A New Kindred Spirit: Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson

By Wednesday, December 05, 2018 , , , ,

Do you ever feel like you’ve met a new “kindred spirit,” as Anne Shirley would say, when you read a new book? It’s often a particular character of the book, but it can also be the author of the book. This week, I finished reading Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures & Transforming Power of a Reading Life. The connection I felt with the author of this book, Sarah Clarkson, is a little uncanny. I’ve often encountered authors whose words leap out at me and make me feel understood, but sometimes you come across an author that just “gets it” in a way you can’t totally explain. 

That was Sarah Clarkson and Book Girl for me. Book Girl is partly her memoir, partly her love letter to books and reading, and partly her own precious efforts to pass on the gifts that reading has given her. Whether you’re a lifelong reader, trying to find your way back into regular reading, or want to build a reading life for the first time, this book is for you. Sarah Clarkson shares her own dear reading experiences, exhorts her audience to join her in receiving the richness awaiting them in a reading life, and offers a treasure trove of book recommendations that will make bookish hearts sing. There are already way too many underlined and bookmarked pages in my copy of Book Girl to share all my favorite quotes, but here are a precious few that I’ll offer as their own endorsements. I’m so glad I read this book and know I’ll be returning to it often. Thank you, Sarah Clarkson.

On a Woman Who Reads 

“To be a book girl is to be formed by a bone-deep knowledge that goodness lies at the heart of existence. The feel of my mother’s warmth behind me as read is one of the first things I can remember – the safe anchor of her body and the music of her read-aloud voice were the ocean on which my small consciousness sailed into power through stories of music and brave maidens, feasts and castles, family and home. Before I knew how bad the world could be, I knew it was wondrously good.” 

“A woman who reads is a woman who taps in to the fundamental reality that she was created to learn, made to question, primed to grow by her interaction with words. A book girl is one who has grasped the wondrous fact that she has a mind of her own, a gift from her Creator, meant to be filled and stretched, challenged and satisfied by learning for all the days of her life.” 

“A woman who reads is a woman who has been prepared to accept the truth that beauty tells, to embrace the good news that imagination brings, the promise of joy that greets us in the happy endings or poignant insights of the novels we love. She has learned to glimpse eternity as it shimmers in story or song, to receive satisfaction of a happy ending as a promise. She has come to recognize the voice of love speaking in the language of image and imagination and to trust what it speaks as true.”

“A book girl imagines. She looks for God’s reality in the realm of story; she finds hope in beauty, grace in a fairy tale; and she revels in the crimson truth of a sunset. A woman who reads understands that symbol and image, story and song, the heft of mountains and the arc of the heavens speak to us in a language without words. A book girl knows that imagination — that faculty by which we perceive meaning beyond the mere surface of things, by which we picture and believe in 'things hoped for...not seen' (Hebrews 11:1, NASB) — is vital to faith in the God who crafted the world to tell of his presence and made us in his image as artists, storytellers, and creators.”

“A woman who reads is one who sees that every common bush is afire with God. A book girl is one who takes off her shoes, and wonders.”

“A woman who reads has learned how to hope. She understands the grief of the present – small sorrow or searing pain that it may be – is not the final word. ‘Love,’ as Chris Rice croons in his ballad, ‘has the final move,’ and the best stories teach a woman who reads how to frame her sorrow within the larger tale of both human endurance and divine redemption.”

On Imagination

“To reject image, emotion, and story as peripheral to faith is to ignore the way God created us – as beings made in his image to create in our turn, as souls capable of both reason and analysis but also equally capable of imagination, creativity, and emotion. We are living stories whose lives turn on our hope of the ultimate happy ending, and we too quickly forget the fact that faith is described as “the assurance of things hoped for” (or perhaps, imagined), “the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, NASB). We miss the reality that much of Scripture comes to us as narrative, that the Psalms are also poems, that allegory and metaphor make up much of the prophets’ writings, and that the gospel appeals to us in the form of a story. If Jesus himself used parables to illustrate and announce the coming of his Kingdom, if he felt that the tale of a prodigal son was the best way to introduce the glory of grace or that the story of a lavishly merciful Samaritan was the ideal means to speak of God’s compassion, then we, too, can embrace both story and imagination as realms in which we may encounter and know God’s own truth.”

“We grow to know God better as we encounter his reality in stories that richly image his splendor or his power or even his humble presence among us. Can imagination be false? Of course. We can be deceived in the language of story just as we can in the language of atheistic science. But we humans are not merely ‘thinking things’ (as James K.A. Smith puts it) who can survive by assenting to a list of doctrinal truths. Rather, we are ‘defined by what [we] love,’ and our loves are deeply shaped by the stories we tell, the narratives we believe.”

“That’s what works of imagination do for us every day. What we rediscover in reading them is the extraordinary nature of real life. What we reclaim is a view of the world as charged with meaning, as shot through with the truth, beauty, and wisdom that we were created to find. From the disenchantment of a materialistic or simply bored viewpoint, in which things like trees and babies, music and story have lost their power to amaze or shape us by their truth, we are startled back into a wondering engagement with reality in its fullness.”

On How Stories Shape and Teach Us

“Stories shape our existence because we recognize in a deep part of ourselves that life itself is a story. The tale of the world opens with a sort of divine ‘once upon a time’ or ‘in the beginning.’ Much of Scripture is narrative, and the Gospels are crammed full of the parables Jesus told to announce and explain the coming of His kingdom.” “We need to have our attention restored, that holy capacity to be fully present to the moment in which we find ourselves. We need to be summoned back from the many tasks we have yet to do, the endless scroll of the online world, the frantic pace that nips at our heels like a pesky dog. We need to be halted in our frenzied steps and called back to this moment in its possibility, to this day, in its shifting seasonal beauty, to this person, irreplaceably precious. The written word, the great works of literature and essay – if we will only engage them for a few moments – have the power to arrest us in this way, to demand our attention, to set us back down in the present with a quieter mind and more attentive eyes.”

“You can’t read Tolkien or C.S. Lewis or George Eliot or Chaim Potok and come to the conclusion that heroism is something like a rare gift or special talent, something rooted in the extreme effort of a single human being. When you read those authors, you quickly come to see that heroes and heroines are formed by the narratives they believe. Frodo didn’t become a hero by gritting his hobbit teeth and pumping his small muscles; rather, he glimpsed the greater story of which his small, faithful actions were part.”

“Children are small philosophers, encountering the goodness and the darkness, the joyous and the grievous in their experiences with an intensity we sometimes forget as adults. Because of this, they need stories that deal in ultimates – stories whose images make a window into all that waits beyond the walls of the world, into the love that is always present to them, even in their fear. They need fantastical tales of knights and dragons, kings and castles, epic quests and fairy-tale love. They need myth. They need fantasy, because fantastical yarns and epic tales help children to picture a happy ending, to act bravely, to believe that beauty is possible.”

“This is the ongoing and wondrous gift of all good literature. I have long argued that children cannot think in abstract terms, but I’m increasingly convinced that adults cannot either. What does it mean to be good, brave, and resourceful? We struggle to define those vague, essential ideas, but we know exactly what they look like when we see them embodied in Lucy from the Narnia books or Dorothea in Middlemarch, or described in the sparkle and wit that is the spiritual writing of G.K. Chesterton. A great book meets you in the narrative motion of your own life, showing you in vividly imagined ways exactly what it looks like to be evil or good, brave or cowardly, each of those choices shaping the happy (or tragic) ending of the stories in which they’re made.”

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