Reading Your Way Through Life: One More Round Of Responses

by Matthew Sitman

Readers continue to tell us about the books, stories, and poems, that have meant the most to them in their lives, and a number of you have asked us to keep the thread going. So here’s another round, beginning with this reader’s appreciation of a classic novel by Alan Paton:

I appreciate Cry, the Beloved Country as I suspect only a Christian – maybe even only a quasi- CryBelovedCountrypostmillennial Calvinist – can. There is much that could and should be said about it as social commentary and criticism and the like, and this does somewhat to make it sweet to me. The lyricism of much of the language is also a cup to be savored and delighted in. There is, I suppose, much else that could be lodged against it as objectionable because of the empowerment it denies to the blacks of South Africa in themselves, but this is not a view I think of often and I think it would have been dishonest for Paton to have attempted it. But what I chiefly remember is the day I finished it, sitting on our apartment balcony on a sunny Sunday afternoon, weeping at the beauty of its content and the boundless hope of its eschatology: all is not saved (though much is), but all is safe, because all is in the hand of God. Injustice may be at hand, and much evil may remain to run its course, but faith will help us to persevere in their despite. Pain is real, suffering is real, and there is no pretending they are not. But God is real, His knowledge and guidance of all the intricacies and the final end of all things is real, and there is likewise no pretending they are not.

Another shares a story about how reading can reveal who we are:

Permit a little spin on the theme, “Reading Your Way Through Life.” I’m a clinical social worker, and in therapy sessions with clients (I work in a public mental health agency, so most of them are poor and poorly educated), I routinely ask, “What have you read lately?” I ask that of any client, regardless of age. Most clients will report they’ve read something – for teens, maybe a textbook that they struggled through; for kids, maybe only a comic book. Adults may have read a romance novel, or a magazine in a doctor’s office. Whatever they report reading, I ask, “What in it appealed to you?” The answer may be profound, or may seem cursory; but the point is, it’s the client’s answer, because it’s the client’s life – and I glean something that may help him. Perhaps the client identifies an interest that’s worth exploring, or a hope she wants fulfilled; a child reading a Harry Potter book – her eyes light up describing a character she likes. Some therapists engage in bibliotherapy, inviting clients to read books (novels, not only self-help) that have a therapeutic theme (many of the book your readers have described fit this). For me, whatever the client is reading invites me to learn something about them – and, if I do my job well, if we talk about it, they might learn something about themselves, too, that can help them in their present struggle.

This reader shares a favorite poem:

“Among School Children,” W.B. Yeats

This has been a favorite poem of mine for many years and I had the privilege of talking about it for many years. I love the richness of Yeats’s fine mind listening to itself, the interiority, the intertwining of memory and learning reaching towards understanding.

The first stanza ends:

“the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.”

The second begins, “I dream of a Ledaean body,”

My favorite stanza break ever. As he stands smiling before the children, he falls into his deepest self as longing for his lost love breaks over him. His heart feels the gulf between his public image and his private inwardness. And at the end of the last stanza, – a riddle that is an answer: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

I taught this poem for many years. One day I looked around the classroom and realized I was a “sixty year old smiling man.” Now, I’ve outlived Yeats, that great poet of old age.

Another poetry selection:

Stanley Kunitz, “The Testing Tree”

A story before the poem. I went to see him read at Harvard, it was a tour for his newest book on turning 90. After the reading, those of us who wanted to buy his book stood in line to purchase it and have him sign it. I stood there in line chatting for quite a while with the guy in front of me as we were the last two in line. As we approached the table, there were nine books left, and this guy in front of me grabbed all nine! I asked him if I couldn’t have just one, and he refused. Mr. Kunitz and those surrounding him were in disbelief, as was I . After signing all those nine copies for this jerk, Mr. Kunitz started to rise from his chair, but I was clutching probably his most famous poetry book, a book which had become an anthem for me. I asked if he wouldn’t mind signing it, and he obliged. He knew who the real fan was.

The last nine lines are the real anthem – so important to me still. And how perfect the number nine!

“The Testing-Tree”


On my way home from school
up tribal Providence Hill
past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
I scuffed in the drainage ditch
among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
rolled out of glacial time
into my pitcher’s hand;
then sprinted lickety-
split on my magic Keds
from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
with my flying skin
as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
over that stretch of road,
with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
that on the given course
I was the world’s fastest human.


Around the bend
that tried to loop me home
dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
riddled with rabbit-life
where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
and a stringy old lilac
more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
remembered a door in the
long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
brushing the stickseed off,
wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel’s hair,
spotting the print of the deer
and the red fox’s scats.
Once I owned the key
to an umbrageous trail
thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
gave me right of passage
as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
soundlessly heel-and-toe
practicing my Indian walk.


Past the abandoned quarry
where the pale sun bobbed
in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
where the ferns gave foothold,
I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
with the stones in my pocket
changing to oracles
and my coiled ear tuned
to the slightest leaf-stir.
I had kept my appointment.
There I stood in the shadow,
at fifty measured paces,
of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
Jehovah of acorns,
watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip’s War
in its annulated core
under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
I have only three throws
bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
while the air flowed saffron,
I played my game for keeps–
for love, for poetry,
and for eternal life–
after the trials of summer.


In the recurring dream
my mother stands
in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
she is wearing an owl’s face
and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
I pass through the cardboard doorway
askew in the field
and peer down a well
where an albino walrus huffs.
He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
staining the water yellow,
why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
That single Model A
sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
where the tanks maneuver,
revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
Where is my testing-tree?
Give me back my stones!

This reader appreciates a poet we featured recently:

Thanks for this thread. Reading about why specific books matter to different readers is incredibly interesting. My contribution to the thread is a poet you recently featured: Ron Padgett. What always makes me return to his work is the way he makes the most mundane aspects of life seem so interesting and beautiful. His poems are filled with found objects, overlooked phrases, forgotten expression that he turns sideways and upside-down and juxtaposes to almost anything else. I don’t want to say that he breathes new life into them so much as that he finds the life that was always there but we got tired of seeing. Padgett is a master of defamiliarization with a great sense of cornball humor. The other thing that impresses me is the way many of his poems unfold the way the mind unfolds and you watch it stumble upon a great discovery or insight that was never looked for, but there it is. His aesthetic and influences are very French, but his outlook and language is fully American. Here is a prose poem of his (my apologies if it is one of the ones you published earlier; but even if they are, Padgett is always worth returning to):

Prose Poem

The morning coffee. I’m not sure why I drink it. Maybe it’s the ritual of the cup, the spoon, the hot water, the milk, and the little heap of brown grit, the way they come together to form a nail I can hang the day on. It’s something to do between being asleep and being awake. Surely there’s something better to do, though, than to drink a cup of instant coffee. Such as meditate? About what? About having a cup of coffee. A cup of coffee whose first drink is too hot and whose last drink is too cool, but whose many in-between drinks are, like Baby Bear’s porridge, just right. Papa Bear looks disgruntled. He removes his spectacles and swivels his eyes onto the cup that sits before Baby Bear, and then, after a discrete cough, reaches over and picks it up. Baby Bear doesn’t understand this disruption of the morning routine. Paper Bear brings the cup close to his face and peers at it intently. The cup shatters in his paw, explodes actually, sending fragments and brown liquid all over the room. In a way, it’s good that Mama Bear isn’t there. Better that she rest in her grave beyond the garden, unaware of what has happened to the world.

Another reader notes a much-loved essay discovered through the Dish:

If you’re still taking posts about this, I thought I’d recommend the incredible essay, “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” by Ross Gay, which appeared in the July 2013 issue of The Sun. Gay’s meditations on bee keeping and race make this a must-read for anyone interested in how personal essay can tackle the big issues.

For the past year, I’ve taught this essay to my incoming first-year students in my sections of a Introduction to College Writing course. I’ll teach it again this year with an even firmer belief in its resonance and relevance in the wake of Ferguson. Gay says at the end of the essay, when describing a panic attack when facing the bees of his new hive:

“…the possibility of the hive turning on me was all I could feel. I saw myself pouring gasoline on this hive that I loved and torching it. And I saw a billowing, and I felt such relief at their being no more. I saw cinders of the box and the sooty concrete blocks it sat on and the charred patch of grass beneath smoldering and the few bees not inside lost and circling in wider and wider loops. I saw myself standing with the pack of matches in my hand and the red fuel canister at my feet.”

These words came back to me as I watched news footage of the protests and looting after Michael Brown’s murder, all the smoke and fire and rage of those weeks. What it must feel like for the citizens to be penned in by he fear and suspicion of others, the at-once terrifying and preposterous notion that just being a young black man is akin to being armed with a deadly weapon. The rage with which you might want to greet the world and the rage with which it would greet you back, no matter how you’d acted, no matter how restrained because it is acceptable for law enforcement in your community look at you and “see murder.”

In Gay’s essay, the bees feel some agitation but manage to rely most on what’s before them–Gay’ actual actions, not his fear– and they do not attack him. He says with relief and awe that they “knew inside me was a truth other than murder.”

Ross pleads in the essay when describing the racial profiling he’s endured: “Look how this has made me.” I want my students to see this, too. That we make each other through our interactions. I want them to make a better world for each other, and to have for themselves the role model of Gay and especially his bees.

It seems pitifully small, to ask that we look at each other and not see murder and considering the magnitude of the problem (how it encodes our voting laws, housing policies, legislation, even how preschool teachers discipline black students), nowhere near enough, but as Gay points out, this is the first step to actually seeing each other, the first step towards mercy, and. “When we have mercy, deep and abiding change might happen. The corrupt imagination might become visible. Inequalities might become visible. Violence might become visible. Terror might become visible. And the things we’ve been doing to each other, despite the fact that we don’t want to do such things to each other, might become visible.”

I’m indebted to The Dish for finding this essay. You linked to it last summer. Since then, I’ve read it at least six times and will read it many more in the year ahead to prepare for teaching but also to marvel at Gay’s gifts as a writer, the sense of kindness that emanates from his words even as he illustrates the maddening mental work required to see himself as good in a world that repeatedly wants to write him off as bad.

Another reader mentions a treasured passage from a novel:

From The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara:

“…but still, I continued on, looking for the bathroom; passing doors, and swatches of wall, and a mail chute; then walking still further; yet I couldn’t seem to find it, the bathroom; I wasn’t even in a place where a bathroom seemed likely to be; so I decided to turn down another hallway, which led to a quiet area ­thinking that I would have better luck in that direction; and so I wandered into a darker stretch of the building, and I continued searching doors for the appropriate emblem; but I only came across signs offering Dubbing, and Post-Produc­tion; and then, without forewarning, I saw Chomsky, standing in a shadowy recess in the wall; he was just standing there, facing away from the corridor, in towards a dense stack of cardboard boxes; they were empties that were waiting to be thrown out, I believe; but Chomsky was just tucked in there among them, alone in the dark recess, holding his glasses in his left hand; and with his posture somewhat bent-so I touched his sleeve, and he turned around rapidly, and said Oh; and then he emerged from the recess, while putting his glasses back on; and then he quickly gathered himself together, he became himself again; Here, he then said, while looking down the hallway; Here: I think what you may be looking for is over here; though when I heard the wavery tone in his voice a part of me dissolved; in silence I let him walk me on; and point out the door; very graciously; then he turned away when I went in; and then, when I was finished, there were no more paper towels by the sinks, so I couldn’t dry my hands…”

Another appreciates all the poems this thread has featured:

Just loving the gifts of moving poetry. I laid in bed for an hour this morning remembering passages, one after the other. So many… the floodgates are open!

Beloved literature is a thread that runs way back through my family. My father could recite long passages from hundreds of favorites til the end of his life.

He gave each of his five grandsons, my boys, a copy of 101 Famous Poems when they could barely read. The connection lives on..

When my youngest was homeschooling we memorized what appealed to us, from Lakota speeches to Tennyson; he’s studying neurobiology in grad school now – and has a love for and way with words.

I’m sending one more favorite.

“Reverse Living”

Life is tough,
It takes a lot of your time,
All your weekends,
And what do you get at the end of it?
Death, a great reward.
I think that the life cycle is all backwards.
You should die first, get it out of the way.
Then you live twenty years in an old age home.
You’re kicked out when you’re too young.
You get a gold watch, you go to work.
You work forty hears until you’re
Young enough to enjoy your retirement.
You go to college,
And you party until you’re ready for high school.
You become a little kid, you play,
You have no responsibilities,
You become a little boy or girl,
You go back into the womb,
You spend your last nine months floating.
And you finish off as a gleam in someone’s eye.

This is from Jack Kornfield’s excellent book, After the Ecstasy the Laundry.

And one last poem:

“The Cowpath” by Samuel Walter Foss! It always makes me understand ‘where we are at’ in any situation. And it also makes me lighthearted about it. Think about it: you can apply this to the Gaza mess, the Iraq mess, the Ferguson mess, the mess in my house, the mess in my marriage – a one size fits all explanation:

One day thru the primeval wood
A calf walked home, as good calves should,
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer, the calf is dead;
But still behind he left his trail,
And thereon hangs my mortal tale.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way,
And then a wise bell-weather sheep
Sliding into a rut now deep,
Pursued that trail over hill and glade
Thru those old woods a path was made.
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
and uttered words of righteous wrath
Because “twas such a crooked path”
But still they follow-do not laugh-
The first migrations of that calf.
The forest became a lane
That bent and turned and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road
where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The village road became a street,
And this, before the men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.
And soon a central street was this
In a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Followed the wanderings of this calf.
Each day a hundred thousand strong
Followed this zigzag calf along;
And over his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one poor calf, three centuries dead.
For just such reverence is lent
To well established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach.
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf paths of the mind;
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.

Read the entire thread here.

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.


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.


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.


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

old friendship

you wave, moving off
your horse

(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

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.


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.


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.

Reading Your Way Through Life: Even More Readers Respond

by Matthew Sitman

The popular thread continues, beginning with reader-love for one particular John Cheever short story:

I have returned to the work of John Cheever—especially “The Death of Justina”—more than that of any other author in my reading life. He is so alert to the spiritual potentialities of life and yet so understanding of our failure to fulfill them. The world he writes about John Cheeveris decidedly fallen yet can be  illuminated by sudden flashes of grace—as real and rare as lightning strikes.

I guess you’d call “The Death of Justina” a serious comedy about death that touches on chaos, commercialism, nasty bosses, zoning, the necessity and challenges of loving America, and, last but not least, morticians: “The priest was a friend and a cheerful sight, but the undertaker and his helpers, hiding behind their limousines, were not; and aren’t they at the root of most of our troubles, with their claim that death is a violet-flavored kiss? How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?”

Of course, with this story, it is Cheever who sounds that alarm.

He can be heard reading it (rapidly, with his faux Brahmin accent) here.

A second reader on the same Cheever story:

For me, it keeps coming back to Cheever.  (And, Thorton Wilder, but perhaps that will be another entry.)

There are better Cheever passages than this, but I’ve been obsessing about this story for a while now, so here it is – from “The Death of Justina,” in the Collected Stories.

“We buried Justina in the rain the next afternoon.  The dead are not, God knows, a minority, but in Proxmire Manor their unexalted kingdom is on the outskirts, rather like a dump, where they lie in an atmosphere of perfect neglect.  Justina’s life had been exemplary, but by ending it she seemed to have disgraced us all.  The priest was a friend and a cheerful sight, but the undertaker and his helpers, hiding behind their limousines, were not; and aren’t they at the root of most of our troubles, with their claim that death is a violet-flavored kiss?  How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?”

How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?  Indeed.

The story continues – an advertising executive keeps writing a commercial for “Elixircol, the true juice of youth.”

“I went from the cemetery back to my office.  The commercial was on my desk and MacPherson had written across it in grease pencil:  Very funny, you broken-down bore.  Do again.  I was tired but unrepentant and didn’t seem able to force myself into a practical posture of usefulness and obedience.  I did another commercial.  Don’t lose your loved ones, I wrote, because of excessive radioactivity.  Don’t be a wallflower at the dance because of strontium 90 in your bones.  Don’t be a victim of fallout.  When the tart on Thirty-sixth Street gives you the big eye does your body stride off in one direction and your imagination in another?  Does your mind follow her up the stairs and taste her wares in revolting detail while your flesh goes off to Brooks Brothers or the foreign exchange desk of the Chase Manhattan Bank?  Haven’t you noticed the size of the ferns, the lushness of the grass, the bitterness of the string beans, and the brilliant markings on the new breeds of butterflies?  You have been inhaling lethal atomic waste for the last twenty-five years and only Elixircol can save you.

Another reader offers more praise for Joyce’s “The Dead”:

I first read “The Dead” in high school after my grandfather gave me a weathered book of selected James Joyce works. Gabriel Conroy’s no good, very bad Christmastime party has the feel of nearly every one I’ve attended. You can feel winter’s draft against buttoned coats through the pages, and it takes little effort on my part to understand the awkward dance of Gabriel’s anxiety and confidence. The final passage where Gabriel is looking over his sleeping wife has to rank among the most beautiful in the English language. I pick a cold night to read it around Christmas every year. It reminds me of my grandpa and all the past Christmases that have turned into shades.

This reader also points to a favorite short story:

A short story by Jorge Luis Borges, which he referred to as perhaps his best work, has stayed with me for almost 4 decades. In my opinion, “The South” is not only the most perfectly crafted short story ever written, it is an amazing examination of the complete relativity in which we live every moment of our lives. A relativity which is only realized at certain rare points when events and thoughts crystalize in unexpected ways.

The arc of the story is relatively simple. Dahlmann, a proud Argentine of German descent, obtains a copy of the Thousand and One Nights. In his eagerness to read it, he rushes up the stairs to his apartment gashing his head on an open door. He develops a fever which requires an extended and awful stay at a sanitarium where he is subjected to horrible procedures. When finally better, he leaves Buenos Aires for a convalescence at his ranch in the South.

When Dahlmann finally arrives by train at a small town near his ranch, he goes to the local general store to arrange for transport to the ranch and have a bite to eat. Some local farm workers are drinking and begin to toss small spit balls of bread at him while he reads. He ignores them, but when he gets up to leave the shopkeeper addresses him by name and tells him to ignore the drunks. Since he has been identified, Dahlmann feels compelled to confront the drunks – one of whom hurls insults at him and draws a large knife. The shopkeeper protests that Dahlmann is unarmed. An old peasant suddenly sends a knife across the floor which Dahlmann instinctively picks up. He prepares to leave the store even though he knows nothing about knife fighting.

The last lines of the story cannot be summarized. They are as powerful a statement of the basic relativity of our perception of our lives and the human condition as I have ever read.

“They went out and if Dahlmann was without hope, he was also without fear. As he crossed the threshold, he felt that to die in a knife fight, under the open sky, and going forward to the attack, would have been a liberation, a joy, and a festive occasion, on the first night in the sanitarium, when they stuck him with the needle. He felt that if he had been able to choose, then, or to dream his death, this would have been the death he would have chosen or dreamt. Firmly clutching his knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, Dahlmann went out into the plain.”

Another reader writers:

I studied literature, philosophy & comparative religions in college, yet the passage I turn to again and again is by an astrophysicist, of all people: Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. It is a humanist statement, one of both hope and sadness. He uses our scientific knowledge to inspire a better, more compassionate understanding of each other, showing how the two great disciplines of science and humanities can inform each other. Being reminded of the tininess of earth is like a Total Perspective Vortex – thoroughly humbling. I’ve had the chance to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson recite it live, and it was just as moving. Thankfully, Sagan read it for the audiobook.

Another recommends Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, which the reader first read at age 20, and keeps returning to:

As I grow older, it resonates differently. But it always feels meditative.

“With a new awareness, both painful and humorous, I begin to understand why the saints were rarely married women. I am Gift From The Seaconvinced it has nothing inherently to do, as I once supposed, with chastity or children. It has to do primarily with distractions. The bearing, rearing, feeding and educating of children; the running of a house with its thousand details; human relationships with their myriad pulls–woman’s normal occupations in general run counter to creative life, or contemplative life, or saintly life. The problem is not merely one of Woman and Career, Woman and the Home, Woman and Independence. It is more basically: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel.”

This love story, inextricably connected to a favorite novel, is pretty wonderful to read:

One text that I have returned to many times is Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. As a young, closeted gay man growing up in a small coastal New England town in the late 70s–early 80s, I was often stricken with a terrible fear that I would never know true love. Or even love of any kind. Wuthering Heights is a rather depressing book where things end badly for just about every character in it, but the all-consuming, haunting love that Catherine Earnshaw had for Heathcliff took my breath away and gave me hope that maybe someday, I too would feel a love like that.

I must have read my tattered paperback copy a dozen times in the course of a few years. And then one day, I met Peter. At 23 years ofWuthering Heights age, I now knew exactly the kind of love that Emily Brontë had painted in words. Hard, crushing, devastating love that made it difficult to breathe at times. And Peter returned that love. As young romances often go, it only lasted around two years with Peter moving to the West Coast for a job he couldn’t turn down. In the aftermath, I was a shell of myself for a long time. But I had felt it. I had experienced what Catherine Earnshaw had experienced, and I figured that even if that kind of love was only a once-in-a-lifetime phenomena, it was worth every hot, bitter tear I shed missing him. To this day, Peter and I are still friends. I don’t believe anyone can ever forget that a love of that intensity and we find ways to hold on to it, even long after it’s gone and there are thousands of miles between us.

And as it does, life went on. A few more relationships — the longest at 14 years — was tremendously comfortable and we’re still best friends after amicably going our separate ways. But suddenly finding one’s self single at the age of 48 years is a bit disconcerting, to say the least. However, it did give me a lot of time to reflect, remember and to eventually revisit an old friend named Catherine Earnshaw. After about a year of being a suddenly single middle-aged man, I found my old tattered, yellowed, paperback copy of Wuthering Heights up in the attic and immersed myself back in a time when I thought love was something ethereal and entirely unattainable. This time around it had a completely different effect. The wishing, the longing, the intense wanting that I felt at 23 had been replaced at 48 with a quiet, dull ache of loss — and gratitude. Gratitude that I had not only experienced an all-consuming love once many years ago, but also a warm, supportive, comfortable love that helped me become the man I am today.

I hadn’t read that book in 25 years and returning to it was like running into an old friend. What I did not expect was that like having read Wuthering Heights at 23, suddenly, there was Patrick. He had already been right in front of me for four years as a friend. Frankly, I thought he had absolutely no interest in me, especially because I had been in a long-term relationship for the first three years of our friendship and because well, he’s ridiculously adorable and I thought I simply didn’t have a chance with him. Then one Sunday afternoon over beers, he blurted out something that I could not get out of my head. So I asked him what he had meant by that comment the next time I saw him, and he just said it plainly, sweetly, and with a smile that could melt an iceberg.

That was a year and a half ago and I am crazy, madly in love with him. It is the same hard, crushing, devastating love that makes it difficult to breathe that I felt at 23. And Patrick returns that love. I had truly resigned myself to the belief that a love like that could only happen once in a lifetime but Patrick has taught me that it can, and does, happen more than once. With marriage equality spreading across the country, it’s just a matter of time until we can be legally married in our state of residence. Not long after that day comes, I plan on doing what Catherine was never able to do; marry him and make that love last for the rest of their lives.

Thanks for bringing back such memories by asking what novels, poems or stories have been our companions along life’s way. It’s been a hell of a journey so far and with Patrick as my companion, the future looks pretty darn bright.

Another reader writes:

Michael Chabon has a way with words, but this quote from The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is the one I like best. It reflects one of the Yiddish Policemens Unionbest Jewish traditions, in which we thank God for daily miracles, things like the sun coming up, the earth being beneath our feet, being able to move, and reflects the miracles we need, the basic human kindness, the realization that we each of us have divinity in us. In the context of the novel though, it also reflects how as humans, we quash that divinity through violence driven by greed and ideology:

“There was something in Mendele. There was fire. This is a cold dark place Detectives. A grey, wet place. Mendele gave off light and warmth. You wanted to stand close to him. To warm your hands, to melt the ice on your beard. To banish the darkness for a minute or two. But then when you left Mendele, you stayed warm, and it seemed like there was a little more light, maybe one candle’s worth, in the world. And that was when you realized the fire was inside you all the time. And that was the miracle. Just that.”

Here’s another poetry selection:

I completely agree that literature is therapeutic. The poem I always go back to in difficult times is “The Laughing Heart” by Charles Bukowski:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

After a particularly bad breakup, when I had just moved to a new country, away from all of my family and friends, I remember repeating to myself there are ways out/ there is a light somewhere to get through the day. Works pretty well.

Another reader writes:

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is a perennial re-read for me.  This passage well summarizes my own anxiety each year during Lent (and Irving gets away with four semicolons in one paragraph):

“I find that Holy Week is draining; no matter how many times I have lived through his crucifixion, my anxiety about his resurrection is undiminished – I am terrified that, this year, it won’t happen; that, that year, it didn’t. Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.”

Here’s a heartfelt note from a Tolkien fan:

My go-to book is The Lord of the Rings. It’s been a lifeline when I needed it most.

I first read it at age 12. I was a fat, awkward, unfeminine girl transplanted in mid-semester from a small, urban parochial grade school to a concrete block suburban middle school. It felt like being sent to prison. I desperately wanted to escape. So I read, voraciously, everything I could possibly get my hands on. And then I found my dad’s paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings. I devoured it in one Tolkinsitting, plowed through all of the appendices (including the ones on runes, Tengwar script and calendars), then immediately started again at the beginning.

I didn’t want to leave Middle-earth.

I loved the book’s sense of adventure. I imagined the rural charm of the Shire, the vastness of the empty kingdoms of the North, the cosiness of the Last Homely House, the grandeur of the forests. I already was familiar with the tortured ugliness of Mordor and the Dead Marshes. They were the industrial landscape of the Rust Belt (where I live) and served as a bleak point of contact between my world and Tolkien’s. The One Ring became my metaphor for the suffocating social conformity that kids specialize in creating. Orcs were far more straightforward opponents than catty, clique-y middle school girls.

Life got much better after I hit high school. I made friends, slimmed down, went to college, started a career, got married, had children. But I kept returning to The Lord of the Rings, re-reading it and listening to the BBC’s wonderful radio adaptation every few years.  And my understanding of it changed.

What strikes me now is the novel’s sadness.  Loss underpins the entire story.  The old order ends in war and flame; although the good guys win, much is lost and the world is forever diminished.   Death haunts the story, climaxing in the departure of the Last Ship into the West.  This understanding of loss helps me deal with death and loss in my own life, most recently that of my dad — the one who introduced me to The Lord of the Rings in the first place.  It has been a touchstone for how to handle grief — “I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are evil.”  I can’t help crying every time I read Frodo’s word to Sam at the very end: “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

Beyond that, the Lord of the Rings has led me to sympathize with the underdogs and value the little people, the unlikeliest ones. It’s made me extremely wary of those who seek power at the expense of others.  It’s showed me the importance of friendship and the small pleasures of life.  And it’s taught me the value of mercy and kindness. I’ve tried my best to pass these values on to my children.  There are far worse ways to live your life than following the advice of wizards and Hobbits.

Another reader joins the Marilynne Robinson fan club:

I love this topic. As a literature professor, the number of texts that I’ve lived with for years and through major life changes is considerable. Often something will happen and I’ll find a sentence or a fragment of a description rattling around in my head that Housekeepingseems a fitting commentary–but I’ll have no immediate recollection of where it came from. I’m in my 30s and so didn’t grow up memorizing poems and speeches from Shakespeare and that kind of thing, as people once did, but at this point I might as well have. Sometimes I think what a loss it is that our culture no longer has that kind of shared textual intimacy.

If I had to pick one work outside my own area of scholarly expertise that both haunts and consoles me, it would be Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Here’s one passage:

“Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory–there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.

Keep up the good work! I always have mixed feelings when Andrew goes on vacation, but I’m loving all four of the Dish’s guest editors this time around.

Another read writes:

Reading has been a crucial part of the way I understand the world since before  I can remember. I honestly don’t remember learning to read. I’ve always read.  Trollope’s Barchester Towers, Bronte’s Shirley, and all the Austens are no surprise, perhaps, for a middle class white baby boomer woman. They help me understand who I am. But I reread Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red because it helps me understand a completely different way of imagining perfection and the sacred. But to choose just one, I will always come back to the Odyssey, and the Robert Fagles translation for preference.

I read it first as a child, in love with the Greek gods. It’s a fabulous adventure story.  Now I read it in amazement for the characters.Odyssey  It was conceived before almost everything in our culture that has shaped us, before Christianity, before reading and writing, before democracy. It is on the very far edge of who we are, and yet, I intimately recognize those characters, relationships, hopes and fears. The main characters are wonderful but even the minor ones reach out to me across the millennia. Who hasn’t met Nestor, the garrulous boring old geezer repeating all his favorite stories, surrounded by his loving family and embarrassing the hell out of them in front of the guests at the family gathering?  Menelaus and Helen are the original celebrity couple, tied to each other by self-interest and despising the other, snarking and sniping in their luxurious hall, amid a fug of bitterness and misery. Competing for attention from the assembly, they create their hell together. The swineherd is another one. Tied to memory and grief but with a very pragmatic foot in the moment, he slips easily between the past and the present, the memory of the dead king, and the need to get a pig down to the hall in good time.

I can’t even really express why the recognition of those characters as the people I meet and know every day gives me such comfort. But it does.  To recognize them from across the far side of human culture, I feel anchored to some baseline of humanity, in spite of all the tumult in between us.

And this seems like a good note to end on, at least for today:

Thanks for this thread. I love and often recommend A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving as a great meditation on faith, reasonA Prayer For Owen Meany and doubt. I re-read it this summer and it brims with sly good humor, jeremiads on the corrosive effect of war on US culture, and odd yet essential set pieces, such as an armadillo without its front paws. It also juxtaposes Frederick Buechner’s graceful theology with conversations by 10 year-olds about rating the breasts of the mothers in their small New England town. The opening lines draw one in:

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

I also love it because it speaks to the Christian I’d like to be but am not. Or better put in a quote from Leon Bloy in the foreword: “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.”

Read the entire thread here.

Reading Your Way Through Life: Even More Reader Reax

by Matthew Sitman

Readers continue to respond to our thread on the books, poems, and stories that have meant the most to them. One reader sent in the above video of Mary Oliver reading her poem “Wild Geese.” Another wryly appreciates this poem:

This makes me chuckle even when I’m in that emotional black hole called depression. It was also one of my late mother’s favorites. From the irrepressible Dorothy Parker:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Another holds close a poem from Jack Gilbert:

The following poem is one that I come back to often for solace during dark times. I studied International Aid in grad school and I think it has given me a good perspective on suffering across the world: on the one hand, there’s more extreme poverty, disease, oppression, general hardship out there than most Westerners ever dream of, and on the other hand, most people across the world find ways to get by and squeeze some joy and meaning out of life anyway, even in the direst of circumstances. This poem reminds me of that.

“A Brief For The Defense” by Jack Gilbert:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Another reader’s go-to poem:

The poem I find myself returning to over and over is Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole”:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

It’s no escape in hard times or corrective of melancholy. It’s a companion. A reminder that, while I may be as alone as the poem suggests, I am not the only one.

Another turns to a famous memoir:

I have frequently delved into Ulysses S. Grants Memoirs, as they are triumph over adversity. Written nearing the end of his life, whilst being poor and suffering from incurable throat cancer, the book is a testament to a human’s ability to endure. He went from being ill-educated shop keeper to a masterful commander, and then to President.

Facing financial ruin, compelled by Mark Twain, he wrote a magisterial memoir to secure his family financial future. Sitting on his porch, writing away, being unable speak and to produce a piece that is both lucid and concise, that a young man (myself), nearly one hundred and thirty years later could read it and draw inspiration, at times of personal hardship, is nothing short than remarkable.

Another reader writes:

John Steinbeck once wrote, “It’s almost impossible to read a fine thing without wanting to do a fine thing.” I’d add that a book’s value is no less if you fail to act on the impulse. Like you, I continue to seek solace in literature. It eases loneliness and alienation and allows me to carve out what amounts to an alternative dimension free of market dictates and a soul-killing public discourse.

Twenty years after I first read the books, I still find great comfort in [Hemingway’s] Nick Adams’ stories and McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and their wholly estranged characters. I find that literature is my one true escape from a life of quiet desperation. Most of us cannot express our innermost feelings in the office or even to our loved ones—either people don’t want to hear it or you don’t want to depress them. Thus we struggle on, constantly fighting the sense that we’re alone in this fight. Literature lets us know that we’re sane after all.

Now in my mid 40s, living in Asia, with no western friends or colleagues, literature has taken on an even more profound role, standing in for an entire culture that I’ve consciously separated myself from. Billy Parham, Silas Marner, Thomas Fowler—they may not be real men, but I find them essential to my understanding of the world and my capacity to withstand it.


My absolute favorite since age 12 (I’m now 57) has been The Lord of the Rings. I can’t narrow it down to any favorite passages because they’re all favorites. Part of it certainly has something to do with the many years over which I’ve read and reread the book (it’s just one book, not a trilogy, regardless of how it was published). I can still recall the delight with which I read the first words “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins . . .” in the summer of 1969. I certainly don’t remember anything else I read that long ago with the same fervor, unless it was The Hobbit which I read a few months before LOTR.

But Tolkien’s masterpiece has more to offer than just long term familiarity. Beauty of language, certainly, but even more important are the emotions. I still tear up when I read the cheers in various tongues for Frodo and Sam after they awaken from their long ordeal at the Field of Cormallen, and again when Frodo boards that ship at the Grey Havens. When Treebeard first speaks to Merry and Pippin I’m always just as amazed as they are. I laugh every time Gandalf catches Sam eavesdropping, and when Tom Bombadil first comes singing through the Old Forest, and when Bilbo disappears with a flash at the Farewell Party. It’s just a magnificent experience every time I read it.

Another reader shares a personal story:

Your post concerning readers’ favorite passages triggered an obvious choice for me. I am bipolar, and in times of acute depression I have reached for this one snatch of translated prose more times than I can recount. Something about it feels primal; by turns I hear a howl or a whisper, but somehow always a prayer. To this day, it delivers a visceral punch. In any case, since I first encountered it eons ago in the marginalia of a high school history textbook, it has been like a worry stone in my pocket, there for me when my unquiet mind is groping for some purchase.

“Elpis (Hope) is the only good god remaining among mankind; the others have left and gone to Olympus. Pistis (Trust), a mighty god has gone, Sophrosyne (Restraint) has gone from men, and the Kharites, my friend, have abandoned the earth. Men’s judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety. But as long as man lives and sees the light of the sun, let him show piety to the gods and count on Elpis. Let him pray to the gods and burn splendid thigh bones, sacrificing to Elpis first and last.”

This reader celebrates a favorite poet:

I wrote my PhD dissertation on Adrienne Rich and still find her poetry coming back to me when contemplating memory, loss, and grappling with inequality and injustice in the world. Been a good summer for that. She is at the same time a brilliant nature poet and evokes beauty in language and landscapes.

Here is an except from the final section of “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” the title poem of her 1990 volume. The poem surveys a variety of American people and places, coming back to Rich’s sense of obligation to work with “the materials” of life, however difficult or wretched. Lots of echoes of Whitman here and throughout:

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.

I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

More on Rich from my tribute to her after her death in 2012, plus a photo of me in a Dr. J jersey holding up a stethoscope to one of her books.

Another reader offers two favorites:

I’d have to start with Dragondoom by Dennis McKiernan – how could someone not be stirred by the lines of a song: “Would you fight to the death, for that which you love? In a cause surely hopeless, for that which you love?” This is high fantasy in the Tolkien style, but unique and wondrous in its own right.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot has done it for a lot of people I’m sure, but I’m hopeful some leader has thought twice when they read this,”Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the ‘Momentary’ masters of a ‘Fraction’ of a ‘Dot’.” Or at least some 18-year old reading this like I did so long ago when his dad died took some solace in the infinite wonders of the universe and the beauty that everything has as Sagan described ice volcanoes and hurricanes many times the size of Earth on other planets.

Can’t wait to build my library with a bunch of the suggestions from other readers.

This reader notes a poem that’s made him a better man:

I have read and re-read this poem so many times, and yet, even as I read it now, I feel like I might start crying. I am a man and try hard, really hard, to be the kind of feminist that would make my girlfriend proud. I fail all the time. But, I know it is this this poem that convinced me that I must keep trying. The last line gives me goosebumps.

“What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” by Marge Piercy:

All over America women are burning dinners.
It’s lambchops in Peoria: it’s haddock
in Providence; it’s steak in Chicago:
tofu delight in Big Sur; red rice and beans in Dallas.
All over America women are burning food they’re supposed to bring with calico smile on
platters glittering like wax.
Anger sputters in her brainpan, confined but spewing out missiles of hot fat.
Carbonized despair presses like a clinker
from a barbecue against the back of her eyes.
If she wants to grill anything, it’s
her husband spitted over a slow fire.
If she wants to serve him anything it’s a dead rat with a bomb in its belly ticking like the
heart of an insomniac.
Her life is cooked and digested,
nothing but leftovers in Tupperware.
Look, she says, once I was roast duck
on your platter with parsley but now I am Spam.
Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.

Another reader turns to a classic from T.S. Eliot:

I am probably older than most of the Dish’s readers (71), but the poem that struck me in 1962 when I was a nineteen-year old freshman in college was Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Like a patient etherized upon a table? Never had I read a line so real and shocking in the poems I had devoured in my high school textbooks. I shivered with the discovery of something totally new … the sentiments, the images, the mesmerizing rhythms. It felt to me so wonderfully sophisticated to empathize with a world-weariness I was beginning to experience not so much as fact as aspiration and to aspire at the same time to a social class I did not belong to. I still read it with pleasure, with a frisson of ironic recognition that “I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.” Which on occasion I do. I read the poem with excited admiration in my youth; now I read it with a smile and love it all the more in the bittersweet glow of nostalgia.

Another reader:

Gilead has been sitting unread in my to-read pile for years. I adored Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, and there is a page-long paragraph that shifts back and forth in time that still takes my breath away.

“Where he was, was still. Somewhere else, wind whined.”

But the book that has been my companion since I first read it in high school is Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. Starting to recognize my homosexuality in an upper-middle-class, very white suburb where the illusion of unfailing heterosexual monogamy was carefully cultivated and maintained as the only possible reality for ordering your life, the comfortable bisexuality of Delany’s unnamed narrator, the models he presented of unwed casual but caring relationships, and the racial and cultural diversity he deployed across the landscape of Bellona realigned my mental world: Somewhere there was a place for me, even if not in this suburb scrubbed to monochrome brightness.

But as It tried to weave among systems of thought and ideologies all trying to claim me, all trying to convince me of their foundational reality, and all incongruous with one another, and none of them feeling real or authentic to me, I was drawn repeatedly to the denouement of a story the character Lanya, and it would help me keep skipping lightly and never settling:

“But I realized something. About art. And psychiatry. They’re both self-perpetuating systems. Like religion. All three of them promise you a sense of inner worth and meaning, and spend a lot of time telling you about the suffering you have to go through to achieve it. As soon as you get a problem in any one of them, the solution it gives is always to go deeper into the same system. They’re all in rather uneasy truce with one another in what’s actually a mortal battle. Like all self-reinforcing systems. At best, each is trying to encompass the other two and define them as sub-groups. You know: religion and art are both forms of madness and madness is the realm of psychiatry. Or, art is the study and praise of man and man’s ideals, so therefore a religious experience just becomes a brutalized aesthetic response and psychiatry is just another tool for the artist to observe man and render his portraits more accurately. And the religious attitude I guess is that the other two are only useful as long as they promote the good life. At worst, they all try to destroy one another. Which is what my psychiatrist, whether he knew it or not, was trying, quite effectively, to do to my painting. I gave up psychiatry too, pretty soon. I just didn’t want to get all wound up in any systems at all.”

And, finally, Virginia Woolf makes her first appearance in our thread:

I recently discovered Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Because of this novel, more specifically because of the quoted passage below, I purchased a fancy leather-bound notebook that I try to carry with me while I’m reading so I can write down great quotes. The act of physically picking up a pen and writing down these words has been a wonderful experience for me as a reader. It has forced me to slow down and ponder what it is about what I’ve chosen to transcribe that grabbed my attention. Over time, I’ve come to realize that this notebook says a lot about not just what I read but what I find interesting, funny, insightful, beautiful, maddening. It says a lot about who I am. I don’t know if I’ll ever have it in me to write a story of my own, but I feel that this little notebook (and hopefully future notebooks if I live long enough to fill this one up) will in some strange way tell my story.

In this passage, our protagonist, Mrs. Ramsay, begins to come to terms with her sense that a friend of the family, an opium-using poet whom she generously allows to stay at her house every summer, doesn’t seem trust her:

“It injured her that he should shrink. It hurt her. And yet not cleanly, not rightly. That was what she minded… the sense she had now when Mr Carmichael shuffled past, just nodding to her question, with a book beneath his arm, in his yellow slippers, that she was suspected; and that all this desire of hers to give, to help, was vanity. For her own self-satisfaction was it that she wished so instinctively to help, to give, that people might say of her, ‘O Mrs Ramsay! dear Mrs Ramsay … Mrs Ramsay, of course!’ and need her and send for her and admire her? Was it not secretly this that she wanted, and therefore when Mr Carmichael shrank away from her, as he did at this moment, making off to some corner where he did acrostics endlessly, she did not feel merely snubbed back in her instinct, but made aware of the pettiness of some part of her, and of human relations, how flawed they are, how despicable, how self-seeking, at their best.”

Reading Your Way Through Life: More Reader Reax

by Matthew Sitman

After asking readers about the novels, poems, and short stories that have meant the most to them, the response has been so affirming – at a time when we all wonder about the future of reading, writing, and publishing, it’s good to be reminded of why those questions matter at all. Many more of you have been in touch with us since Monday, for which I’m grateful. One reader writes:

For me, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has been that understanding, consoling companion you wrote of. I came across it fresh out of high school, and I remember feeling like these little prose poems were systematically presenting all my own faults and shitty tendencies to me – but so beautifully and carefully articulated that I couldn’t help feeling proud of identifying with them. It followed me through university, across a couple continents, and it’s rare now that I go more than a month without opening the copy beside my bed, seeking comfort in its perfectly precise bittersweetness. The book opens (sort of) by evoking, then puncturing, the same nostalgic feeling I now often try to get out of rereading it:Invisible Cities

The special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman’s voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.

And it ends with what still probably amounts to the full extent of my theology:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Thanks for giving the good stuff space!

Another writes:

I love the idea of sharing favorite passages and poems. While I think the notion of consolation, that finding previously unknown common ground in the world with a person you have never met is an element of the encounter with literature, I have long been suspect of the healthiness of such experiences, whether they are “good for a person.” We often hear that reading literature is “good for you,” that it produces all sorts of desirable qualities, but this has never resonated with me. Indeed, I find it specious.

Literature is dangerous. I don’t consider it consolation but rather a deeply destabilizing experience in which my lens through which I interpret the world is disrupted, in which the safe world of understanding that I have constructed is broken into by another soul, intruded upon violently and the protective conceptual and interpretative structures I have fashioned fall away and I am left bare with nothing but the words of another beating throughout my head. I don’t think connecting with Hamlet has been “good for me.” It ripped my life apart and torched my understandings of the world. Far from leading to consolation, it made me distraught and vulnerable. This is what good literature does. This is what the communion you spoke of does.

But anyway, enough of me. On to my passage. This is a passage from Swann’s Way, Vol. 1 of In Search of Lost Time. Very few works help one “see the world with fresh eyes” quite like Proust’s masterpiece. It sets the world aflame. There are countless passages I could choose from this work – the episode of the madeleine and the description of the hawthorns stand out immediately – however, I’m going to go for Swann’s experience of hearing the “little phrase” of the (fictional) composer Vinteuil’s music.

Even when he was not thinking of the little phrase, it existed latent in his mind on the same footing as certain other notions without material equivalent, such as our notions of light, of sound, of perspective, of physical Swanns Waypleasures, the rich possessions wherewith our inner temple is diversified and adorned. Perhaps we shall lose them, perhaps they will be obliterated, if we return to nothingness. But so long as we are alive, we can no more bring ourselves to a state in which we shall not have known them than we can with regard to any material object, than we can, for example, doubt the luminosity of a lamp that has just been lit, in view of the changed aspect of everything in the room, from which even the memory of the darkness has vanished. In that way Vinteuil’s phrase, like some theme, say, in Tristan,  which represents to us also a certain emotional accretion, had espoused our mortal state, had endued a vesture of humanity that was peculiarly affection. Its destiny was linked to the future, to the reality of the human soul, of which it was one of the most special and distinctive ornaments, Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is inexistent; but if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, must be nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate. And death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable.”

This isn’t some adolescent form of death denial, of trying to make palatable the reality of the tragic circumstances of human life, nor some Malraux-esque artistic existentialism. I find in it one of the most beautiful evocations of the richness of man’s interior life and how it corresponds with the exterior, the dreams and hopes and imaginings of Swann intertwined irrevocably with a flutter of music. This is Proust at his best and what puts him up there with Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare.

 I should add that I wasn’t trying to contribute to the trope that literature is “good for you,” and I’m glad for this pushback about what kind of “communion” a reader can have with an author or text. Another reader:

Thanks for asking about favorite passages. This is from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory (which is better than most novels):

Whenever in my dreams I see the dead, they always appear silent, bothered, strangely depressed, quite unlike Speak Memorytheir dear, bright selves. I am aware of them, without any astonishment, in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence, in the house of some friend of mine they never knew. They sit apart, frowning at the floor, as if death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret. It is certainly not then—not in dreams—but when one is wide awake, at moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits, from the mast, from the past and its castle tower. And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one is looking in the right direction.

This reader revisits a favorite poem:

I too retreat into books when the world is depressing. And the world is depressing quite a bit of the time, so I am reading constantly. Recently, while working through a collection of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins, I discovered this gem:

(A nun takes the veil)

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

The peace in this poem is palpable. Yes, I have desired to go there as well.

Another shares this story:

My wife died at the age of 49 three years ago, after a long illness. I chose this poem by Pablo Neruda to be read at her funeral. We loved Neruda, and I had read to her Neruda poems when we first dated in the early 1980s. It seemed fitting to close out our relationship with Neruda. Every few months I find myself rereading it, and it brings back the moment she died with me next to her, as she softly stopped breathing, her pain and suffering finally released.  The poem has no title.

And now you’re mine. Rest with your dream in my dream.
Love and pain and work should all sleep now.
The night turns on its invisible wheels, and you are pure beside me as a sleeping amber.
No one else, Love, will sleep in my dreams. You will go, we will go together, over the waters of time.
No one else will travel through the shadows with me, only you, evergreen, ever sun, ever moon.
Your hands have already opened their delicate fists and let their soft drifting signs drop away; Your eyes closed like two gray wings, and I move
After, following the folding water you carry, that carries me away.  The night, the world, the wind spin out their destiny.
Without you, I am your dream, only that, and that is all.

Here’s our first Orwell reference:

The following passage from 1984 has stayed with me, always. A reminder that there is hope in dystopian times:

Years ago – how long was it? Seven years it must be – he had dreamed that he was walking through a pitch-dark room. And someone sitting to one side of him had said as he passed: ‘We shall meet in the place where1984 there is no darkness.’ It was said very quietly, almost casually – a statement, not a command. He had walked on without pausing. What was curious was that at the time, in the dream, the words had not made much impression on him. It was only later and by degrees that they had seemed to take on significance. He could not now remember whether it was before or after having the dream that he had seen O’Brien for the first time, nor could he remember when he had first identified the voice as O’Brien’s. But at any rate the identification existed. It was O’Brien who had spoken to him out of the dark.

Winston had never been able to feel sure – even after this morning’s flash of the eyes it was still impossible to be sure whether O’Brien was a friend or an enemy. Nor did it even seem to matter greatly. There was a link of understanding between them, more important than affection or partisanship. ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ he had said. Winston did not know what it meant, only that in some way or another it would come true.

Another reader writes:

The book I return to again and again is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. Reasons: Wallace Stegner. The opening sentence. Friendship. Madison. Battell Pond. Sally’s polio. Growing old. When I’m blue, this book just makes me feel better about life.

But there is one passage that is perhaps my most favorite, one that I return to over and over. At the end of chapter 4 in Part II, Larry and Sally are talking at the end of a day spent in the Italian countryside that featured a difficult encounter with an injured laborer.

“When you remember today, what will you remember best, the spring countryside, the company of friends, or Piero’s Christ and that workman with the mangled hand?”

She thought a minute. “All of it,” she said. “It wouldn’t be complete or real if you left out any part of it, would it?”

“Go to the head of the class,” I said.

It reminds me of Buechner’s line about how “in the last analysis, all moments are key moments.”

I was waiting for someone to mention the following story:

Joyce’s “The Dead,” and particularly that sublime final paragraph. Enough has been written about it, and I’ve no desire to earn a Poseur Alert. But I’ve always felt that our existence – its bleakness and its possibility – is perfectly captured in this word-painting’s layers of textured feeling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched the deadsleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

That Joyce paints with adverbs (softly, thickly, slowly, faintly) and adjectives (dark, mutinous, lonely, crooked, little, barren, last), which contemporary writers are instructed to avoid, is all he more remarkable and humbling. The “way it feels to be” that Joyce is evoking is nearly conjured by that list of words alone.

Another poetry selection:

It may be cliche, but the last stanza of “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold always calms me (I know it by heart):

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another!
for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Sometimes cliches exist for a reason – that Arnold poem is oft-quoted for a reason, I think. This reader offers a selection from James Baldwin:

I could have chosen from any number of novels, poems, and short stories, but today I’ll go with James Baldwin’s “Sunny’s Blues.”  Though a short story, its levels and layers of story and meaning are novelistic and stand up to – in fact, demand – multiple readings.  This is one of my favorite passages:

“Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

That passage hits me every time.

Here’s a nod to George Eliot:

This passage at the conclusion of Middlemarch repeatedly pops into my mind and each time it does, I am moved, inspired, comforted, and convicted once again:Middlemarch

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I was waiting for a Dune reference, too:

I have many favorite passages from many different books, but the following passage from Frank Herbert’s Dune has followed me since I first read the novel as a kid some 40 years ago. It has gotten me through more than one sticky situation:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

This reader is the first to mention a play, and also points to a fitting poem with which to conclude:

These lines at the very end of the play “My Dinner With Andre” have intrigued me for 30-some years now, a reminder of how easy one can miss the person – with all his or her mystery and sacredness – by getting caught up instead with that person’s label:

[P]eople hang on to these images of father, mother, husband, wife … because they seem to provide some firm ground. But there’s no wife there. What does that mean? A wife. A husband. A son. A baby holds your hands, and then suddenly there’s this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he’s gone. Where’s that son?

Also, this poem by Wendell Berry, for its soulful, anarchic in-your-facedness. These days I lean on the line “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts” like a crutch:

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

More of your selections will be posted in the days ahead. Keep them coming to

Reading Your Way Through Life: Readers Respond

by Matthew Sitman

Last night I asked readers what novels, poems, or stories have been their companions along life’s way – those texts you return to again and again, or that got you through a hard time, or helped you see life just a bit differently. The responses have been moving to read, and I was struck again and again by the beauty of what readers shared. I’m humbled and grateful. One reader wrote:

That line – “a flag planted in the dust: someone else has been here too” – immediately sent me back to one of my favorite books, Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net. As a 19 year old kid under the netreading along with the funny, confident, and adrift narrator, I was completely enthralled. I was thinking a lot about independence in those days, and friendships and relationships. I was primed for anyone who had something to say about how to relate to other people.

And then I got to this passage, and even though it was ten years ago, I remember sitting in a park, reading these lines, and chills running all over my body:

“I hate solitude, but I’m afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a cafe will provide. I have never wanted a communion of souls. It’s already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself.”

Another told this story:

This isn’t about a work of fiction, but it helped in a turbulent moment.

When I was an undergrad on 9/11/01 in New York City my Tuesday morning philosophy seminar started early. I was already at school when I learned of the plans attacking the World Trade Center. After contacting my friends who lived and worked downtown and meditationsmaking plans for them to meet me uptown to walk home across the 59th St bridge, I found myself wanting to pass the time in a more contemplative–if not relaxing–way than watching the news.

I decided to reread Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, a Stoic, philosophical treatise, written while the emperor was out on a wartime expeditions. I think Nietzsche once wrote that Stoicism is a philosophy for dire times, but times are never so dire to need Stoicism. But it seemed just right that morning.

The aphorisms certainly didn’t put me fully at ease, but Aurelius’s thoughts let me return to myself in a more composed manner. Struggling with death, with enemies, he was thinking not just about how to best understand injury and pain, but how to react to it. The opening book is dedicated to showing gratitude to his friends and family, something important when things are going terribly wrong.

But what struck me most at that moment as important and what has remained as prescient if unheeded, was his assertion that “The best way to avenge thyself is not to become like the enemy.”

A few readers noted short stories they loved. Here’s one:

A work of astonishing grace, “The Book of the Grotesque” is the most striking piece of writing I’ve ever encountered. In less than two dozen paragraphs Sherwood Anderson outlines a philosophy of belief systems, finds beauty in humanity, and paints curiously relatable portraits. So much of life in so few words. When I’m not admiring the elegance and truth within the work, I find myself relating to, amazed with, and humbled by Anderson himself. It is a poignant, self-critical short story that begs to be revisited often.

And another:

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to respond to Matthew Sitman’s post on texts that his readers cherish and return to again and again. For me, the evanescent short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, is that text. Aside from the lustrous prose, I find that its message of what we overlook when we contemplate with satisfaction our own lives, and the achievements of our society and country, is devastating, even in the remembering of the story, let alone in the moment of rereading.

Poetry, of course, was well-represented. A reader described Raymond Carver’s “Gravy” as “the poem that I come back to time and again”:

No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”

Another wrote, “You asked about words that we have carried through our lives. For me, it would have to be Whitman. He’s my go-to when life doesn’t make sense,” and went on to point to Whitman’s “Beginning My Studies”:

Beginning my studies, the first step pleased me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least animal or insect, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step awed me and pleased me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wished to go any further,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

Keep the selections coming to, I’d love to hear from more of you.

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)