Five books that have formed me

Today I have been listening to an episode of the Bookish podcast, in which Sonya Walger interviews Krista Tippett about five books that have formed her. I usually hear Tippett as the interviewer on her podcast On Being, which has been one of my go-to sources of wisdom since coronavirus hit, as well as blessed evidence for the possibility and reality of beautiful human connection in an increasing disconnected and disaffected world. My premier go-to podcast, Turning to the Mystics with James Finley, led me to On Being. In turn, Tippett’s Twitter account led me to this Bookish interview.

Walger asks her interviewees to choose “5 books that have most shaped who they are. Not their favorites, not the ones they always recommend. The 5 that were turning points, realizations, discoveries about themselves and the world they were living in.” I’m reminded of Francis Spufford’s book The Child That Books Built, but this feels more organic and open to change; Tippett chose books that had shaped her over decades and since only 2020. The interview left me wondering what my five books would be.

Every book that I have read has affected me in some way, some more, some less. Over the years they have become an ecosystem in my mind and soul. For the most part, I can’t remember what I have read. This sometimes has its uses; I have enjoyed re-reading a number of novels in ignorance of their endings! These are the books that have decayed into a deep mulch, which feeds my reception of their fellows. Then there are those books that have been particularly special and that I do remember, those which form much of the web of understorey, midstorey and overstorey that supports my life, and among which I plant other books and ideas.

How to choose just five books that have formed me or changed my life? First, I could choose the Bible, or a book or two from the Bible – the Psalms and the Gospel of Luke, say. But that would be too obvious, if not particularly easy to write about. So I’m going to assume the Bible, in the spirit of Desert Island Discs. Otherwise, there was much havering, weeping and gnashing of teeth, but I finally managed to come up with just five. I exaggerate. It was basically a wonderful problem to have, and I loved revisiting many old friends on my bookshelves.

So here they are. They were published over a goodly time-span in the second half of 14th century, 1874, 1929, 1967, and 2018. The authors comprise four men and one woman. Two are from England, two from the US, and one from Germany. All of them are white.

Thomas Hardy Far From the Madding Crowd

Once upon a time, that is to say when I was at secondary school between the ages of 11 and 15, English Lit was compulsory. For the first four years, we studied one book a term, bought in bulk and issued to us in the first week. I used to take it home and read it the same evening – King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, My Family and Other Animals, Lord of the Flies, Cider with Rosie. The teachers were good at gauging which books would be suitable and engaging, but I do wonder whether we ever read any books by women?

I remember the classroom, but not how old I was, when we got Hardy. We were ploughing through it in lessons, as usual, when one week the English teacher either had a headache (charitable interpretation) or hadn’t bothered with her lesson planning (more condemnatory). So she told us to get out our books, get our heads down and read the next chapter. My classmates complied. I had to put my hand up and confess to having already finished. My reward was to be given Tess to read instead… which I probably took home and devoured that same evening. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why others in my class didn’t do the same. It was just clear to me that I enjoyed reading for reading’s sake, and that I didn’t enjoy the plot and character dissection that drained all the life from the book.

Nevertheless, perhaps some of the character dissection in Far From the Madding Crowd got through, for there is potential role-model material here. Hardy is a good writer of women, well-rounded women with both strengths and weaknesses, who are the key protagonists in their own stories. Bathsheba Everdene is an independent self-reliant woman who is making her own way as a working landowner in a male-dominated world. She is not without her flaws and she makes big mistakes, but by the end has married someone with whom there is the possibility of an equal partnership. Her story set a high bar for women in literature and in life as well. Perhaps she lodged a little in my psyche, and is part of why I have ended up as an independent self-reliant woman, making my own way and not caring a great deal about societal norms. Now I’ve written that, I’m determined that it should be true.

I sloughed off humanities and increasingly focused on maths and theoretical physics at A Level and beyond. But I kept reading. During my Masters year in London, I commuted to lectures between south of the river and South Kensington, and used the opportunity to read my way through the (white) classics in the form of second-hand orange and black Penguins – the rest of Hardy’s novels, George Eliot, the Bronte and Austen edgelands, Gaskell, Trollope, and various Frenchmen, Russians, Roman historians and Icelandic bards. I was having to write essays again. Now I credit Hardy and Eliot with giving me a vocabulary and teaching me how to form prose, all entirely subconsciously.

Margaret Craven I Heard the Owl Call My Name

I first encountered the gem that is Owl in September 1996, at a time when I was in a deep abyss. I should say that this was partly my own choice. I could have avoided it, skirted its edge, denied it was there, put it off to another day when it might have been even deeper. But instead I made a conscious decision to take the hand of my God and leap in. The imagination is truly a fundamental part of the whole person, and it was also a tool I used later to process and journey back out of the abyss. But at the time, it was excruciating. I needed a light and some comfort, and this tale of a dying Anglican vicar sent by his bishop to live and work among a First Nations community nestled in coastal British Columbia provided both.

Owl was a unexpected gift from God that hoicked me temporarily out of the abyss and into a story of another place and time. In some ways there were parallels. In other ways there were clear divergences.

I was testing a vocation within a religious community, and living my own story of metaphorical death and life. There is the thread of shared Anglican-flavoured Christian faith, portrayed in Owl as much more respectful of local customs and beliefs than has typically been the case. I on the other hand felt as though I was being moulded into something I wasn’t.

Owl was published in 1967, before my birth. It is set in the 1960s, a simpler place and time than 21st-century western capitalism. Life in a religious community in the 1990s was also simpler by design than the ‘world outside’, to avoid distraction. Both contexts of course had and have their complexities, but the effect is to live and experience life in much more of its rawness and depth. What is truly important comes much more into focus.

So Owl is about calling, life, death, faith, trust, acceptance, respect, honesty, the wisdom and the occasional folly of the Kwakiutl (now known as the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations), the folly and the occasional wisdom of the whites, rootedness, resilience, loneliness or solitude, and community of human, animal and place. It is told in beautiful spare prose with no little humour. There is no ‘and they lived happily ever after’ ending; the vicar Mark learns enough of life not to fear death. Despite that, and because of it, Owl shows me just how a story has the power to lift me out of and give me a break from my own life, and as I live within another life through my imagination to gift me with insight and the strength to keep going when I return to my own.

Craven later wrote Again Calls the Owl, an autobiographical tale of her unfurling as a writer and the genesis and reception of Owl. Both Again Calls and Owl continue to be among my comfort reads.

I have read a number of books about the original peoples of for example Australia, the US and Canada, the Kalahari, Mesopotamia. Until recently they have all been through the lens of white men and women. As is Owl. Craven lived among the people for a time, and listened and learned as much as she could. But she was even more of an outsider than her vicar, and acknowledged this through putting herself in the book in the person of an insensitive white anthropologist. And yet she reports that one of the young men of the village said “She has written a masterpiece of our people” and that in some strange way she became part of the country.

So in some strange way Owl has the power to forge connections. I have already mentioned the connection across different decades: between the 1960s and the 1990s and now the 2020s. It connects across different continents: between Kingcome on the Canadian Pacific coast and Oxfordshire and now Devon in southern England. And in Devon I met a woman from inland British Columbia who had not read it, so it was my joy to lend it to her, and close the circle a little. It connects across different cultures: between the Kwakiutl First Nation, deeply connected with the land and the cycle of seasons and possessing a deep understanding of sustainable and harmonious living, while many of their younger people were longing for western capitalism; and the English, raised in the culture of the coloniser and western capitalism, yet seeking a reconnection to the land. Maybe one day we can find a way to integrate both.

Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet

I could have phrased that last sentence as a question: ‘Can we one day find a way to integrate western capitalism (which is not all bad) with a connection to the land?’ Which is not the sort of question that allows a glib and easy answer, but needs to be lived. And so I segue into my third book and Rilke’s famous entreaty to ‘live the questions’. Or more fully…

“to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

tr Stephen Mitchell

I have been living the questions since my mid-20s. The main one is ‘What is my calling? What should I be doing with my life?’ Linked with that are ‘Am I going to have to live in this exile of Exodus or wrestle like Jacob at the ford of Jabbok for ever?’ and ‘Will I survive the scorn of the world (and myself) if I don’t earn pots of money or achieve great things or make a visible difference?’ and ‘Am I living in the right place or should I move?’ and ‘Is it OK that my calling fits with what I do actually want to do?’ and ‘Will this be just another thing that lasts three years before I get bored and move on?’

I think I first came across Letters at about the same time as Owl. It was a comfort to learn that I didn’t need to answer my questions immediately or, by implication, once for all time. At the same time, it is not easy to live in both the now and the not yet.

It has also been a comfort to discover other people who are living the questions, whether or not they have read Letters. I was delighted to find how key ‘living the questions’ is to On Being, and not at all surprised to see that Letters is one of Tippett’s five books. In turn, I have sought to bring it to others. “Living the Questions” was the theme I suggested for the second edition of TEDxExeter in 2013, and under its umbrella I wrote a number of short blog posts. For my three years (so far) of teaching on the Medical Humanities Special Studies Unit at Exeter Medical School, my title was “Live the questions now: control, connectedness and making conceptual art”. I wanted the students to: Ask questions about who we are, the world we live in, and how we live in it, and learn to see the world in a different way; Gain a deeper appreciation of nature, and humans in our natural context; and Create thought-provoking art. They have done so in many ways that continue to surprise me.

If the questions were all that Rilke wrote about, Letters would still be a great book. But there are so many more riches. Es geht um, for example, discerning vocation; relationship and solitude; gender equality; and even attention to nature.

Furthermore, beyond the actual content of the letters, Rilke is a beautiful model of mentoring. He took the young poet Kappus seriously, and responded to him wisely and generously over an extended period of time. In Tippett’s Bookish interview, I was intrigued to hear that Kappus’ letters to Rilke have recently been found, translated and published, and that they have little worth, which makes Rilke’s responses all the more notable.

Letters is also a brilliant challenge in German comprehension. I am now reading it (slowly!) in the original and translating it as an exercise. Rilke’s language is dense and challenging, but all the more satisfying to make out, especially when I glean nuances that have been lost in translation.

But to finish with reflection on his words on discernment.

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this… I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you — no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

This has been so helpful to me. First in determining the right question. It need not be about writing, or creating. If I ask myself ‘must I write or I would die?’ the answer is ‘no’. I still do want to write, or at least want to want to write, but I am not driven to it. On the other hand, if I ask ‘must I pray?’ the answer is most definitely ‘yes, I must’. Following on from that, I find useful advice and a challenge in the last words, to ‘build my life in accordance with this necessity’. The question I am living at the moment is how to do this. And thirdly, I must not look for any outside validation, whether for my essential prayer or for my nice-to-have writing. Which kind of brings my blogs into question, to which I have the ready answer that they are holding a space for me to unfurl my thoughts.

The Cloud of Unknowing

I have a number of ‘translations’ of The Cloud of Unknowing, but the most important version to me is a paraphrase that I expect purists hate. Cloud was written in Middle English in the second half of the 14th century by an anonymous English monk, providing novice monks with a guide on contemplative prayer. It is key to my calling to contemplative prayer, and representative here of a number of other books on prayer and vocation.

More than that I do not wish to write. This is still an unfurling, and both the story of how the Cloud came to shape me and how it is shaping are too precious to share here. To misapply Wittgenstein, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”

Richard Powers Overstory

Which book to choose as my fifth and last: rabbits or trees? I was swayed by a beech-hanger: trees are important to rabbits too, and they would understand.

Which book about trees? I climbed Blyton’s Faraway Tree and sat at the foot of BB’s Lord of the Forest any number of times as a child. I have many on my grown-up bookshelves, and in the end there was no competition, and yet…

It took me 50 or so years to realise that I am a tree person, not a sea person. I always thought I should be a sea person, swayed by friends, colleagues and writers in magazines who themselves had heard the call “I must down to the sea again”, or day-trippers following the herd.

I like the sea, sitting and watching waves, and taking a dip off beaches from Budleigh Salterton to Sandwood Bay. But while I was walking the SW Coast Path, my favourite stretches were those that combined open sea views with plunges into mixed coastal woodland, such as the woods on the Clovelly Estate and other parts of the north-facing Devon coast, Pol Tesco on the Lizard, the undercliff west of Lyme Regis. I also realised that although I had quite a few books about the sea, coast and islands, I had quite a few more about trees and forests.

Sarah Maitland’s Gossip From the Forest was probably the trigger. On holiday in Suffolk during the July 2019 heatwave, she led me to Staverton Thicks, where I lay on fallen trunks and day-dreamed. I preferred to sit in Aldeburgh churchyard among the trees rather than on the beach. I still would, even in gentler weather.

I live not far from the sea, but now I barely go there. I’d much rather spend time on Woodbury Common, or in Ashclyst Forest, or among the woods and stands of Killerton estate. I am drawn to trees. I find peace and healing among them, and even companionship, as I discovered during the first lockdown in 2020. In the old cherry orchard in Ludwell Valley Park, halfway up the hill, there is a cherry tree where I sit. There isn’t any other tree quite like it. It’s not at the bottom and not at the top, and isn’t particularly beautiful and doesn’t have any distinctive features, but it has had a life and the scars to prove it, and is the tree where I always stop.

All of which is not really saying anything about Overstory. I could have chosen any one of a number of books about trees, but Overstory helped me understand why I am a tree person. Through a wickerwork of stories, it revealed my love of trees to me, how they have figured throughout my life and nurture me now.

Nine individual stories form the roots of the book, converge in the trunk and fan out again into the branches. Nine different stories, intertwining trees and their ecosystems, humans and trees, humans and humans. If there is one key take-away from Overstory it is that everything is connected. Trees communicating with each other, nurturing their own ecosystems high up in their branches, caring for humans, being cared for by humans, being exploited and destroyed by humans, and worth protecting, whether old growth giant redwoods or a grove by an office block.

One of the nine is inspired by the scientist Suzanne Simard, who studies forest ecology and mycorrhizal networks, and discovered that trees communicate in many different ways for many different reasons. Naturally, she has also been on On Being, and her recent book Finding the Mother Tree is high on my book list. The irony is that trees are chopped down to make books, which is why I try to buy second-hand, and why I need to cultivate a practice of gratitude where this is not possible.

Honourable mentions

Richard Adams Watership Down – If only I could have had six! Watership Down pretty much kept me together in my childhood and early teens. I have a copy signed by the author, and I must have read it 40 times. As a child, I could disappear into it as an adventure set in local countryside in which the good guys beat the bad guy. On re-reading as an adult, it revealed much more depth. I realised that as a child I had identified with Hazel as an introvert. He is a great example of Susan Cain’s introverted leadership. Then there is the ‘Deus ex machina’ chapter, which had always fascinated me; and the importance of story in forming a community, as written about by Stanley Hauerwas.

M. Scott Peck The Road Less Traveled – This has been an important guide to doing work on the psyche and to willed love. I would be hard-pressed to summarise the contents, but every time I re-read it I find that I recognise it sunk deep within me, as become part of me.

Sr Kirsty The Choice – A story of discernment, which taught me about the value of simplicity, in itself and as a guide to calling.

Simone Weil Atteinte de Dieu – Weil first taught me about attention as prayer. Then her resolution not to be baptised a Catholic, but to remain outside the church in order to be able to identify with others outside the church, helped me to understand that I am called to be not-ordained in order to continue in the pews where most Christians are.

Annie Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – Being attentive part two, and a combination of a kataphatic and apophatic approaches to prayer.

Walter Brueggeman Prophetic Imagination – My go-to how-to on being prophetic, and why we must both grieve and hope.

Rebecca Solnit Hope in the Dark – Another manual on being prophetic, covering hope, imagination, story, and celebrating the small wins along the way.

Alastair McIntosh Soil and Soul – Prophecy part three, including my introduction to Wu wei.

Alice Walker The Color Purple – From an unpromising soil grow perseverance, friendship, the courage to change, and the importance of noticing and thanking God for fields of purple.

Chaim Potok The Chosen and The Promise plus My Name is Asher Lev – Potok’s work is revealing of elements of the Jewish ecosystem, mainly Hasidism in its great beauty and occasional ugliness; its adherents’ deep love for Torah; and the value placed on study (mainly of Talmud, with a fascinating episode on using the techniques to study Freud). These three explore the pain of following your calling, to oneself (but it is a greater pain not to follow) and to your family and friends.

JRR Tolkein The Lord of the Rings – A story of great and noble deeds, but ultimately the ones who make the difference are small and unmarked and willing to make great sacrifices.

2 thoughts on “Five books that have formed me”

  1. Yes, yes, yes! “I Heard the Owl Call My Name” and “The Cloud of Unknowing” would be on my list too. Of Potok, “The Book of Lights” would be my favourite, but I suppose “The Chosen” (via the film) was originally more formative. And since film has snuck in, I would want to mention Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” (which has become horribly topical). Your Rilke quote was familiar because it appears near the beginning of Christine Paintner’s “The Artist’s Rule” which doubtless you know, or would certainly want to know – I’ve just started exploring it as an early retirement project, along with an interest in maths which I regret not having been able to pursue before.

    Thank you again for the Complines, for your website, and for being “unordained”.

    Best wishes, Robert Mitchell (robertm@sweetbrier.eclipse.co.uk and trober.pi@gmail.com – eclipse can’t send easily to gmail at present because of a silly protocol battle).

  2. Argh, your comment had gone straight to Trash, so I have only just seen it. Thank you for sharing, even though you have bent the media rules! I don’t know “The Artist’s Rule”, but it does indeed look as though I would want to know it, so thank you again. All the best with the Maths. It too can have beauty.

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