I recently went through a very difficult personal circumstance, one that threatened to sink me into an abyss of sadness. As I was going through it, I was overcome by a strong desire to read for pleasure, something I rarely make time for these days. Of course, literature is my great love—I love it so much I earned a PhD in it. But it’s been years since I felt called to a specific reading practice. I say practice because I’m referring to more than just casual reading here and there, but rather to being intentional about regular, structured reading.
This intense compulsion took me first to a book of essays I had read before but needed to go back through to help process what I was going through—Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things. If you have never read anything by Marilynne Robinson, I encourage you to add one of her books to your reading list today. She writes both nonfiction and fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. As a self-proclaimed Calvinist, she wrestles with the really big questions in life: What does unconditional forgiveness—grace—really look like? How can we retain our humanity in a world less interested in the liberal arts—in thinking freely, deeply, and critically—and more interested in the thrust of technology? How can we remember the central function of social justice in historical Christianity and squash a self-serving religion meant to draw and protect boundaries between “us” and “them”? This isn’t a religious blog, I realize, but regardless of your faith or lack thereof, there are truths to be gleaned from these existential questions that force us to confront how grace, mercy, service, and justice function in our lives. Amidst the darkness I was experiencing—personal loss combined with election turmoil—came the light:
We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge our fear and contempt is our gravest error.
This is from Robinson’s essay titled “Reformation,” published in The Givenness of Things. Every morning I read one or two essays from this book, and I write down quotes and journal in a commonplace book—an essential part of my reading practice. If you’re not familiar with a commonplace book, it’s essentially a scrapbook wherein you collect quotations, notes, ideas, and even clippings related to your reading practice. They are a wonderful way of not only enriching your engagement with books and furthering your personal study, but also of creating a record that, perhaps, your children or children’s children will one day enjoy. As a gift to myself, I ordered the most beautiful Papier journal and numbered it so that I can track the “volumes” of my commonplace books. Any notebook will do for a commonplace book, but if you’re interested in one from Papier you can use this link to get $20 off your first journal.
I’m almost done rereading The Givenness of Things. Next on my list are:
Marilynne Robinson’s more recent book of essays, What Are We Doing Here?
Margaret Atwood’s new book of poetry, Dearly
Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory
I’ve been dedicating 45 minutes each morning to reading and journaling—time that I used to spend working. The results have been amazing: I actually get more work done during the traditional workday than I did when I was stretching my work out from morning until night. But more importantly, I feel a greater sense of peace, focus, and purpose, and I have better ideas and questions when I turn to my work.
I encourage you to join me in making daily reading a practice—an intentional and structured event that you schedule into your day, every day. It doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment: even 15 or 20 minutes a day makes a difference.
What’s on your reading list? What is enriching your soul lately?