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A writer friend told me that publishers of fiction today don’t want much descriptive language. In today’s soul there is no time or patience for the poetic or anything that makes the reader slow down to reflect on beauty or really see the setting vividly. It an author can’t cut to the chase, forget it.
Much of today’s fiction reflects society. It’s coarse, violent, irreverent, and ironic. Gradually, libraries are putting the old fiction on the book sale tables and replacing it with the new vulgarity. There are some libraries in our system that I don’t bother to visit anymore. After realizing that the old books I have loved are gone or dwindling, I wander the aisles pulling book after unfamiliar book down, only to replace them on the shelf. The fly leaves say it all. Postmodern despair. I simply refuse to fill my mind with that. It isn’t the reality of sin and trouble in books that turns me off. It’s how the author handles the realities of life that matters. An author will either leave you with hope or despair, depending on their view of life and truth.
I find used books where I can as I’ve noted in other posts. There isn’t a lot of time for reading in my life, but in that I don’t watch much TV (unless it’s the odd special on PBS), reading is my favorite pastime. A couple of nights ago, I took down a book from my shelf by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Goudge. The book is The Scent of Water, published in 1963.
Reading before bed, I found myself again in the lanes of rural England where a middle-aged, single career woman travels to find the house left her by her elderly Aunt Mary. She has given up her life and job in London for a life in a small village.
The characters are immediately interesting. The former Oxford academic and now vicar in the village and his sister who lives with him are two of the compelling characters. I loved the vicar’s sister, Jean, best in this book. In many ways, I can identify with that sister. Also in the story are the blind writer and his wife who is resentful at the way her life has treated her. No character remains unchanged in this story, and this couple is no exception.
Two of my other favorite characters are the elderly retired military man, Colonel Tom Adams and his wife. Despite tragically losing three of their four sons in the war, these two are the picture of love and contentment, even with their straightened circumstances financially. One of my favorite paragraphs is when Tom’s wife shares a surprise with her husband as they sit in front of the small fire in their cottage.
“Tom,” she whispered, her face alight with the joy of divulging a secret she had been keeping for this moment, “there’s a fowl for lunch tomorrow, plucked and ready for me to cook. Gladys from the Vicarage brought it this morning while you were in the garden.”
Those words might not seem like much, but they describe the pleasure these two take from simple gifts like having a chicken to cook, the kindness of neighbors who help them with household chores they can no longer do, and the love of each other’s company. What happens with their remaining, troubled son makes up an important part of the story.
If you would like a beautiful, heartwarming story, The Scent of Water will give you delight. How mercy, goodness, forgiveness and hope overcome failure, shattered dreams and fear is the heart of this book. It is only one of the many treasures given to the book world by Goudge.
By contrast, I picked up a book on a library table that initially looked attractive. It shall remain unnamed. Published in 1949, the book was also about life in England between the world wars.
There was no hope in this book. Every character you began to like and champion ended up being a letdown. There was no moral center to the story, even when you thought that one was developing. Shallow, stupid, unloving people injured each other again and again. The book is a classic, and I really have to wonder why. There was nobody to like in the story, no redeeming qualities emerged, the characters got worse and worse. I threw the book aside.
Am I just looking for happy endings? Literary white bread and Miracle Whip? No. I love happy endings, but some books I have read have had a powerful message without them. It’s the worldview of the author that comes through, and for me, even in death, or sorrow or hurt, there has to be hope and there has to be love somewhere in the story.
When Sammy was homeschooled for 6th grade, we spent a lot of time in English literature. We read through three Shakespeare plays, and Sam had a poetry journal where he sketched illustrations for the poems he wrote out in longhand. Sammy was always my reader and poet, and I treasure memories of that year as we read through some of the world’s great literature together (while William and Mary played at our feet!)
There was a price war among the airlines that year, and it became cheaper to fly to London than it was to go to Florida. Tom took Charlie and Sammy on an unforgettable trip to England and France, and the boys were able to visit places like Shakespeare’s Globe Theater to see a play acted out by some school children, Spurgeon and Wesley’s churches, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey and all the usual historical sites. Sam came home also talking about the daffodils he saw in the French countryside which he informed me were “just like in the poem by Wordsworth.”
One of the poems he memorized before he knew he would actually get to see the place, was Wordsworth’s Inside King’s College Chapel.
TAX not the royal Saint with vain expense,
With ill-matched aims the Architect who planned–
Albeit labouring for a scanty band
Of white robed Scholars only–this immense
And glorious Work of fine intelligence!
Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely-calculated less or more;
So deemed the man who fashioned for the sense
These lofty pillars, spread that branching roof
Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells,
Where light and shade repose, where music dwells
Lingering–and wandering on as loth to die;
Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality.
~ William Wordsworth
Those last four lines about light and shade reposing in those ten thousand cells of the roof are so beautiful. Here is a fascinating little film about the architecture of King’s College Chapel. Will has taken to reading about the architecture of some of these old cathedrals where theology was expressed in the building’s design itself, something we don’t see much of in church architecture now. It is astounding that buildings like this could be built so very long ago without any of the technology we have today, and yet when you see what is built these days with technology, it appears we’re going backwards.
Here’s a photo of Sammy and Charlie in front of King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University with the statue of its founder, King Henry the VI, in the background. (Why Sammy is wearing that huge Navy jacket, I do not know. Kids! Unfortunately, it shows up in all the photos, LOL)
My friend Sherry posted a story on the Havergal site that I want to share with you. If you have a child or grandchild you like to read to, this little story would be perfect.
Frances Ridley Havergal was a poet, devotional and hymn writer from the 19th century. She wrote a book for children called Ben Brightboots that was filled with little stories that pointed the children to Jesus. I hope you enjoy this one!
P.S. Sherry, thank you for putting this up for us! It’s beautiful.
Readers, I have to tell you about a gift I received today that has thrilled me to the core. Two days ago, I received a note card from a reader in England who asked me if I had received “the book of poems” in the mail? I was somewhat panicked, thinking that the package had never gotten to me, and I would have to tell him that it hadn’t come. I was mulling over the problem when a package arrived for me today. I didn’t go out to get the mail like usual this afternoon, and it was already evening when my husband brought in a white parcel with the words Royal Mail on a sticker in the corner. I opened it up, and I could not believe what I held. The friend in England had sent me his copy of the book, The Ministry of Song, by Frances Ridley Havergal. Not just any copy, mind you. It was the personal copy of Frances herself, given to her beloved sister, Maria. In her own beautiful handwriting on the inside cover she wrote, “Maria V.G. Havergal with the love of her sister Frances Ridley Havergal, May 27, 1869. Underneath the date she wrote, “Thus will I bless Thee while I live”.
I held the book for a long time and thought about that hand that had written those lines so long ago. To think that she had held this same book in her hand, too. It was the same hand that had written that beautiful consecration hymn, Take My Life and Let it Be, and Like a River Glorious, I am Trusting Thee, Lord Jesus, and Who Is On the Lord’s Side? I thought about how the love of Jesus had flowed through the life of that sister in Christ, and I thought about how I wish I could also be like that. I want to share something from the book to encourage you tonight.
Yes! He knows the way is dreary,
Knows the weakness of our frame,
Knows that hand and heart are weary;
He, “in all points,” felt the same.
He is near to help and bless;
Be not weary, onward press.
Look to Him who once was willing
All His glory to resign,
That, for Thee the law fulfilling,
All His merit might be thine.
Strive to follow day by day
Where His footsteps mark the way.
Look to Him, the Lord of Glory,
Tasting death to win thy life;
Gazing on “that wondrous story,”
Canst thou falter in the strife?
Is it not new life to know
That the Lord hath loved thee so?
Look to Him who ever liveth,
Interceding for His own;
Seek, yea, claim the grace He giveth
Freely from His priestly throne.
Will He not thy strength renew
With His Spirit’s quickening dew?
Look to Him, and faith shall brighten
Hope shall soar, and love shall burn;
Peace once more thy heart shall lighten:
Rise! He calleth thee, return!
Be not weary on thy way,
Jesus is thy strength and stay.
–Frances Ridley Havergal
I hope that Mr. J. Eyers doesn’t mind me thanking him publicly, but his gift means more than he could know. Frances R. Havergal’s greatest legacy was her unfailing love for Jesus Christ. May I learn from her example. I will treasure this book always.
This quote is possibly the only thing columnist Anna Quindlen, and I would ever agree on, but on this one, we are definitely in sinc. Whenever we have looked for a new house, my eye has immediately moved to living room/family room flat wall space for bookshelves. Not enough bookshelf space is an immediate deal breaker.
My husband collects trumpets and trumpet bits, and I seem to collect books. I say “seem” because, for me, it’s a passive way of collecting. Every week that goes by, publishers send me books for possible shows, readers send me books, friends give me books, my mom loans me books and I bring books home from the library. Things can get wild and woolly really quickly in our house if there isn’t a periodic evaluation of what books go in the trash, (from publishers), which go on the children’s shelves, which go on my personal shelves, which go on my work shelf and which go on my “serious” bookshelf downstairs.
My college son has outgrown his bookshelf and is now going vertical on the top of his bedroom bookshelf. He has a stack 12 books high that he says he just has to get to soon. He, like his mother, inherited deep compassion for rejected books. A teacher at his college was throwing out a bunch of classic books and put up a “Take one, they’re free!” sign on a table. Well, guess who brought them home. “They looked so sad, mom, all by themselves. I’ll take care of them, really, mom…” Some people take in stray cats—we take in stray books.
My husband bought me a beautiful framed print of Carl Spitzweg’s painting above. It’s titled, “Der Buchworm”, (The Bookworm). Fortunately, he doesn’t give me a hard time about all the books. (And I don’t give him a hard time about all those C, B flat, G, and piccolo trumpets, along with the flugel horn, coronet, rotary…) Tom claims that the subject of the painting, an aged butler, enthralled with a book while dusting a vast bookcase, reminds him of me. I am not sure if I should take that as a good thing or not!
I tell my young college son regularly that he needs to do as much reading now as he can. Life tends to get in the way when you’re out of school. I sometimes get so disgusted with myself for not getting to some of the classics I’ve meant to read. The other night I decided to remedy things and took The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus up to bed. Never do that after a tiring day. After the gazillionth political assassination, suicide and beheading, (that would be about page 6) I threw it down in favor of Tales from a Village School, by Miss Read. It was an excellent antidote to all the intrigues of ancient Rome. After half an hour of light English wit, I was ready to sleep.
Being particularly sensitive, I have learned that some authors are best tackled with an eye to the season. Never read Turgenev, Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy in the dead of a Wisconsin January. It’s dark enough, believe me, without Imperial Russia. For me, it’s best to leave Russian authors for a blazing July afternoon in a lawn chair. When you tire of reading about starving Russian peasants and the vodka-swilling villains who persecute them, you can always look up and remember that it’s just a book, and that it’s July and the sun is shining.
My favorite books are the old devotional gems from Spurgeon, Andrew Murray, Horatius Bonar and a host of others. I have many old used copies, many of which contain notes and underlinings from long dead hands. One lady, named Elizabeth Farrell, owned my Andrew Murray book, Like Christ, back in 1891. In her beautiful script, she left notes regarding answered prayer with the names of those she had prayed would come to certain evangelistic meetings in London. The notes make the book even more special because it somehow connects me with another sister-in-Christ from so long ago, who is now with the Lord. She was another who wanted to be Like Christ.
A recent study revealed that a large number of Americans go a year without reading an entire book. The life of the mind has long been neglected in our hectic, pleasure-mad culture. The great ideas that built Western Civilization are being challenged as never before, but few today even understand what those ideas are. By filling our homes with good books on all kinds of interesting subjects, we stimulate intellectual curiosity in our children that will make them engaged learners all their lives. With the fear of the Lord at the forefront of their understanding, our children can learn to look at the fascinating world God made and see His Divine hand at work, in history, in science, in art, in music, and everywhere else.