I couldn’t remember how I came to have this book on hold at the library and when it came up I nearly put it right back. I wasn’t in the mood for a ‘literary labyrinth’, which I took to be a list of books that I will feel compelled to read. But curiosity kicked in—I couldn’t help wondering what about it struck my fancy once upon a time. And guilt of course, that annoying and familiar tic that insists I read—properly—at least a few pages of everything I put on hold.
[Note: I have since remembered how it came to my attention.]
In a nutshell: Nancy Malone is a nun who has left the nunnery and now lives in a funky little cottage on City Island in NYC where she swims and reads and reminisces about her reasons for making her life choices.
What it is: part theology, part literary chat, part philosophical bon mots, part superbly fascinating woman who isn’t shy about expressing her thoughts re the church’s tendency toward small mindedness in the ways of discouraging a variety of reading material and the subsequent thrust and parry of good conversation that results from same. Essentially, Malone couldn’t accept the limitations imposed on her, book-wise; she describes the simple pleasures we take for granted in reading widely as something of an epiphany, so malnourished was she.
…reading has changed how I see, or have not seen, others (isn’t this the point of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man?); it enlarges my vision. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple make me see the world through the eyes of a black woman. In Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, I live inside the head of a Jewish intellectual in Chicago. I become intimate with a reluctant Czech dissident in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I can hardly conceive how limited my perception would be without the books I have been privileged to read, how superficial my understanding of others, how undeveloped my sympathies.
The larger context being that, as a religious person, she can see the benefit of reading beyond ‘prescribed’ books, and how the church might also benefit from giving that idea some thought.
There is, in fact, a list of clever reading, which, while annoying because I can’t help but feel I must make note of several smart titles, thus adding to the sense that I’ve read nothing… she adds to with asides for each selection. And while her focus is the church [which she continues to respect for many reasons] and its influence and how it saddens her that ‘It’ just doesn’t get that “…learning has to do not only with facts but also with ideas”, the larger effect is that of books, generally, and their power to increase understanding within all aspects of society. Including, and perhaps most importantly, religious societies.
And I say “my spirit” on purpose, because I believe that language, in all its dimensions, articulates the human spirit. Language is grammatically complex because we are, our thoughts and feelings and relationships are, because life is. We don’t experience ourselves, or life, simply, declaratively,. We need subordinate clauses, compound-complex sentences to express the reality of who we are, to show what is more important or less important, just how one thought or feeling or situation is related to another.
And we need a rich palette of words, with their different, fine shades of meaning, from which to select just the right words. Surely these are among the blessings that good prose and poetry, without trying to say everything or saying too much, bestow on us… Thus, to the extent that our language, both literary and spoken is monochromatic, monorhythmic, grammatically unarticulated, sometimes monosyllabic—impoverished and flattened—so are our spirits.