Sunday, August 8, 2010

My Relationship with My Favorite Writer


Thanks to Johanes Guternberg and the moveable type printing press he invented in about 1440, we can enjoy an endless variety of books on every imaginable topic. Over time, as we read, many of us have our favorite writers. Writers in the modern world are in many ways the storytellers for contemporary “tribes” of people who do not have to gather around the campfire to hear the stories any longer. Both fiction and non-fiction books are important stories to us--some about presumed facts related to how the world works and what has happened to people over time; and some imaginary tales about what might be, what could be. So, again today’s writers are our storytellers; they entertain us, challenge us, and in all sorts of ways may also help us understand our world and even ourselves.

The editors of American Book Review chose the best 100 opening lines from novels that were written or translated into English. Four of those jumped out at me.

  • In 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published, and this is how it began: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” I can think of a handful of reasons this might not be the case, but why should I fiddle with great literature?
  • Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton was first released in 1830. He began: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
  • Many of you can quote the opening line of Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
  • In 1877, Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina as such: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
  • And this is how Graham Greene began his 1951 The End of the Affair: “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

Ernest Hemingway wrote:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.

And Arthur Schaupenhaur insisted that:

Without books the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are the engines of change, windows on the world, ''Lighthouses'' as the poet said ''erected in the sea of time.'' They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.

Many of us have a favorite writer who only wrote one book, or only one that captured us. That is the case with my favorite writer, Alice Walker, and her profoundly insightful, superbly entertaining, and daringly written novel, The Color Purple. I love all three versions of that story--the book, the film, and the Broadway play. Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides made me weep because he’s the only person I’ve ever come across who could articulate to perfection the pain and the pleasure of being a southern male. For a writer whose whole collection of works consistently grab and keep my attention I’d have to say the southern writer Will Campbell is my favorite, and that admiration is enhanced because Will is a friend of mine who has made the fight for social justice his life and his pen mightier than a machine gun.

We develop a fondness for our favorite writer. In the case of a writer who has written several books, sitting down with one of her or his volumes begins to feel a little bit like sitting down with a friend.

Ralph Waldo Emerson shared this insight about readers and writing:

'Tis the good reader that makes the good book; in every book he finds passages which seem to be confidences or sides hidden from all else and unmistakably meant for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader; the profound thought or passion sleeps as in a mine, until it is discovered by an equal mind and heart.

I asked several folks this week who their favorite writer is. I figured if I asked around widely enough, eventually I’d find someone who’d say that “God” is their favorite author, and the Bible their favorite book written by God. Sure enough, I was grabbing a quick sandwich at the Corner Bistro this week, sitting at the bar, and I found her. I’m sure she first thought I was trying to pick her up. I mean how much different is, “Who’s your favorite writer,” from, “What’s your sign”? Hoping not to be stereotypical, I have to tell you that she was from Alabama. The minute she said that God was her favorite author, one of Carson’s co-workers, a waitress working the bar that day, spoke right out and said, “Oh, please! God didn’t write the Bible.” Needless to say, I was with Carson’s co-worker, Laura, on that one. It was a polite disagreement, and no argument ensued; in fact, no other exchange of any sort took place between the two of them or between either of them and myself. Carson remained calm enough because he didn’t have any potential tips at stake; the woman at the counter was someone else’s customer.

By the way, that phrase, “needless to say,” is needless to say, but many of us say it anyway. I do. We preface something with, “needless to say,” and then we say it anyway. If it’s really needless to say it, we shouldn’t or wouldn’t say it. Oh well, needless to say, we still say “needless to say.”

Now, I think that the Bible with its many writers might very well be the favorite book for several people; in fact, statistics prove that this must be the case. More copies of the Bible have been sold than any other volume in the history of books. I’m not exactly sure why it’s been so hard to keep track of specific sales, but at least 2.5 billion copies of the Bible have been sold and perhaps as many as 6 billion copies; this includes all versions and all languages.

You might have a favorite writer within the biblical collection, but God isn’t an option as the writer for any of the books. My favorite biblical writer is the John who wrote the book of Revelation; it’s an absolutely magnificent book. Creative, artistic, dramatic, bold, inspiring, frank, and hopeful. John was a literary genius.

Here is an excerpt from John’s dramatic opening:

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Child of Humanity, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels--the messengers of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches (Rev 1:9-20 NRSV, adapted).


Among those whom I asked the simple question, “Who is your favorite author and why?”, were mostly members and friends of Silverside. I’m sharing their responses with you today, and I begin here with our esteemed Chair of Council, Mary Lew Bergman. Her husband has said that there are times when she literally reads all the time. What SHE said was: “I have so many ‘favorite’ authors! Marilynne Robinson, who wrote Gilead in a ‘luminous, tender voice,’ is an almost perfect writer. Sherman Alexie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Salman Rushdie on any given day could be my favorite. They write beautifully about cultures other than my own and hold my interest no matter what events try to intercede (like fixing dinner!). And all of these authors are witty. Perhaps my absolute favorite book is A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. He only wrote this one book, but I reread it often. It is hilarious--a true masterpiece of writing with wonderful characters and a clever plot; it is extremely inventive. Since I first started serious reading, however, Jane Austen has been a favorite and while other authors come and go, she remains. I love her wit--every sentence is a jewel, and her characters satirize people you can still meet today. Still, how can I choose?”

Both my sons are very well read; much more so than I. Jarrett, the librarian, who lives with books, wrote in response to my question: “My favorite author is a man named Robert Anton Wilson. He died last year, but during his lifetime he was what I'd consider a Renaissance Man. A philosopher, comic, mystic, writer, and amateur psychologist. He's probably most famous for his science fiction Illuminatus! Trilogy, which is a whirligig tour through the history of religion and magic, complete with conspiracy theory, politics, and humor. I really think he was one of the most intelligent people of the last century and of this one so far.”

Carson’s favorite contemporary writer is Ken Follett, and his favorite book by Follett is Pillars of the Earth. He says Follett really makes you care about the characters and hard times through which they are going. He is equally able to make you hate the bad guys--in a medieval context, often associated with the church.

Andee, short for Andrea, Reed, is a teacher and a singer and an actress in New Orleans, and when I was a pastor down there we had the great fortune to have her as our Minister to Youth. The talent just oozes from her, and she’s now head of the drama program for one of the high schools doing well despite Hurricane Katrina. Andee and Mary Lew have something in common; she said her favorite writer is Jane Austen “because she is so smart about human nature, so realistic and yet, ever hopeful. I adore her.”

I caught Neal Isaac, our church’s former Director of Education, on Facebook and asked him the question of the week. Neal’s answer was brief: “The last book that made me think was Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. I found it interesting because it talked about situations that were both uncontrolled and controllable that lead to achieving.”

Dr. Bill Rogers was Dean of the School of Christian Education at Southern Seminary when there was anything be taught there that would be of any interest to any of you. This was Bill’s response to my question: “Admired among artists, scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and educators, Leonard Shlain, M.D., authored three best-selling books: Art and Physics, Alphabet vs. The Goddess, and Sex, Time, and Power. He died in 2009. Why is he my favorite? Because he delighted in making connections between everything from art and physics, to human evolution and sexuality.”

Of course, I asked our literary scholar in residence, Bill Englehart, and this is what he had to say: “That's a dangerous question to ask a BA/MA in English Literature (and an even harder question for that person to answer)! There simply isn't one favorite, but at various times . . .

  • Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel, You Can't Go Home Again, etc.)--probably my first "favorite" writer . . . .Incredibly long, richly poetic sentences and sweeping subject matter, resulting in long, long books that I was always sorry to finish.
  • John Barth (The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, Lost in the Funhouse)--subject of my master's thesis. He is a native of, and has written much about, the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Most frequently considered a "black humorist," he taught at Penn State with Joseph Heller for a number of years. His early novels were mainstream fiction, then he broke out with Sot-Weed Factor, which was a parody of 18th century novels like Tom Jones; Giles Goat-Boy satirized everything from Jesus' "life-story," Joseph Campbell's study of mythic heroes, to the Eisenhower administration, and the (at that time) escalating Cold War.
  • Everything since the late 60's has been meta-fiction (writing about writing) and the increasing frustration of trying to be creative in an age where everything has pretty much been said, coupled with the increasing impact of technology on communication. Lost in the Funhouse is a collection of short stories and experimental pieces; one of my favorites is ‘Glossolalia,’ in which he presents six or seven passages that are legitimate words, but which are essentially non-sensical--only when read aloud, one discovers that each has the syllabic structure and spoken cadence of The Lord's Prayer! I could go on, but you get the idea, I'm sure. (As an aside, he finished his teaching career at Johns Hopkins and came to speak at the UofD a year after I finished my thesis. Naturally, I was determined to meet him, and I did. He was arrogant and condescending, an especially irritating human being. More proof that one should never try to get to know their heroes, I guess. . .But I still find his writing to be very special.)
  • Truth to tell, in recent years, most of my non-work related reading is largely escapist--with well-written mysteries, especially series, leading the pack. James Lee Burke, Robert M. Parker, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard and David Morrell are all on my ‘must read’ list. Most of these folks are serious, highly educated writers who have chosen to be commercially successful craftsmen in a popular genre. Quite a few of them started their professional careers as teachers or journalists and then quit when they could afford to do so.
  • I hope you didn't ask too many folks this question. . . .We are liable to be in the sanctuary until 1:30 pm.” Yes, Bill, I got that time warning!


In 722 BCE, the Assyrians crushed Israel. At the time, the ancient Hebrews were not a united kingdom or monarchy; they were a divided kingdom with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Those who managed to escape death or forced exile to Assyria, ran as fast as they could into Judah, in the south where Jerusalem was the capital city. The descendants of David continued to reign in the south as the people tended to believe that this was God’s plan.

One of David’s descendants who came into power as king was Josiah; he was 8 years old when he was officially declared King of Judah; there was no more northern kingdom of Israel. Even as a boy, Josiah believed that his people had not honored God, which was directly connected to the troubles they were then weathering. By the time he was about 26 years old, Josiah became aware that there might be great riches left behind in the Temple. He called on his advisors, particularly priests, to find that silver. Hilkiah was the high priest, and much of the searching fell to him. In the process, he and his workmen found a very important book, a scroll that many scholars believe was all or part of the book of Deuteronomy. At the time, however, no one knew what the scroll was, but Josiah asked that it be brought to him and and read aloud in his presence.

As that was done, the young king began to weep because he realized upon hearing the words being read to him that his people had been violating God’s standards for a very long time, and in his theological framework there were penalties to be paid for such disobedience--such as invasions and deportations and a scattering of the people.

Josiah and his high priest went to work to correct the problems, but many of their sister and brother Hebrews would not cooperate with them so the atrocities to the Hebrews as a people continued. It’s a tragic chapter in Hebrew history that might well have been avoided.

We hear a lot in our day, with increasing emphasis on healthy eating, that, “You are what you eat.” But it might also be true that, “You are what you read.” If you read nothing but violence and destruction, war and devastation, there’s a good chance that you’ll believe these are necessary aspects of life in any era of human history.

Hear this chapter from the life of the Prophet Ezekiel at the time of another deportation. The conversation is between God and Ezekiel:

God said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and God gave me the scroll to eat and said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey. God said to me: Mortal, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them. For you are not sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel— not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to them, they would listen to you. But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. See, I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads. Like the hardest stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not fear them or be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. God said to me: Mortal, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart and hear with your ears; then go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them. Say to them, “Thus says the Lord God”; whether they hear or refuse to hear.

Ezekiel wasn’t living in rebellion to God so the words of God, even the corrective words of God, tasted sweet to him. Those living in service to other deities, those living with no moral standards, would find the taste of the little book bitter indeed.

Some part of our reading diet should draw us toward that which is moral and beautiful and honorable and compassionate. The book need not be a religious book per se, but we need to see the good and the right and the consequences of wrong and results of apathy. We need to see a better world even if it shows up in small scenes and snippets. We need to be emboldened to take on a world that is more corrupt than most of us can let ourselves imagine. Our great writers, again, are the tribal storytellers who show how rugged the world has gotten but how much better it can be regardless of the odds.

Alice Walker got Celie out of her hell, and Will Campbell pointed the finger at the southern, very religious and very white citizens who treated the free Blacks as if they were despised animals and took various roles in stealing their freedoms and often their lives; but Brother Will also showed us away out of racism by walking the risky way Jesus walked in his time and place. Without books I might never have known these great storytellers who dared me to believe in hope for myself and others.

Yes, Lord.

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