Sunday, October 16, 2011

Living More in Books

In 1960, the year before my family moved east, I visited the only fallout shelter I have ever seen. It was in the backyard of a friend’s house on Lake Minnetonka outside Minneapolis. I just now discovered that A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller’s post-apocalyptic tale of Catholic monks keeping culture alive six centuries after the Fire Deluge, was published that very year. This coincidence helps me understand the book better. Because I personally inspected those bunk beds, those rows over rows of canned goods, that pressure-sealed steel door. My friend told me about but did not show me the pistol his father had hidden to keep the unwanted away in the event of Armageddon. There is a fallout shelter in the very first scene of A Canticle for Leibowitz, a stark reminder 50 years later of a time when I thought the world could end any minute.

Since I stopped drinking nearly six months ago—OK, five months and eight days ago, but who’s counting—I have lived more in books than at any time since I was 12. I did have a brief period in my 20s when I read most of Dickens cover to cover, but it was brief. Right now I am working my way through four books simultaneously, something I never could or would do without the Kindle,, or daily Eucharistic Adoration.

In solid, hold-it-in-your lap form I am reading Michael O’Brien’s new 1,076-page novel, The Father’s Tale. (This experience makes me happy once more that I am no longer a publisher of solid, hold-it-in-your-lap books. Who would want to tell a franchise author, which O’Brien is for Ignatius Press, that 1,076 is just a wee bit too many?) On my Kindle, I am reading Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, because the Kindle is the perfect before-bed or middle-of-the-night device for use beside my wife, who though a sound sleeper might not appreciate full lights up while I read myself to sleep. I am listening to the audio book of A Canticle for Leibowitz, and did so on my ride this morning from Boston to New York, where I am visiting my daughter. At Eucharistic Adoration, which I usually attend four days a week, I have picked up once again The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, the perfect chunk-by-chunk piece of devotional reading to share with Jesus.

In case this reading list makes you think I am a saint, let me assure you that I recently finished Jim Harrison’s utterly trashy new novel, The Great Leader, which only grows trashier in my rear-view mirror as I speed away from it. About two months ago, when I returned to The Imitation after several years and thought of dear Pope John Paul I (not II) dying with it on his chest, I resolved that I would not read another book unless it was something I would want found on my chest the morning after. Obviously, my reading Jim Harrison means that I quickly forgot that resolution.

This wandering post may lead you to think that I am drinking again, but in fact, no, I am enjoying reading again and, perhaps by corollary, enjoying writing more than ever. So as I sit and wait for my beloved daughter to finish her work so that we can go out for a meal together, I think, yeah, sure, why not write something again, who cares what it means or who reads it?

If you dare pick up a 1,076-page book you may be touched as I was 30 minutes ago by a scene in which O’Brien’s protagonist remembers meeting and courting his wife, in the old-fashioned not-before-marriage way of our grandfathers and observant Catholics even today:

Then the long courtship full of hand holding and brief, discreet kisses. The thrill of praying beside her at Mass, knowing that their souls were uniting, knowing that the reined passions would be released on the wedding night, when they, like two deer maddened by love, would dance in the holy forest under skies crammed with singing stars. A great joy was hidden in their longing. He and Carol discussed it often, murmuring consolations and reminders, waiting together for the sacrament, as love deepened and deepened until it seemed there was no bottom to the reservoir. When the reservoir fountained at last, there was no holding it back; it became a river, became a flood, then spilled into the oceanic cosmos of suernatural love, natural and supernatural flowing together in potent-fertile joy. They drowned in it and were born. (pp. 291-292)

OK, maybe that is a bit much, but it sure beats three beers and a Pats game.


  1. Thanks, Webster. This is an incredible book for sure. I came to know of Canticle for Leibowitz and was prompted to read it by reading an article by Alasdair MacIntyre. I love the book. Like you, I am spending the day immersed in reading. James P. Mackey's Christianity and Creation. I am peeking at the Raiders score once in awhile, however. Hey, as Catholics, we're more both/and than either/or. Right?

  2. Right, except when drinking. Then I am nothing/but. Admittedly I am monitoring the Pats-cowboys score.

  3. My uber literate spouse gave me a copy of "Canticle" to read in the mid-80's and it became an instant favorite. It's in my Audible Library too but I think I'm going to reread it before I give it a listen. I'm unfamiliar with the reader but he got generally good reviews so I'm looking forward to it. I've got a copy of The Imitations also but I have to admit that I've never cracked the binding and I can assure you that until football season ends it's going to continue collecting dust! P.S. - soda water's a great substitute for beer - no hangover either.


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