Poets read. They write poetry, yes, but they also read poetry … and lots of other things. To write well, I believe, it is important to read well.
I read a lot, but the reading I do doesn’t always count, in my own estimation, because I am reading to help students learn how to write or I am reading to write an academic paper or I am reading to write a sermon or a lecture or a presentation. I guess these kinds of reading should count.
It certainly matters that I spend a lot of time reading essays my students write about their choices and identities, their families’ oral histories, and the wild geographies they want to explore. It matters that I read literary criticism about medieval poetry, especially, lately about the fourteenth-century poem, “Pearl.” And it matters that I am reading about the Samaritan woman in John 4 since I am preparing to preach a sermon in two weeks at Church of the Savior about her encounter with Jesus.
But I am reading all of those things for work.
I can remember, years ago, that I used to read books because I wanted to do so, intensely, almost irresistably. I read for the pleasure of reading. And reading was a great personal pleasure of mine.
I remember talking with my aunt Cheryl when she was in graduate school, and she told me she didn’t have time to read the fantasy books I was recommending because she was too busy reading about anthropology. She said if I went to graduate school, this would happen to me, too. I didn’t believe her. But some things are true whether we believe them or not, and her prediction did come to pass.
So it is a wonderful thing, now, to read things because I want to read them and not because they serve any immediate purpose related to some work I am planning to do. I read Lauren Winner’s memoir of her conversion, Girl Meets God, this way just this week. I loved the book.
I’m very interested in memoir in general and in conversion stories in particular. In terms of modern memoir, I like James McBride’s Color of Water and Louis Owens’ I Hear the Train and Vickie Smith Foston’s Victoria’s Secret. I love spiritual autobiography from the Middle Ages, like Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Vita Nova and Divine Comedy, Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love, and The Book of Margery Kempe.
And as for conversion stories … I often think of the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road and Saint Augustine in the garden reading Romans and the Emperor Constantine before the Battle of Milvian Bridge who beheld a vision of the Cross, a vision that changed the course of the Roman Empire and the whole world. I think of the Anglo-Saxon King about whom the Venerable Bede wrote, a king who saw a sparrow fly in a window, through his hall, and out another window and realized our life is like that without faith–we don’t know where we came from or where we are going.
Lauren Winner’s book is in these traditions of memoir and conversion testimony. Lauren is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. She was raised as a Jew in the Reformed tradition, and when she grew up, she converted to Orthodox Judaism. Later, she became a Christian, and she joined the Anglican Church.
At the conclusion of her book, she retells a story from the Talmud about Elijah and the rabbi Yehoshua. The rabbi is looking for the Messiah, and Elijah tells him he can find him at the gates of Rome. The rabbi goes and recognizes the Messiah by the fact that he uncovers and binds up leperous wounds one at a time, not all wounds all at once. The rabbi asks the Messiah, “When is the Master coming?” The Messiah replies, “Today.” When the rabbi returns to Elijah, Elijah asks him, “What did he say to you?” The rabbi says, “He lied to me. He said he would come today, and he has not come.” Then Elijah said, “He meant, today, if you would only listen to his voice.”
Lauren’s is a powerful story, and I recommend it.