Reading Your Way Through Life

by Matthew Sitman


I’ve already mentioned how my instinct, when the world seems a bit depressing, is to retreat into books. Reading literature and poetry, for me, always has been therapeutic. An element of escapism surely is a part of this, but I’d like to think there’s more to it than that. The best books don’t move me to avoid reality, but rather see the world with fresh eyes – they remind me not of the world’s limitations, but its possibilities. Sometimes that’s because looking at life from the perspective of a novel’s narrator or the writer of a poem lets me realize just how narrow my own field of vision can be, and getting a purchase on life apart from the whirring of my own brain is just what I need. It’s a way of getting out of the rut of how I usually think about matters. But most of all, reading is a way of feeling less lonely. Certain passages of literature allow me to say, yes, she understands just what it’s like. A kind of communion occurs between the writer and the reader, and the problems of the moment seem more bearable if only because you realize you’re not the first to get there. Books offer the remarkable consolation of getting to a particular point in your life, or reaching a certain impasse, only to look around and see a flag planted in the dust: someone else has been here too.

I’m interested in what books or poems have offered this experience to Dish readers, what texts have been your companion along life’s way. I’ll go first. Often I’ve reached for Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, which takes the form of a long letter written by a dying father to his young son, just to immerse myself in the rhythms of its prose. And I usually turn, at some point, to this passage near its conclusion:

There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. ‘He will wipe the tears from all faces.’ It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. But that is the pulpit speaking. What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope? Well, as I have said, it is all an ember now, and the good Lord will surely someday breathe it into flame again.

I’d love to hear what texts have been by your side as go through life – a favorite passage from a novel, a cherished poem, the short story you return to again and again. Email me at

(Photo by José Manuel Ríos Valiente)