A year in reading

I thought I would behave like a newspaper and round up books of the year that I have read.

I would have to begin with Paul Scott's 'Raj Quartet'. The first time I read it was through a winter in Nizhny Novgorod, waiting upon Spring, and it struck me then as one of the great reading experiences. A novel series of great complexity both in its unfolding historical and personal events and in its psychological depth. Re-reading it, I was struck by the extraordinary portrait of evil that is Ronald Merrick and a portrait painted from 'outside'. We are never given his life and insights, except through the mirror of others: a study in character and its deformation. I had forgotten, also, how much God there is in the text - important to the lives of certain characters, and pondered on more generally.

A second re-read, after a gap of many years, was Patrick White's 'The Vivisector', his fictional biography of an artist, that beautifully delineates in poetic, imagined prose, the life and work of an artist, and most especially his austere search for the truth of what is seen, that spares no one, including himself. The pictures sizzle in the mind even as you realize that they only live in prose.

A new book was Christopher Rowland's 'Blake and the Bible' that confirmed Blake in my affections and helped me recognize my own self in his approach to the Bible. The Bible is a sacred text always open to re-interpretation because fallible. It invites amendment because of the sincerity of its searching after God's purposes and the in-completion of of its modeling of those purposes. Blake, like George Fox and other Christian radicals, placed their faith in the living experience of transformed consciousness (that is Jesus the Imagination to quote Blake) not in any scripture. Scripture is an imperfect map, never complete and never the territory.

An author re-discovered was John Blofeld, the accomplished and charming Chinese scholar, whose books are a delightful blend of memoir and scholarship. His honouring of different 'levels' of tradition is exemplary. Thus, Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is explored from the perspectives of deepest, luminous wisdom and from the hoping lives of ordinary folk seeking consolation. Neither is prioritized, all levels are seen to be of value. Blofeld is, also, an incurable romantic and his descriptions of China in the 30s and 40s are deeply affecting and affectionate.

And finally the poet, Mary Oliver, whose poems are miraculous for their clarity and their depth. She honours our place in the natural world whose purposes may not be our own. The world is bigger than us, will continue beyond us, and is often mysterious to us. Yet it is our world, our dancing home, that enfolds us and teaches and corrects us by its necessity and by its grace. She is a wonderful being a poet both popular and profound.

Here a fragment of advice for living in the world:

“to live in this world 

you must be able 
to do three things 
to love what is mortal; 
to hold it 

against your bones knowing 
your own life depends on it; 
and, when the time comes to let it go, 
to let it go” 

From 'In Blackwater Woods'


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