Book Recap: A Grief Observed

(Pretend there was a long post before this one that was all philosophical and slightly apologetic and gave an overview of what happened in the long dormancy of this blog, and a new and excited commitment to blog about books I’m reading, things I’m watching, etc. Because I’m too lazy to write it down now, and also, most of y’all reading this are people who know me and know all about my life in the interim, anyway, and can see right through my crap. I just didn’t write. It happens. These are not the droids you’re looking for; move along.)

So at some point in late 2014/early 2015, I came to be the owner of the C.S. Lewis Signature Box Set, which contains six books: Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters. Shockingly (well, to everyone but me – I’m not actually as well-read as everyone would think), I had only read two of the books (and seen a performance of The Screwtape Letters), so it was the perfect set for me. I reread Mere Christianity first and loved it. Time to tackle the other five, I thought as I stuck the first book back into the box.

Then I didn’t read any of them.

This is a common problem for me – I buy books and then they sit on my shelf for months – sometimes years – before I actually read them. I don’t have the pressure of deadlines, I guess, so there’s nothing that forces me to check them out right away other than my own willpower, which is apparently easily distracted by other books I see on the shelves.

Anyway, fast-forward to this fall, when I joined an Inklings small group through NCC. This semester, we read The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed.

True confessions: I still need to finish reading the first one. October got crazy for me, and I missed about 6 weeks of the group. But when I got word we were shifting to the next book, I jumped right back in.

And boy, am I glad I did. Because it was really powerful reading a Lewis book that wasn’t… really Lewis.

Backstory: A Grief Observed was written in the aftermath of the death of Lewis’ wife, Joy (referred to as “H.” in the book). It was originally published under a pseudonym, and it dives down deep into Lewis’ raw emotions – a rare thing to see, since Lewis was notably not an emotional man.

So in many ways, this book is not your typical Lewis – it was written as a journal so there are literally lines where he writes something from a place of deep pain and then in the next paragraph writes (and I quote), “I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought. Let me try it over again.” (30) There are moments he expresses deep, deep doubt in God and his goodness (which is fascinating when juxtaposed against The Problem of Pain, which was written many years earlier when Lewis was notably not suffering from physical ailments or the loss of his wife). (Edit 12/11/2016: As my Uncle Dave has helpfully noted below in his comment, Lewis was not without suffering before the loss of his wife – he lost his mother at a young age, saw much death and was himself wounded in WWI, and had other family/friend troubles. So I suppose that is further evidence of the depth of his love and the power of his loss at his wife in this book!)  

But that very not-Lewis-like writing is what makes the ending of the book – when Lewis is still grieving but has moved into a different stage that isn’t quite so raw and new – even that much more remarkably and powerfully Lewisian. By that, I’m referring to the way that Lewis, using beautiful phrases and spot-on analogies, can just hit you over the head with a truth about faith that is so simple and yet so profound.

The main example I’m thinking of (though there are many) comes in Chapter 3, when Lewis is talking about the idea of God sending things to try us. He writes: “But of course one must take ‘sent to try us’ the right way. God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.” (52)

Somehow, in my more-than-two-decades of faith, this idea had never really crossed my mind before. Which seems silly, in retrospect, because it would be given, if I truly believe God as omniscient and eternal. Yet I never really thought about the fact that me enduring trials and such was meant (at least in part) to show to me the quality of my commitment. I underlined that, put a bunch of stars by it, and then just sat and reread that line about six times the first time.

Similarly, this section in Chapter 4 was underlined and starred (and I bolded the section that was extra underlined in my book):

Am I, for instance, just sidling back to God because I know that if there’s any road to H., it runs through Him? But then of course I know perfectly well that He can’t be used as a road. If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all. (68)

Just… oomph. Nothing like a slight shift of your lens to change everything about how you look at yourself and your faith.

There are so many other lines and moments in this tiny little book that struck me, but that would fill up pages and pages – we spent over an hour discussing each chapter in my book club, and that easily could have been extended.

I will say this, though: At one point last year, when I was deep in the midst of grief over the sudden death of my aunt, I saw this book sitting on my shelf and contemplated reading it. I’m glad I didn’t. Though I saw similarities in some of the reactions that Lewis had compared to my own reactions to grief, it is, as the introduction notes, “a” grief observed, and not certainly a prescription to anyone on what grief should look like. I think if I had read this at this time of the year last year, I might have regarded it as such, and that would have been false. But I suppose there is no really knowing for sure.

In any case, I certainly appreciated the chance to read it now (and especially to discuss it in a small group setting). I would highly recommend this book to anyone – short, powerful, and thought-provoking. Plus, it has what has to be one of my fave quotes of anything ever: “‘She is in God’s hands.’ That gains a new energy when I think of her as a sword.” (63)

So You Want to Buy a Book

When I was a freshman in college, I read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler for my Modern World Lit class. Recently, I decided I wanted to reread it because even though I don’t remember a ton from the class discussion on it (I mostly remember being frustrated that it isn’t actually a novel in the “traditional” sense), I have this feeling that I will like it much more now than I did back then. So expect a recap soon.

The point of this post is the fact that I started reading it tonight on the metro ride home, and can now recall just why I liked the first chapter: It’s all about the struggles of being a reader (the fight to get your new book without buying the entire store! which position is the best position for reading? how do you keep yourself from getting distracted?), and I connect with it now just as much as I did back in 2007, if not more so. I’m reading it on my Kindle, not the print copy I used back then (though I do have that copy somewhere…), but after I read this chapter, I distinctly recalled writing “FINALLY SOMEONE UNDERSTANDS AND PUT IT INTO WORDS” in all caps (and most likely underlined) in the margins.

So I want to share a small excerpt — just a paragraph about the journey into a book store, but it’s enough to illustrate my point. Perhaps you, too, will want to read this book (or at least the post I’ll write when I’m done reading it). In the very least, those of you who are book lovers may find yourselves nodding along at this passage — that’s certainly the goal, anyway (and to share some beautiful prose, which is an equally excellent goal, IMO):

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered*. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.

*This is the point where I remember underlining and writing in the margins back in college, and I highlighted it once more in my Kindle.

Books I’ve Read in 2014 (Part 1)

It’s now officially July! Where on earth did the time go? And why wasn’t I informed of it leaving?

I digress. Yesterday, I posted a list of all the books I read last year, as well as the reasons why I started keeping a list. ICYMI: It was one of my ways to get me back into reading actively again.

Now that the first six months of 2014 are over, I want to post what I’ve read so far this year, and I’ll post the next half at the end of the year (an * means it was a book assigned in my book club):

Compared to last year, I’m definitely reading a lot more nonfiction. Some great conversations with my Bible study small group, as well as some seriously thought-provoking sermons at my church, have also prompted me to delve into a variety of theological books. So far, none of these books have shot to the top of my favorite reading list, but I’ve enjoyed them all (even if I don’t always agree with them).

And from the collection of books I’m currently reading, these trends look likely to  continue — lots of nonfiction, with bits of fiction and/or poetry scattered here and there so far. As I mentioned in my last post, I want to read at least one book more than I did last year — so I’m well on my way to a goal of 22.

I also feel I should note: interspersed with all these books is a lot of reading of various magazines, newspaper articles, and other various websites, as well as my Bible studies; we read the entire New Testament over Lent, and I utilized my morning commute for those readings, rather than my other books. (I don’t keep official track of when I start/finish books, other than to say I finished them this year, and in this order, but if I did, there would be a definite dry spell in March.)

Have you read any of these books? What books would you recommend I read next? Feel free to let me know in the comments!

Books I Read in 2013

After I graduated from college, I stopped reading books.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I mostly stopped reading books.

For a couple years (I’m going to date myself now — I graduated in 2011), I only read the occasional book here and there (though I did go on a book-buying spree, much to my wallet’s chagrin). I couldn’t tell you exactly how many I read in that time period (more than a dozen, as I re-read the entire Harry Potter series, as well both The Hunger Games and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogies, plus some others), but I’m pretty sure I remained above the average of nine books a year for my age range. Still, for an English major  who used to read a couple books a week (as well as for someone with lots of friends who are voracious readers), I was reading a paltry amount.

So last year, two things happened to help me get back into reading: I co-founded a book club with my best friend (which I can still attend from across the country, thanks to technology and friends who still want to listen to me spout ideas about books upon occasion), and I created a Google doc to keep track of the books I’ve read from year to year. There’s something about a list that I find motivating — I’m a competitive person, and I also like proof of things I’ve accomplished, so being able to point to a definitive list and say, “Look at how many books I’ve read!” appeals to me. (It also helps me remember when I read certain books; I have pretty bad short-term memory in that regard.) It also lets me evaluate what I’ve been reading and what genres have been appealing to me.

Originally, I had thought to post the list to Tumblr every six months as a way of checking in, but I tend to be more of a lurker on Tumblr, so it really just never happened. But I figure this would be a good place for me to get into that habit, especially as I’ll likely be talking about the books I’m reading in posts down the road. Since tomorrow is the start of July, I figured I’d post my recap from last year today and the recap from the first half of 2014 tomorrow.

So without further ado, here’s the list of books I read in 2013 (an * means it was a book assigned in our book club):

So in all, I read 21 books last year — definitely better than I had done in the years prior. Of these books, I had only read The Hobbit and The Great Gatsby before. And a couple of these books (East of Eden and The Book Thief) are now at the top of my favorites list. There were a few books that I was not a huge fan of, but none that I would say I downright hated, either.

It’s really been a joy to rediscover my love of reading, and to expand my “have read” library. I’m still not as well-read as many of my friends, but I’m working on it. I’m on track to read more books this year — just gotta keep up the pace! My goal is to read at least one more book than I did the year before every year from now on, if not more.

Though I suppose at a certain point, that’s going to get harder and harder to accomplish. But since I’m still working my way through all of the books I bought years ago and have yet to read, I don’t think I need to worry about that any time soon.

Have you read any of these books? What books would you recommend I read next? Feel free to let me know in the comments!