Saturday, May 9, 2015
Reading More, Writing Less
I really am reading six books at once, in different formats at different times of day for different sound reasons. That doesn’t make all six of them sound choices.
The Year of Magical Thinking, for example. Not a great choice. I am listening to the audio version of Joan Didion’s memoir for the same reason I am reading the ink-and-paper version of U. S. Grant’s. I am preparing to teach a fall adult ed course with Beacon Hill Seminars which I am calling “Memoirs: Reading Others, Writing Yours.” So before my students read excerpts from seven or eight good memoirs, I am reading (mostly re-reading) twenty or thirty.
Didion’s Year is not a happy choice, at least so far. I feel about it as I did about Eric Metaxas’s Miracles. It is a book that only a literary celebrity would write and therefore says little to uncelebrated me.
Grant’s memoir may have been a book only a famous general could have published—in 1885, the year the general died of cancer, but not before turning over his manuscript to his publisher, Mark Twain. But it is the completely convincing story of an ordinary man who answered an extraordinary call.
I picked up the Norman Maclean reader looking for one short excerpt for the course. I have stayed to read the whole thing. Maclean—author of A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire—is my favorite nonfiction writer. His eight-page article “Retrievers Good and Bad,” included in the Reader, is, to my way of thinking, an almost perfect mini-memoir and I will be using it to launch the course.
I am reading The Imitation aloud to my wife as a morning meditation. Then, of course, I need a Kindle book at night so that I can read in bed without waking her. Currently, that’s the conversion memoir of Robert Hugh Benson, whose father was the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury when Benson became a Catholic. I may cite it in my course.
That leaves McFeely, about which I have strong reservations. Too much psychologizing, too many generalizations on too little evidence. But it’s one of the few Grant bios that gives us not only the Civil War hero (if you’re a Northerner) but also the lonely drinker, the devoted husband, and the failed President.
In fact, I am reading a seventh book, but it doesn’t show up. As I prepare to enter the Master of Arts in Ministry program at the Theological Institute in Boston (Brighton, actually) where one of my first courses will be on the prophet Jeremiah, I am reading him. Of course, like Jeremiah (pictured above), I expect only great things.