One afternoon during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, I listened to a lecture on the joys of reading.
I love reading and I needed joy. Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg, a veteran teacher, offered the following reasons for becoming a more intentional reader, particularly of the classics: to grow in wonder, to join more fully in the great conversation, to get the jokes, to be more fully human and because it’s delightful.
Wonder. Conversation. Jokes. Humanity. Delight. Just the inspiration I needed in a weary season of worry. It was as if I had fallen off my bicycle and Rummelsburg had helped me up and reminded me where to steer.
Zealously he urged his listeners to become more literate people, to read for wisdom rather than mere information. It’s a pursuit more and more necessary in the digital age, where the sorting hats of commercial and political interests have narrowed our exposure to ideas we don’t already hold (more on this in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma).
In 2021, I’m battling my own tendency toward digital addiction, by which I mean whiling away “down” time online rather than intentionally engaging in leisure.
I began my reading year with Sarah Clarkson’s Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life which had been on my list since I listened to her interview on this podcast, and I can’t recommend it enough if you, too, hope for a year with the words wonder, conversation, jokes, humanity and delight in it.
Book Girl is a charming collection of annotated reading lists, tips and memoir, a romp through a reading life.
Clarkson had me on the introduction’s first page, grounding her reader in the tiny front room of her “old Oxford row house” where she has laid Miss Rumphius nearby for the read-aloud break she will take with the unborn baby girl she is carrying.
I like you already, I’m thinking. Miss Rumphius has a place in my heart too. Her story is one of many I love to share with children in my work as a counselor in a rural, high-poverty school. Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius (inspired by Maine’s “lupine lady” Hilda Edwards) is a gentle tale of a woman whose desire to leave the world more beautiful than she found it led her to scatter lupine seeds wherever she traveled.
Wherever Clarkson wants to take me, I will now happily follow.
And take me she does, beginning with the reasons she is reading to a daughter yet unborn: “I want your heart to be stocked with beauty….I want you to be strong for the battle.”
I want you to know you’re not alone.
She had me at Miss Rumphius, but that was just the beginning. A “book girl” who includes C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in just about every themed list she presents, who counts Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton and Rich Mullins among her influences, who recommends Austen and Cather and Undset along with Dickens, Dostoevsky and Dante is definitely friend of mine, though I’ve never met her.
Book Girl is organized by themes.
We have “Books Can Shape Your World,” “Books Can Shape Your Story,” “Books Can Foster Community” and “Books Can Deepen Your Soul” among them. She opens each chapter with vignettes from her own lived story with books and then offers her list, each book supported by a mini book review that will help you decide if the title is right for you at this time in your own lived story.
Because of so many common book loves, I can trust Clarkson when she recommends Elizabeth Goudge and Michael O’Brien, whom I haven’t read yet. I recognize many common favorites from my Evangelical background (like Eugene Peterson and Frederick Buechner) and was delighted to discover Hans Urs von Balthasar, my favorite theologian since embracing Catholicism, on her list of theological favorites.
Clarkon’s tone is warm and cheery; her descriptions of life-changing moments with fellow book girls of all ages has me longing to gather my reading friends for club of our own.
But perhaps I loved Sarah Clarkson most when she disclosed her own suffering: her battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and the tragedy of miscarriage. This is a woman who knows what it is to question God. (Clarkson’s interview with Word on Fire’s Matt Nelson, The Gospels and the Mystery of Suffering, is deeply insightful and led me to pre-order her forthcoming This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into Our Darkness.)
A woman who can endure such pain and still radiate joy has earned a place among the writers I’ll keep following. Book Girl was merely my introduction to Sarah Clarkson’s wise and winsome voice.
C.S. Lewis once said that “a story is only a net with which we try to catch something else, something timeless.”
Clarkson has given us a guide to many sturdy nets. And like Miss Rumphius, she’s making the world more beautiful than she found it. Her own story encourages her readers to live their stories well.
Living our own stories well. Not a bad encouragement for beginning a new year, Book Girl in hand.
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You might also enjoy Sparrowfare’s Boost Your Reading Life this Year with these Five Tips.
See also The Transforming Power of a Reading Life: An Interview with Sarah Clarkson with Word on Fire’s Matt Nelson.