On the Return of a Book Lent to a Friend

“I give hearty and humble thanks for the safe return of this book, which having endured the perils of my friend’s bookcase and the bookcases of my friend’s friends, now returns to me in reasonably good condition.  I give hearty and humble thanks that my friend did not see fit to give this book to his infant for a plaything, nor use it as an ashtray for his burning cigar, nor as a teething-ring for his mastiff.  When I loaned this book, I deemed it as lost; I was resigned to the business of the long parting; I never thought to look upon its pages again.  But now that my book has come back to me, I rejoice and am exceedingly glad!  Bring hither the fatted morocco and let us rebind the volume and set it on the shelf of honor, for this my book was lent and is returned again.  Presently, therefore, I may return some of the books I myself have borrowed.”

~Christopher Morley

Artists are often found at the margins of society, but they are, like the shepherds, often the first to notice the miracles taking place right in front of us.  Since sensationalism, power, and wealth dominate our cultural imaginations, we may not be willing to journey to the ephemeral, as the Japanese poets of old have, to see beauty in the disappearing lines or to see poetry in a drying puddle of water.  The world seems to demand of us artist-types that we be able to explain and justify our actions, but often the power and mystery of art and life cannot be explained by normative words.”

Makoto Fujimura
Refractions (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2009), 27-28

Beauty often resides in the peripheries of our lives.  We walk past such humble miracles, such as the babe in the manger in a little village of Bethlehem, all the time.  In the frantic pace of life, we need to slow down and simply observe natural forces around us and create out of that experience.  What makes us truly human may not be how fast we are able to accomplish a task but what we experience fully, carefully, and quietly in the process.”

Makoto Fujimura
Refractions (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2009), 27

The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter. He is really present in the universal beauty. The love of this beauty proceeds from God dwelling in our souls and goes out to God present in the universe. It is also like a sacrament.”

Simone Weil
Waiting for God (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009)

The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (New York: Mariner, 1999)

Sunday was the birthday of Anne Sexton, one of several brilliant but troubled poet-suicides of the 1970s.  Sexton’s poetry ranges in mood and symbolism and touches on everything from mental illness and the death of children to prayer and the soul’s search for God.

The titles of her books reflect this thematic range:  To Bedlam and Part Way Back, Live or Die, The Book of Folly, The Death Notebooks, The Awful Rowing Toward God, 45 Mercy Street.

Anne Sexton
Here are two of my favorite Sexton poems, both of which deal with gratitude.  The imagery of the second poem is more difficult, but worth the wrestle:

Abelard raised a very foolish question when he asked:  ‘What has Horace to do with the Psalter, Virgil with the Gospel, Cicero with the Apostle?’  The answer is simply that Horace, Virgil, and Cicero clarify the human situation to which the salvation of God is addressed through the Psalter, Gospel, and Apostle.”

There is no real distinction between the pulpit and the classroom.  I tried to put God into every book and sport in Justin.  That was my ideal, to spread a sense of his presence so that it would not be confined to prayers and sacred studies and to spread it in such a way as to make the school joyful.

Louis Auchincloss
The Rector of Justin (New York: Mariner Books, 1964, reprinted 2002), 232

Literature, then, serves to deepen and to extend human greatness through the nurture of beauty, understanding, and compassion.  In none of these ways, of course, can literature, unless it be the literature of the Christian faith, lead us to the City of God, but it may make our life in the city of man far more a thing of joy and meaning and humanity, and that in itself is no small achievement.  Great literature may not be a Jacob’s ladder by which we can climb to heaven, but it provides an invaluable staff with which to walk the earth.”

The Last Unicorn (New York: Roc, 1968; reprint 2008)

Congrats to Amanda H. for winning a FREE copy of The Last Unicorn!

I’m a very picky reader of fantasy.  Fantasy has the potential to do everything fairy tales can do, but most fantasy fails dismally.

Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn, however, is exactly what fantasy should be.  A compelling story set in a haunting world both strange and familiar.  Engaging characters with real flaws and dreams facing an impossible challenge.  And all told in beautiful prose that itself weaves a spell on the reader and awakens forgotten desires.

The Last Unicorn tells the story of (what else?) the last unicorn’s quest to discover the fate of all the other unicorns.  The unicorn is accompanied by Schmendrick—a magician whose ambition is far greater than his skill—and by Molly Grue, a peasant woman with hidden wells of wisdom and grief.

Their quest leads the three companions to face the terrifying power of the monstrous Red Bull and the world-weary King Haggard, whose greed has smothered his ability to feel joy—or compassion.  As their adventure builds to a climax, all three companions learn both the joy and sorrow that comes with love.  They all learn firsthand (even the unicorn) both the glory and the tragedy of being human.

‘Then what is magic for?’ Prince Lír demanded wildly.  ‘What use is wizardry if it cannot save a unicorn?’  He gripped the magician’s shoulder hard, to keep from falling.

Schmendrick did not turn his head.  With a touch of sad mockery in his voice, he said, ‘That’s what heroes are for.'”

The Last Unicorn is one of the finest pieces of fantasy I’ve read.  It would make great Fall reading, as the promises and longings of summer come to an end.

The Last Unicorn Giveaway

You can win a FREE copy of this novel by entering The Last Unicorn Giveaway.  Be sure to enter before the giveaway ends on September 30!

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A Canticle for Leibowitz (New York: EOS, 1959; reprint 2006)

Congrats to Pat V. for winning a FREE copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz!

Novels about the self-destruction of human civilization have been increasingly popular in our modern age:  1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Clockwork Orange, and more.  In these stories society collapses because of war, evil governments, Big Brother, or a zombie virus. Rarely, if ever, is the dark, twisted jungle of the human heart blamed for the demise of civilization.

Atomic Fallout and AOL Monks

But A Canticle for Leibowitz is different.  It begins after an atomic war (the Flame Deluge) has decimated human civilization, blasting human culture back into shamanism and clan warfare.  The Church survives the flood of fire in isolated pockets of monastic culture.  A new order of monks, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz (or AOL for short, a joke that wasn’t funny when this book was published in 1959), has dedicated itself to preserve the Memorabilia—any and all written texts from pre-fallout days.  Like the Irish monks after the fall of Rome, the Albertian monks save civilization one page at a time by copying and recopying ancient texts with quill pens and candlelight, while the world burns around them.

This novel follows the Order of Leibowitz through three distinct periods of history,  a post-apocalyptic retelling of western civilization.  The first section of the novel corresponds to the early medieval period.  It follows the adventures of Brother Francis of Utah as he struggles to discern his vocation as an ascetic desert monk and wrestles with the abbot over the possibility of miraculous appearances.

The second section of the novel corresponds to the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  The central conflict pits another AOL abbot against the agnostic scholar Thon Taddeo, a genius whose integrating mind has rediscovered modern science by piecing together the chaotic Memorabilia.  The third section of the novel corresponds to the modern age.  It introduces a third abbot who struggles to keep Christian ethics alive in an age of atomic and moral expediency.

Faith and a Long Memory

A Canticle for Leibowitz is an engaging read, and a fascinating reprisal of the chief conflicts of the soul that shaped western civilization.  Its central theme is that the ultimate cause of human suffering is the native corruption of the human heart.  And if this corruption can be overcome at all, it must be through faith in God’s goodness aided by knowledge and a very, very long memory.  This would be a fascinating book to read in conjunction with C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, since both books arrive at the same truths by two different paths.

A Reading Guide for Leibowitz

For those interested in reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, I’ve made a reading guide to help you get the most out of this novel. Download a copy by clicking the button below:

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