during the night both escape their carefully-controlled environments and are exposed to the foreign worlds of night and day. Naturally, both are terribly frightened by these unknown and unimagined circumstances.

One night, the girl (Nycteris) comes across the boy (Photogen), who is experiencing darkness for the first time. Nycteris manages to comfort Photogen by helping him to see the beauty of the night, which calms his heart. Photogen responds in the following: 
“Thank you,” he said. “You are like live armor to my heart; you keep the fear off me.”
It was this short statement that helped me to realize yet one more of the many types of magic that my wife has been working on me. When I’m worried (scared, really) about how we’re going to get by or being able to create a meaningful future for our family, her words and her presence calm my heart. She is the live armor that I didn’t even realize I had been wearing.

"Endymion" by G.F. Watts (1872)

During another of their encounters at night, Photogen is scared to travel through a forest. In the daylight, Photogen is a skilled hunter who thrills at encountering fearsome beasts. However, robbed of his ability to see such monsters and meet them with weapons, he’s hesitant to travel through such seemingly dangerous territory. Nycteris, however, sees a different solution:
“I see [the beasts] long before they can see me, so that I am able to take care of you.” “But how?" persisted Photogen. “You can't shoot with bow and arrow, or stab with a hunting knife.” “No, but I can keep out of the way of them all. Why, just when I found you, I was having a game with two or three of them at once.”
Nycteris presents a solution that is completely outside Photogen’s way of understanding the world. Whereas he only knows the violence of combat, she not only knows how to completely avoid the creatures, but is friends with the beasts and actually plays with them. Ultimately, it is her unique approach that gets them both through the forest in safety.

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John William Waterhouse (1893)

Throughout the story, the two regularly use their unique strengths to save each other. This sort of situation is illustrated beautifully in the following passage, as the two struggle to distance themselves from the witch’s castle:
“Lean on me,” Nycteris would return, putting her arm around him, or patting his cheek. “Take a few steps more. Every step away from the castle is clear gain. Lean harder on me. I am quite strong and well now...”
When the morning began to come, he began to grow better, but was dreadfully tired with walking instead of sleeping, especially after being so long ill…At length, both equally exhausted, neither was able to help the other. As if by consent they stopped. Embracing each the other, they stood in the midst of the wide grassy land, neither of them able to move a step, each supported only by the leaning weakness of the other, each ready to fall if the other should move.
It is at this low point—halfway between sunset and sunrise, when the two are equally exhausted—that the partnering of their mutual weakness is actually the only thing keeping them from falling. However, as the sun finally rises, we read:
When the tide of the night began to ebb, the tide of the day began to flow…And ever as [the sun] came, Photogen revived. At last the sun shot up into the air, like a bird from the hand of the Father of Lights. Nycteris gave a cry of pain and hid her face in her hands. “Oh me!” she sighed; “I am so frightened! The terrible light stings so!” But the same instant, through her blindness, she heard Photogen give a low exultant laugh, and the next felt herself caught up; she who all night long had tended and protected him like a child was now in his arms, borne along like a baby, with her head lying on his shoulder.

"Love and Life" by G.F. Watts (1884-85)

The image of a natural ebb and flow in relationships is striking, and rings true to my own experience. By the time that these two characters are finally freed from the witch, we see that they fully realize their need for each other. Photogen says:
“If ever two people couldn’t do the one without the other, those two are Nycteris and I. She has got to teach me to be a brave man in the dark, and I have got to look after her until she can bear the heat of the sun, and [it] helps her to see, instead of blinding her.”
The relationship between Nycteris and Photogen isn’t one of merely helping the other to endure. Rather, their unique relationship allows them to be transformed by the other, becoming more mature and developed than they possibly could have separately. After the two are married,
[it was not long] before Nycteris had come to love the day best, because it was the clothing and crown of Photogen, and she saw that the day was greater than the night, and the sun more lordly than the moon; and Photogen had come to love the night best, because it was the mother and home of Nycteris.
"Sun and Moon" woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

This is what a relationship with my wife has done for me—it has helped me not only to endure personal difficulties, but has helped me to see the world through her eyes. I love the dazzling world that I now see more than the one I thought I knew before, and this new world has only become more and more vivid as time has gone by.

There’s quite a bit more to this story that I haven’t touched on (truly appreciating nature, the power of imagination, the danger of self-love, etc.), so do yourself a favor and get a copy of the book (physical, electronic, or audiobook). It’s a short read / listen, and well worth your time—but only if you’re willing to be transformed by the magic of this particular story.