Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Librarian Recommends: Gilead

Karine and I started a new tradition this year for Christmas. We exchange books. Here's the exciting part: No matter what book is given, the recipient must read it. We look forward to doing this for years to come. I see it as a tradition with high comedic potential. If Karine were to give me this book, for instance, I would have to read it. I could then retaliate by giving her this.

We'll have to wait until next Christmas to see if we start punishing each other with undesirable books. This year we each picked something we thought the other would actually enjoy. Karine did a better job picking a book for me than I did for her. She chose Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.

This book is one of President Barack Obama's favorites. It's about fathers and sons, a topic close to his heart. Mine too. The novel takes the form of a collection of letters written from father to son in 1956. It's all in there: God, country, work, family, duty, history. The thing that blows me away though is the voice of the narrator, the father writing to his son. It reads like one long, beautiful prayer.

The father, a pastor, is dying. He's writing these letters to his seven year old son, so the boy can come to know him when he gets older. The pastor tells his son about the sermons sitting in boxes up in the attic of their house, forty-five years worth of carefully crafted pastoral guidance, sixy-seven thousand pages of handwritten sermons. Those sermons are his life's work. With the weight of all those words above his head, the pastor chooses very carefully what words he'll leave his son:
I don't write the way I speak. I'm afraid you would think I didn't know any better. I don't write the way I do for the pulpit, either, insofar as I can help it. That would be ridiculous, in the circumstances. I do try to write the way I think. But of course that all changes as soon as I put it into words. And the more it does seem to be my thinking, the more pulpitish is sounds, which I guess is inevitable. I will resist that inflection, nevertheless.
President Obama is absolutely right about this book. It's a treasure.

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