I joined a book club a few years ago and have had the privilege of discussing some pretty wonderful books with some equally wonderful women. One thing I’d noticed was that, even though we’d read the same books, we each seemed to get something different from them. It was like the issues we were personally dealing with, or had dealt with, were mirrored in how we understood the book.
The last novel we read was Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and I was half-hearted picking it up since the person I borrowed it from didn’t get through it. When I first started reading, I was angry. I really disliked it but had to keep reading because of the book club. After a hundred pages, I started skipping ahead fifty pages, then another twenty, then another fifty, and still I wasn’t impressed. Then I went to the last twenty pages and read something so shocking I figured maybe I’d give it another try. Flipping back, I realized I was so used to fast-paced plots from the movies, I was expecting the same thing from this book.
But the beauty of Bel Canto wasn’t in the plot; it was in the characters. Not a lot occurred, but so much happened. It was about a hostage taking incident in South America, and one of the hostages was a brilliantly gifted opera singer. When this woman sang, time stopped. To be in her presence as she performed was to be uplifted by the gods. In the months they were together, lives were transformed: love flowed, latent talents in both the rebels and captives blossomed, and magnificence in all forms were noticed and appreciated. Before reading this, I had never really understood the transcendent power of absolute beauty and the yearning (perhaps unconscious) we have to be in its midst. Patchett truly inspired me.
The book I’m reading for our next gathering is The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and I am so in awe of this novel too. Again, I was reluctant going in, this time thinking it was so old and outdated. But the more I read the more relevant and ominous it felt. With the gap now widening between rich and poor, and droughts more prevalent, I’m finding this book rather eerie. I’m only half way through, and what touches me profoundly is the character of these people. The times had changed and they lost their home and way of life, but still they didn’t forget what truly made a person rich: kinship. Food and shelter, no matter how meagre it was, was shared. These folks may have been dirty, but no matter what, they cared deeply for each other.
Steinbeck talked about how fear weakened people and made it easy for others to divide and conquer them. He also talked about how dangerous it was for those powers-that-be when ““I”” became ““we,”” and how with “a little multiplication” of the ““we”” most anything was possible.
Perhaps I’m understanding this from these books right now because I’m coming to recognize that no matter how much I learn, how open my mind is, without an open heart, a heart capable of nurturing and perpetuating beauty of all kinds, I will continue only to yearn for that which I seek. The clarity, the truth, the grace I have touched but cannot hold on to, happens when the wisdom in my head flows to both my heart and my hands. When I becomes we, it won’t matter what worldly limitations I may experience, for the power of my group will buoy me.
I suppose both of these novels are sort of retellings of the biblical Job story: even when everything is taken away, there’s always some form of beauty around to uplift and remind us of our true nature.
When we replaces I, our culture will have finally taken the leap to maturity. This is what the great leaders have been trying to tell us. This is what the great writers, and artists of all kinds, have been trying to show us: beauty and power from unity are at the ends of our fingertips waiting to be grasped.
The women in my book club understand this, and I am so privileged to be a part of their group.