When I was a child my grandparents would come to visit, often at this time of year, and often arriving at night while I slept. They were retired, and always seemed schedule-less, beyond the basic schedules of grooming, coffee, meals and naps. Their days were all sabbaths, or so it seemed.
My mother would take time off from work when they came, so their gentle rhythms would, for a time, become our rhythms. When I woke, the voices coming from the kitchen were thoughtful and unhurried, filtered through chuckles and quiet pauses. I don't remember exactly what they talked about, but it seems like the topics ran more to the conceptual than the pragmatic. Politics, yes, but in broader terms. My sister and me, naturally, but about the sorts of people we were growing to be.
When we visited them it was the same, but at night, we would join them in the unfenced area between their house and those of two neighbors. We'd all set our lawn chairs under the clothes line, look up at the stars, and talk. My great uncle, who read a lot (I am getting around to talking about books), showed me constellations, and told me which stars were really planets, how unfathomably distant they all were. Curiosity and attention were my childhood luxuries, but in these slow moments, they became the order of the day.
It's not a page turner, not in the sense we usually mean. There are no heart-stopping moments, no smoking guns.
It is wondrously compelling. Reading it feels like listening to voices at the kitchen table, looking at stars with my great uncle who read a lot. Forced by an illness into an abundance of unstructured time, Bailey received a message to pass on to us, that each moment, each detail, the tiniest creature is fascinating if we take the time to look. I treasure books that remind me that time exists, and that there is enough of it to allow for curiosity and attention.
"Every few days I watered the violets from my drinking glass, and the excess water seeped into the dish beneath. This always woke the snail. It would glide to the rim of the pot and look over, slowly waving its tentacles in apparent delight, before making its way down to the dish for a drink. Sometimes it started back up, only to stop at a halfway point and go to sleep. Waking periodically, and without moving from its position, it would stretch its neck all the way down to the water and take a long drink."
Annie Dillard writes books like that. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is all the permission you will ever need to lavish time on each microbe of creation.
"It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?"
There are other books that do the same. I pulled Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea from my grandmother's bookshelf when I was twelve. A bit young, perhaps, to begin thinking what sort of adult one wants to become, but I began to think of it then.
"I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact—to borrow from the language of the saints—to live 'in grace' as much of the time as possible."
You may have noted that all these books are memoirs, not fiction, and for good reason. Fiction doesn't lend itself to leisurely exploration. Novels need things like conflict, suspense, and tension. Most readers, I'm told, skip over novels that are described as "meditative," or "contemplative." We want our stories to pull us through on a cord of anxiety. Yikes! Oh no! What will the character do now?
The only novel I know of that has managed to finesse the narrative arc in a voice straight out of those lawn chairs under the stars is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It's the reason I consider this the most perfect novel I've ever read, because its author understands so well:
"This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it."
Now please tell us about the books that have inspired you to pay attention. Extra points if that book is a novel.
We love to read what you have to say.