Summer On The Shelf

The third week of September and summer already feels like a distant memory. The air is still mild in Vancouver, but rain is starting to remind us that it’s one of the hallmarks of life in this city. Soon it will be a near constant companion. And of course the fall brings with it a new academic year — and the loss of casual reading. Since I haven’t always been good at writing reviews this summer, I thought I’d reminisce about what I took down from the bookshelf these last few months.

I had a yearning for the fantastic this summer; the odd, the strange, the surreal. So I started off by finally picking up the excellent One Hundred Years of Solitude, and felt the wonder of discovering ice for the first time. This sent me back to the poetic, untraditional narratives of Jorge Louis Borges’ Fictions. I decided to broaden my reading of women authors and tried out Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and Other Stories, which felt like getting suddenly grabbed by the arm and pulled into a brutal shock. Unfortunately, it began to be less exhilirating for a variety of reasons, so I left the last handful of tales unread.

Eager to explore new worlds, I promised myself that re-reads would be few, but I did return to some old favourites that I hadn’t caught up with in a while, and maintained the lack of realism. There was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, and I also introduced a friend to Frank Herbert’s magesterial Dune.

It wasn’t all fiction, of course. Although I’m in a theological school, I am there for a reason, so books that continued to deepen my spiritual life weren’t off the radar. I explored more Lewis with The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Problem of Pain. I also read Eugene Peterson’s book on Revelation, Reversed Thunder, and continued to explore the more mystical side of things with Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love; this was also not completely finished but I got enough in to know that I want to study her more closely. And I quickly took in The Significance of Singleness by Christina Hitchcock, a powerful reminder to the evangelical church that marriage and the nuclear family are not the only way to live.

But this will probably be remembered largely as a summer dominated by poetry in some rather significant ways. There was Leonard Cohen’s elegant and searing Book of Mercy, along with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. However, I ended up being surprised by discovering that I was now in the right phase of life to appreciate two giants of literature and what they contributed to culture. The first of these was T.S. Eliot, when I realized that The Waste Land is in fact a piece of work deeply vital and alive rather than just a collection of wild ramblings. There’s a rhythm and a thread that creates a grim but prophetic view of the modern world.

The second poet I made a deeper acquaintance with was Dante. I’d read “Inferno” in high school, but wasn’t ready to read the rest. I found myself willing and even eager to take the plunge this summer so, after an orienting turn through La Vita Nuova, I went ahead and began treading through the Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise of the Divine Comedy in the Dorothy Sayers/Barbara Reynolds translation. I was planning to write some more extended thoughts on the moving experience, but time ran away from me. I am, however, doing an independent study on Dante this fall, so I will have a chance to write a paper on his theology of the human condition.

As September snuck up on us, bringing rain and school and more prosaic required texts, I managed to eke out the time for something short, sharp, and arresting in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I know I didn’t give it the attention it deserved, but I do plan on returning to it and certainly finding something of value in a problematic book.

There are no more excuses. It’s time to have my reading defined by a research papers and a syllabus once again. Time to put summer back on the shelf. At least for the next nine months.

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