Friends Bearing Books

Having been laid up recently, I’ve had some time to survey my nightstand: it’s really just a landing pad for books. It points to an inescapable conclusion: friends nourish friends – and what better way to do that, than by exchanging books?

Fresh insights, new experiences, and a few laughs keep friendships alive. This post honors those friends that have chosen just the right diversity of publication to keep the conversation interesting. An archaeological ‘dig’ of the strata of printed material on my nightstand yields the following:

  1. A bedrock layer of faith-based and philosophical insights. Lee has sent an unpretentious gem of a book, Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton. I love this type of book which puts ideas in a larger context. Little did I know that the Judaic Tanakh and the Protestant Old Testament include the same material, just reordered – and that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Catholic versions differ among themselves, as well as varying from the Tanakh and Protestant Old Testament.  Hamilton charts the process of how collections in the Bible were chosen to be in the canon: sources and timeline of the writings.

    Henri Nouwen was a world-class intellectual and steward of a Canadian institution for developmentally challenged adults. Dave provided me this slim volume, Our Greatest Gift, A Meditation on Dying and Caring. The book was written when Nouwen turned sixty and experienced the passing of several key individuals in his life. He decided to write on the theme of preparing for a ‘good death’ and introduced the idea of befriending death, rather avoiding or denying the subject. Written in his usual caring and transparent manner, Nouwen describes his journey of facing the dependency we will experience in old age – and the freedom that ‘letting go’ brings to a person of faith.

    Another Henry – my blog buddy – sent me The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. I love this book of daily meditations/exhortations! Various stoic philosophers present ideas to ponder. Marcus Aurelius is now my hero. The depth of character and insight this leader displays in his private diary are exemplary. On the other hand, I read Seneca with a little reservation, as he was Nero’s ethics teacher – it makes me wonder why Seneca’s lessons did not take root?
  2. Adventure and true crime still rules! Friend Brigitte passes along niche volumes associated with general interests in fly fishing and sailing. Two recent books have been The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson and A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols. The first story chronicles the theft of hundreds of rare bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History. The thief is a Dutchess County resident – a classical musician and nationally noted trout and salmon fly-tier. The theft destroyed the historical record of certain rare birds simply to satisfy his obsession for using their feathers in tying traditional streamer fly lures for trout. A great read with an ending I would not have predicted. ‘Voyage’ recounts the 1968 inaugural Golden Globe sailing competition of nine individuals who compete to sail — single-handed and without stopping — around the world. Building and outfitting the sailboats is difficult but facing the loneliness and extreme weather in the “roaring forties” rounding Cape Horn proves to be a psychological crucible for these sailors.
  3. The odd and unusual. I’m so glad that Brigitte has an eclectic reading palette! Two recent deliveries I never would have picked are The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm by James Napoli and Today I Learned from the Willow Creek Press. Naturally, I will pass on the Sarcasm tome to George, along with its definition of Senile: “A word whose definition you will no longer be able to recall by the time it applies to you”. From Today I Learned, I learned that Allodoxaphobia is the fear of opinions… so I’ll refrain from providing one. I’ll simply close with thanks to my friends and a poem by Emily Dickinson:

There Is No Frigate Like a Book

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –

The Evolution of a Home Library

I wish I could use the term evolution regarding my taste in books but that would suggest an ever-improving collection of literary works.  I learned to read with Dick and Jane, and Spot, too, but I missed all of second grade (long story), so I became a very slow reader!   My taste has definitely changed but I can’t really say it has evolved!  Growing up I read comics- sometimes Classic comics.  As a slow reader it was always tedious for me to finish a required book in a required time limit.  So I improvised!  In my early adulthood, fresh out of college with a major in Elementary Ed and a minor in Anthropology, I read every book I could find about human evolution, Lucy, indigenous peoples and their civilizations and migrations. I ate this stuff up. And for about 15 years I was on a steady diet of anthropological literature.  Then something happened.  Several teachers in my group and I got interested in this Whole Language idea where the curriculum was taught around literature.  Exhaustive work for a year before the program was to start  was needed for us to present it to our Board of Ed  I started reading every kids book that was published.  We were doing away with our traditional reading groups and basal series so we had to do research to see what reading skills were taught at the 5th and 6th grade levels in traditional reading programs,  We discovered that most basic skills had already been addressed and that at this level it was mostly inferences and more sophisticated skills  and finally presented to our superintendent.  We were given permission to proceed! It was so much fun. I began to realize how rich children’s literature is.  And it is rich without the sex and violence that so often is needed to hold adults’ interest.  We picked fiction books that coordinated with our Science and Social Studies curricula.  PEN, a writers organization heard about us and invited us to apply for a program they sponsored in elementary schools.  We applied and were approved and had a parade of children’s book authors coming in and working with our kids — not to name drop but we had Paula Danzinger, Gary Paulson, Ann M. Martin and several other big names in the industry back more than a few decades ago.  Anyway, the kids loved it.  I did a lot of reading to them.  I still hear from former students about how much they loved it when I read to them.  Of course every character in the book had a different voice including accents when necessary.  To tell you the truth, when I read for my own enjoyment I silently read in different voices and accents and also create visual images of what the characters look like. To this day I cannot read a book that I already saw in the movies because it destroys my imagination of what their voices and appearances were like.  I treasure my children’s book collection but I have moved on (better choice than evolved).

Today my reading selections are consistently fiction, choosing to live in the make-believe world than reality. Perhaps my all-time favorite book is by an author I vowed I would never read because I despised his horror stories, but I picked up Stephen King’s book, 11/22/63, and a week later I had read all 800 or so pages and was spell bound. Best book I have ever read.  Since then and after traveling several times to Italy I have been reading Italian detective stories by a woman writer, Donna Leon and her series called Commissario Guido  Brunetti Mysteries all taking place in the mysterious city of Venice which everyone should visit at some point. Then I began to hook onto a favorite fiction writer and read everything that was published by that author. Who knows what will be on my night stand next week but for now I have been pretty consistent!  And now you can see why I have no scholars or intellectuals to quote when I am trying to make a point!

The Power of Shared Reading

I always enjoyed a good comic book when reading for fun and fantasy.  Superman, Spiderman, and Daredevil were my favorite fallbacks in which to retreat and re-emerge as an offshoot of their powerful selves.  A firm believer in mind over matter and the idea that if we can conceive of it, it is possible, I always hoped to develop some – if not all- of the powers these heroes held.

In my junior year of high school, my English teacher would read to us throughout the second half of the period every Friday afternoon.  Her enthusiasm and love of the stories and their characters absorbed me and I became fully engaged and enchanted in the experience. 

Years later, like George, I would find myself reading to my fifth-grade classes a favorite children’s book at the time, David and the Phoenix, in which each character had a distinct voice that would vividly portray its character.  I remember going home each Friday afternoon with a sore throat from straining to reach deep gravely sounds and impossibly high screeches as I mimicked Sea Monster, the witch, griffins and, of course, the phoenix!  The original book sits on my shelf with partially laminated pages to keep them from falling into further decomposition and a plastic bag for good measure.  Most of the students were caught up in the story and the characters while others liked to watch the principal sit on the floor and act more like a child than a responsible adult.  You can imagine my dismay then, when I read the same book to my own children (and grandchildren) and they found none of those behaviors engaging and politely asked me if I knew of another book or story I could find the next time I offered to read to them.

Of course none of this speaks directly to Wal’s title and premise.  Most of my reading is on leadership and personal growth.  Early on it supported me in my work.  Later, it enhanced my work as a coach for those who guided schools and social service agencies.  I now realize how much these readings fueled my passion for bringing self-awareness, open-mindedness, and acceptance to all of my relationships.

For a period of ten years or so, I was fortunate to have two friends who shared the same reading interests.  We shared titles, read the material, and made time to get together regularly to discuss our interpretations in great depth.  At the beginning of each New Year, we would book a trip to a warm island location, agree on several worthy books to read, and meet for a week of beach, cocktails, and conversation.  The affirmations we gave and received as well as the disagreements we had were powerful connectors for our friendship.  I will always cherish those times.

More recently, I developed a close relationship with an educator who was and is a voracious reader.  I shared my library with him and he enriched and extended mine ten-fold.  Today we still send each other titles and summaries of what we found to be engaging and occasionally brainstorm possible venues and strategies for sharing these ideas with others.

“Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”

Mark Twain

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