Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Really Good Books

I realized years ago that I have a "completionist" tendency. I hate to have things be piecemeal - I like for them to be completed, tied up, with no loose ends. My bookshelves are filled with examples of this. I have an inordinate number of classics and textbooks from college that I cannot bear to part with, for fear of needing them for reference at some unknown point in my future. I have hauled some of the heavier ones through 4 different apartments, where they weren't even unboxed because I had no place to put them. But discarding them was never a consideration.

But there are books that I still reread over and over again, and those are only sensible to keep. The McCaffreys, the McKinleys, the L'Engles, the Lewises, the Austens, the Karons - I would not be able to part with any of them.

However, there is a point at which the author should stop writing. In recent years I've become convinced that most authors should never ever be allowed to write a sequel. If you think of the great classics - Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, Silas Marner - almost anything written before 1900 has no sequel (except for Louisa May Alcott, and she was an exception) and although we would dearly love to read more about beloved characters, we quite reasonably accept that there will be no more, and enough is as good as a feast.

But in this day and age, either greed or egotism seems to be triumphing over artistic sense. I can't think of a sequel to ANYTHING within memory that hasn't been a profound disappointment or at best, tepid and thinly spread. One of my favorite authors is Anne McCaffrey. Her Dragonflight fantasy series is extremely re-readable. But she needs to stop... and I wish that the last 3 or 4 books she's written in that universe could be wiped out. All of the original ideas are gone, and the images and storylines that made the first books such a pleasure to read are either beaten to death or entirely absent from her writing now. Yet still the books come, and still I buy them because I am, regretfully, a completionist.

Even Madeleine L'Engle's last few children's books have been utterly bewildering in their pointlessness. The original stories were FINISHED - and yes, I did like her characters, but she couldn't take them any further and in forcing the issue has made them entirely unrecognizable. Only the names are the same. And the same points apply to movies - George Lucas needs to be barred from a keyboard. He might have a story arc he wants to finish, but any ability he had to tell a compelling and entertaining story has entirely disappeared.

But that is a tirade for another day. I want to talk about Really Good Books, the ones you discover and obsessively collect in an effort to keep their essence always at hand. When I was young I was content with library copies of many of my favorites. But as I've grown older and those beloved books have inexplicably disappeared from my library's shelves, I have become rather obsessive about finding copies for myself so I should never be without them again. Thank God for the Internet. I have found more out-of-print books in recent years than I could have ever hoped to find a decade previously.

Gloating over my growing hoard of treasured books has made me start making lists, and I have a list that I call (like the spell in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) "For the Refreshment of the Spirit"
At Home in Mitford series by Jan Karon
Avalon by Stephen Lawhead
Enchanted April and anything by Elizabeth Von Arnim
Mrs. Miniver and anything by Jan Struther
The Darling Buds of May series by H. E. Bates
The Blue Castle and Jane of Lantern Hill by LM Montgomery
Anything by Garrison Keillor

Depending on how long it's been since I read them last, I can generally count on these books to restore peace or comfort. These are the kinds of books that make me quiet and contemplative, and make me long for heaven, I guess. They make me see something better, and more aware of how stifled and unnatural modern life can be... but not to the point that it's depressing. They make me hope, and secretly plan to move my life in a different direction someday. Granted, that different direction usually entails a 3 BR, 2 BA log house on 10 acres about 30 minutes from Nashville...

I guess the point I'm trying to make is these are books about good and beautiful things. They aren't blind to the ugly, disagreeable and painful things in life by any means... but they remind me of the beauty that our hearts long for and rarely acknowledge to anyone, least of all ourselves. We've become so accustomed to living in an ugly world with our lives wrapped up in unimportant, obsessive activities and work that most of us are just totally blind to the fact that we are meant to live a much better life, and a much happier one. These books make me hope that I will live that kind of life before I die... and that even if I don't, heaven is going to be utterly delightful.