Yesterday my most recent shipment of books from Amazon arrived at my door while I was enjoying a delightful gathering of friends for our monthly conversational salon. We were deeply engrossed in a stimulating discussion of the topic of “The Bohemians.” I hate to admit it but while we were meeting I found myself thinking from time to time about these new books that had just arrived like a message in a bottle from across the sea, and how eager I was to open the cardboard packaging they came in to explore these new invitations to wonder and reflection.
I’m one of those persons who gets as excited about receiving new books, whether in the mail or as a gift or loan from a friend, as I am about actually reading them. A new book is an undiscovered territory, whether fiction or non-fiction, and I love the experience of being repeatedly “lost and found” through the reading of books that challenge my heart and mind to look about, go within and explore new worlds.
The recent batch included:
The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Society, by Kenneth Gergen
Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, by Peter Turchi
The Sacred Depths of Nature, by Ursula Goodenough (a worldview naturalist perspective)
Nature is Enough: Religious Naturalism and the Meaning of Life, by Loyal Rue (another naturalist perspective)
Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science, by John Haught (An evolutionary pan-en-theist perspective in the tradition of Alfred North Whitehead and Teilhard de Chardin)
The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love, by Ilia Delio (Primarily an exposition of Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary pan-en-theism, along with the ideas of Whitehead, Alfred North Whitehead, Raimon Panikkar, Thomas Merton, Paul Tillich, Ken Wilber, Carter Phipps, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and others)
The Reflexive Universe: Evolution of Consciousness, by Arthur M. Young
Next week I’m expecting the arrival of four more books by the literary and social critic Terry Eagleton. I find him to be just the right mix of brilliant and provocative, insightful and iconoclastic, delighting and agitating my mind with his mixture of exposition and riposte, revelry and rant. There is no one I know who is more fun to “agree and disagree with” than Terry Eagleton. While of course it isn’t true, he appears as one of those writers who has “read everything.”
It’s obvious from this short list of “new and expected arrivals” that I’m fascinated by several primal human questions. One question is the nature of the self and the experience of “polyphrenic and multifarious consciousness” in our de-centered, dis-oriented, and post-modern society. A second question concerns the various ways in which creative writers use geographical metaphors to explain what they are doing, or what words and stories do, or how they map imagination’s forays. A third question concerns the fundamental nature of reality and a comparison of worldviews, including materialistic, mechanistic and reductive naturalism and its alternatives such as evolutionary pan-en-theism. A fourth question concerns the vocation of the literary essayist and social critics. In reading Terry Eagleton I’m interested in “why literature matters” and “how to read literature,” but also in his provcative re-assessment of Karl Marx and his Marxist critique of today’s increasingly plutocratic and exploitative corporate capitalist society. I read Lionel Trilling for some of the same reasons I read Terry Eagleton, although Trilling was a passionate moderate, a principled pragmatist, while Eagleton is a liberal socialist who thinks that real Marxism, like real Christianity, has not been “tried and found wanting” but rather “wanted by rarely tried.”
Much of the pleasure of reading writers who expound on their views with brilliance and finesse is the opportunity to observe the capacious and creative mind at work! I enjoy seeing how the best writers pose their questions, explain their problems, identity their audience, present their theses, set forth their cases, give reasons, show comparisons, offer illustrations, construct a narrative arc, celebrate their champions, critique their critics, summarize their views, and invite a response.
Whether and to what extent I agree or disagree with them on various points is not unimportant to me. But it is sometimes of secondary importance compared to the value of the journey itself into the new and uncharted territory of another person’s complex and creative mind. I don’t want to know simply “where someone else ends up in their way of thinking about life,” but how they got there. I want to know how both the tacit dimension and the explicit dimensions of knowledge and experience have influenced them.
I have come to accept the fact that when it comes to life’s most fundamental questions about the nature of reality, the nature of human nature, the meaning of life and the purpose of history, if any, there can be no universal agreement. When I read the most gifted writers I find that I may fall under their spell. It is sometimes only days or weeks after I have set their books aside, often for other books, that I am able to look at their visions, values, stories and ideas with critical detachment and relative objectivity. And often when I pick up my favorite books and authors once more I find that their intellectual luminosity and sagacious powers remain.
Such is the alchemy of words and the allure of language in the hands of true masters. Not everyone, of course, has this passionately engaged relationship with books and writers. But for those of us who have found that the discovery of good books offer portals into alternative worlds unknown, nothing is more enthralling than to be taken upon a magic carpet ride, escorted by an original and creative mind. And nothing completes our joy like sharing what we have most enjoyed and would recommend among our fellow readers.