Reading Your Way Through Life: Still More Readers Respond

by Matthew Sitman

Reading all the reader responses to my question about the books, poems, and stories that have meant the most to you has been such a rewarding experience. My reading list certainly has grown even more unmanageable. What I’ve appreciated the most, in addition to the gratitude for books on display, are the anecdotes that have accompanied many of your suggestions. Not only can a story or poem be a consolation, but they remain connected to what we were going through when we read them – and perhaps even shaped how we perceived and understood what was happening. Thank you all for sharing. Here’s more of your responses, with this reader reminding us of a recent classic:

I nominate David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement address. Though a commencement speech, I encountered it as essay. I’ve been rather amazed at how it has stuck with me. “This is water. This is water,” has become a personal mantra, a constant reminder to practice mindfulness.

Another:

I’m late to the thread (as usual!), but I’ll throw on the pile anyway – Theses on the Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin. Its theme, and the famous passage that reflects it, is undoubtedly dark, but in a way I have always found liberating rather than depressing:

Coll IMJ,  photo (c) IMJA Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

At a time when I was always looking for an answer, a solution, a neat narrative to tie everything together – I read this book and realized that I could (obviously) be wrong, that there are no answers, no fix, no solution to magically make things whole, to return to whatever came before. Understanding that that’s not possible helped me, in its own way, face forward.

By the way, I didn’t actually see Angelus Novus until years later, in Jerusalem. To say it wasn’t what I was expecting would be putting it mildly.

Another reader writes:

Matthew Sitman wrote that he read when feeling lonely. When C. S. Lewis was asked why he read, he replied, “I read to know that I am not alone.”

My favorites are poems, especially by Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats. One of which is this one by Yeats, written when he was a young man:

“When You Are Old”

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Another praises this poem:

I heard David Whyte recite “Lost,” by David Wagoner, 12 years ago, and it has been my favorite ever since. It’s about how the elders of the tribe instructed children to act if they ever got lost in the woods. It’s really a lesson on what to do whenever you feel lost.

“Lost”

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Here’s another poetry selection:

I guess I am a shallow sort, but I love this little ditty by Walker Gibson:

“Advice To Travelers”

A burro once, sent by express,
His shipping ticket on his bridle,
Ate up his name and his address,
And in some warehouse, standing idle,
He waited till he like to died.
The moral hardly needs the showing:
Don’t keep things locked up deep inside –
Say who you are and where you’re going.

Another describes Luc Sante’s phenomenal short story “The Unknown Soldier” as “a source of strange comfort.” An excerpt:

I stood yelling as he stabbed me again and again. I shot up the bag as soon as I got home, but thought it smelled funny when I cooked it. I was asleep in the park when these kids came by. I crawled out the window and felt sick looking down, so I just threw myself out and looked up as I fell. I thought I could get warm by burning some newspaper in a soup pot. I went to pieces very slowly and was happy when it finally stopped. I thought the train was going way too fast, but I kept on reading. I let this guy pick me up at the party, and sometime later we went off in his car. I felt real sick, but the nurse thought I was kidding. I jumped over to the other fire escape, but my foot slipped. I thought I had time to cross the street. I thought the floor would support my weight. I thought nobody could touch me. I never knew what hit me.

They put me in a bag. They nailed me up in a box. They walked me down Mulberry Street followed by altar boys and four priests under a canopy and everybody in the neighborhood singing the “Libera Me Domine.” They collected me in pieces all through the park. They laid me in state under the rotunda for three days. They engraved my name on the pediment. They drew my collar up to my chin to hide the hole in my neck. They laughed about me over baked meats and rye whiskey. They didn’t know who I was when they fished me out and still don’t know six months later. They held my body for ransom and collected, but by that time they had burned it. They never found me. They threw me in the cement mixer. They heaped all of us into a trench and stuck a monument on top. They cut me up at the medical school. They weighed down my ankles and tossed me in the drink. They named a dormitory after me. They gave speeches claiming I was some kind of tin saint. They hauled me away in the ashman’s cart. They put me on a boat and took me to an island. They tried to keep my mother from throwing herself in after me. They bought me my first suit and dressed me up in it. They marched to City Hall holding candles and shouting my name. They forgot all about me and took down my picture.

So give my eyes to the eye bank, give my blood to the blood bank. Make my hair into switches, put my teeth into rattles, sell my heart to the junkman. Give my spleen to the mayor. Hook my lungs to an engine. Stretch my guts down the avenue. Stick my head on a pike, plug my spine to the third rail, throw my liver and lights to the winner. Grind my nails up with sage and camphor and sell it under the counter. Set my hands in the window as a reminder. Take my name from me and make it a verb. Think of me when you run out of money. Remember me when you fall on the sidewalk. Mention me when they ask you what happened. I am everywhere under your feet.

Another:

I am a bit surprised no one has yet submitted Li Bai (also Li Po) and Du Fu (also Tu Fu), two of the most famous of the Chinese T’ang Dynasty poets. Perhaps I find their work consoling as their poems of distant friends and exile speak to my own state of mind (living far away from friends and family and the familiar for work).

Much like the poets and novelists of the 20th century, they wrote in a time of violent political and social chaos (the An Lushan Rebellion in the mid-eighth century) that divided friends, devastated the country, and drove writers and poets into exile. Their best work meditates on friendship, exile, poetry, the pleasures of drink, loss, and the mutability of things, while cultivating a deep reverence for nature as a source of beauty, even order, in a chaotic and unpredictable world. It’s not surprising that their poems, in translation, were deeply admired by many of the 20th century’s greatest poets, from H.D. to Pound to Rexroth to Carruth.

Two from Li Bai:

“Taking Leave of a Friend”

Here at the city wall
green mountains to the north
white water winding east
we part

one tumbleweed
ten thousand miles to go

high clouds
wandering thoughts

sunset
old friendship

you wave, moving off
your horse
whinnies
twice

(trans. David Young)

“Seeing That White-Haired Old Man Legend Describes in Country Grasses”

After wine, I go out into the fields,
wander open country – singing

asking myself how green grass
could be a white-haired old man

But looking into a bright mirror,
I see him in my failing hair too.

Blossom scent seems to scold me.
I let grief go, and face east winds.

(trans. David Hinton)

And two from his friend, Du Fu:

“For Li Po”

The cloud floats off
the way the sun went
the traveler doesn’t come back

three nights in a row
I dreamed of you, old friend
so real I could have touched you!

you left in a hurry
I’ll bet
you’re having a bad journey

storms come up fast
on those rivers and lakes
don’t fall out of your boat!

leaving, framed in the doorway
you scratched your snowy head
I knew you didn’t want to go

bureaucrats
fatten in the capital
while a poet goes cold and hungry

if there is justice in heaven
what sent you out
to banishment?

ages to come
will warm themselves
at your verses

but it’s
a cold, silent world
you left behind

(trans. David Young)

“Watching Fireflies”

Fireflies from the Enchanted Mountains
come through the screen this autumn night
and settle on my shirt

my lute and my books grow cold
outside, above the eaves
they are hard to tell from the stars

they sail over the well
each reflecting a mate

in the garden they pass chrysanthemums
flares of color agains the dark

white-haired and sad
I try to read their code
wanting a prediction:
will I be here next year
to watch them?

(trans. David Young)

I’ve been really enjoying the thread and all the readers’ submissions and the reminder of the consolations of literature. There are so many other authors I would submit if I had them ready to hand: Ovid, Montaigne, Bulgakov, Anne Carson, and on and on…

Another readers writes:

I’d like to add “Barter” by Sara Teasdale to the thread.  I have known it since high school (more than 50 years ago) and the last stanza especially has stayed with me.

“Barter”

Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

Another:

This is from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (#7) – a high-school graduation present from my mother which I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with those fumbling in the darkness:

And you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is some thing in you that wants to move out of it. This very wish, if you use it calmly and prudently and like a tool, will help you spread out your solitude over a great distance. Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything, in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.

It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.”

And one more:

I don’t really have anything long-winded or insightful to say about this excerpt from Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. The book is incredible, but it’s a heavy read that I’ve only read it twice. The passage below, however, I read several times a year. In particular, I tend to read it when a good friend of mine “bumps” it, which is usually when he senses that I’m becoming too cynical about life or the world. I always read it slowly at first, the fever-fast in the second voice (you’ll see). And then I stop just before the last line… and, somehow, afterward it feels like I just went to church. And I try to do something, however small, about all the gun violence in Chicago.

My recent adventures have made me quite the philosopher, especially at night, when I hear naught but the stream grinding boulders into pebbles through an unhurried eternity. My thoughts flow thus. Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes.

What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.

What precipitates acts? Belief.

Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history’s Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the ‘natural’ (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this: – one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the entropy written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.

A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living. Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the Abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I must begin somewhere.

I hear my father-in-law’s response. ‘Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam. But don’t tell me about justice! Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the red-necks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites! Sail to the Old World, tell ’em their imperial slaves’ rights are as inalienable as the Queen of Belgium’s! Oh, you’ll grow hoarse, poor & grey in caucuses! You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified! Naive, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

Find the entire thread here.