In yesterday’s wonderful post by Emily, she spoke about her mother-in-law who spent her life quietly serving her family. As I read how Emily honored this woman in her life, it brought to mind the last sentence of a novel I read years ago–Middlemarch by George Eliot:
.”. . . For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
And after ruminating over how perfectly Eliot (a Victorian novelist born in 1819, a woman born with the name Mary Ann but who took the name George the ensure that her readers would take her seriously) encapsulated Emily’s ideas, I thought to myself, “Hooray!” Because I was already planning on writing a post about the “best books.” The novels that have reached across time and distance to teach us or lift us up or give us insight into a corner of the world about which we would otherwise know very little. The dog-eared novels with the scribbles in the margins and the underlined passages. The books that keep us up late into the night because they’re so . . . dang . . . good.
The way yesterday’s post brought Middlemarch to mind was an example of how “the best books” connect us. Mormon women living in the 21st century can read Eliot’s words and understand them and respond to them. Even learn from them. Of course, this is why we read.
We read to be entertained, but we also read to learn about ourselves and the world around us. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that some people (women especially?) feel guilty about taking time to read good books. Maybe it’s because when you read, you sit down–or even snuggle in bed with the covers up around you. Maybe it’s because reading necessitates a certain isolation, a shutting yourself away from the world. Maybe, for some, they’ve decided that they have so little time to read that they should dedicate that time solely to the reading of the scriptures (which is the most important reading we do, but it doesn’t mean that the other kind of reading isn’t necessary). So for those who feel that if they’re reading at all, they should be reading out of their triple combination with a highlighting pencil nearby, I offer the following gem from Brigham Young:
“‘Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?’ says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.”
Ahh, I love that quote.
I’ve learned a lot about the world around me and the humans who inhabit it from reading good novels. I’ve learned spiritual lessons from books like Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead. For example, here’s a passage I underlined where the protagonist, a minister named John Ames, is pondering the story of Abraham and Hagar:
The story of Hagar and Ishmael came to mind while I was praying this morning, and I found a great assurance in it. The story says that it is not only the father of a child who cares for its life, who protects its mother, and it says that even if the mother can’t find a way to provide for it, or herself, provision will be made. At that level it is a story full of comfort. That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in mind. (pg 119)
Beautiful, no? Gilead is packed full of so many lovely passages–so many meaningful spiritual insights–just like that one.
And then there are the novels that have taught me about other people and other places I’ve never visited. I’ve learned about Afghanistan by reading Khaleed Hosseini’s Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I’ve learned about 19th century China from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible taught me more about the twentieth century politics of the African Congo than I ever expected to learn. Cold Mountain opened up an aspect of the Civil War I’d never before considered.
Then there are all the books that have taught me about myself. Morrison’s Beloved. Goldberg’s Bee Season. Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The list could go on, but I don’t want to hog all the good books. Because now I want to hear from you.
Which books are your “best books” and why? Give us a list or a quote or a reason. I’d love to hear the books that have taught you or changed you or simply made your world a more interesting place to live in.
(Oh, and a caveat: remember that some people have ideas about what is worthwhile that might not jive with your own. Just because a book is recommended here doesn’t mean it won’t contain some language or deal with difficult themes. If you check out any of these recommended titles, please do so at your own risk.)