Living a Second Life
When you’re reading a novel, it’s like having a second life that’s going on simultaneously with your first one. Susan loved novels — along with mysteries, and fiction generally — and often had a book “going”; indeed, almost as soon as she finished one she would start another. I was (and am) different. I used to say that I read one book of fiction each year whether I needed to or not.
But God has a way of mocking our self-protestations. In the last ten or fifteen years I’ve had a book group going, one place or another. The structure is for the book seminars to be no more frequent than monthly, and each seminar to be on a whole book. I have found that fiction works best, but it generally needs to be under 200 pages. So you see, I my fiction-less life has been fixed. I “need” to read at least eight books a year, and actually many more, since I must continually be looking for something new that would be interesting.
Which means, I often have a second life going on. Let me tell a story against myself: I’m in church but in a part of the service for which I have no responsibilities, and my mind turns to the book that I’m in the midst of. This happens non-voluntarily, yet rather than refocus on what is at hand, my mind marinates in the latest developments with the fictional characters.
To keep my Camino pack at manageable weight, I left behind all physical books. I had the Bible and the Prayer Book on my phone. I also had, on the Behemoth’s Kindle app, the Constance Garnett translation of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoievski. I have read the Brothers K maybe 10 times in my life. Way back in college a few of us put on airs and declared what the greatest X of all time was. The greatest play? King Lear. And so on. I think only I pronounced Four Quartets the greatest poem. But we all agreed: the greatest novel ever was The Brothers Karamazov.
In the event I had little time to read on the Camino, and reading on my phone often was a short half-step from sleep. Nonetheless, I did progress through two-thirds of the novel, with the result that the characters were living in my soul as I walked. I thought of Dmitri’s wildness as I walked. Ivan’s powerful atheism was close at hand, as I also wondered about his Karamazov soul. Alyosha’s unexpected sensuality in the presence of his sanctity also caught the mind.
Most present of all was the great question of the novel: To where does the responsibility for sin extend? I was walking and noticed, once again, how the question of sin had come back into focus, a question that is there through all human life even if it is ignored most of the time. Is sin real? Or is it all reducible to genes and circumstance? And who is responsible? Russian spirituality, as it permeates the novel, puzzles over the way everyone is responsible for everything. The monks, I noted, took no offense at the abuse thrown at them by the likes of old man Karamazov.
Recently I was introduced to the work of the Canadian author Louise Penny. Right now I’m reading her recent mystery, The Madness of Crowds. There’s a professor of statistics who is influencing people to long for involuntary euthanasia and abortion of defective humans. There’s the background of a society which has legal euthanasia, and which, in the pandemic, saw the deaths of many in nursing homes. There are people quite strange and varied, and a duck whose speech consists of a four-letter word. I don’t know how it will turn out. But I’m far enough in to recommend it to you.
When I learned of her I wondered if she was popular in the U.S. Little did I know: there are about 48 copies of this book in the Dallas Public Library. Perhaps one has your name on it.
And now if you will excuse me, I want to get back to reading.
Out & About. I am to preach at Incarnation in Dallas on July 24. And if you’d like me to visit to preach or teach etc., it’s not too early to pencil in some 2023 dates.