I don’t like to read books that are popular. I think it has to do with the fact that I am a bit of a snob. I really like the classics, and I have been know to personally describe my favorite kinds of books as “pleasantly boring.” Perhaps I feel like there is something ironically original in being an old-school, stick in the mud- if I am honest with myself this is a literary equivalent to everything hipsters are trying to do with mustaches and eyeglasses. But, if a book wins the Pulitzer Prize, I probably should check it out, even if it was a little too popular (and a little too recent) for my tastes. In an effort to open my eyes to the more current classics, I am making it a point to read some of the more recent winners.
Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and I know why. This book was in a word beautiful. Last night as I finished it, I told John that throughout the book I found myself wanting to cry, not because it was sad but just because it was so very beautiful. I tried to think of another word that could describe it, but scrumptious or gorgeous or lovely just don’t do it; it is pure, sweeping, and enveloping, but there is not one bit of flash or kitsch about it. Robinson has a way of making every idea within the book seem sacred, and her exact words make you feel you are entering into a sanctuary every time you crack the cover.
This is not a book to read quickly; it plods along and you might even admit to yourself that you are a bit bored by it, but somehow it seems so worthy and so lovely that you will want to come back to it again and again, in that way it reminded me of a devotional text more than a novel. The focus of the novel supports that description as well.
Gilead is the story of John Ames, a small town preacher well into his seventies, who marries and has a child late in life. He has been told that, due to a heart condition, he won’t live much longer, and the text of the book is compromised of a letter to his young son about what he wishes he would be around to tell him.
“I’m trying to make the best of our situation. That is, Im trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all.”
This premise could easily devolve into a mighty last will and testament or a list of platitudes, but John Ames is too aware of his own fallibility for that, so instead it is a stash of his most loved memories, often contemplated thoughts, and stories of his family. Much of it is profound, but the bits and pieces that make you smile or laugh and the simple gravity of his love for wife and son, somehow seem just as much or more important in the scheme of the story. Robinson writes John Ames in such a way that every memory and thought somehow holds an answer; I don’t think it is important to really know the questions, just that they are the kinds of questions every man and woman faces simply because we are alive.
This will not become my favorite book, but it might very well go down as one of the most beautiful I can remember. Robinson should win awards simply for the way she brings John Ames to life; if I were to meet her, I would be surprised to find she herself is not this rural, aged minister she uncovers him so subtly and so completely. Pick it up sometime, but don’t feel like you have to read right through. This one is better savored over a month or so.
Below is a passage that I read over at least five times the first time I read through it; I think it shows many of the qualities I described above.
“I remember that day in my childhood when I lay under the wagon with the other little children, watching them pull down the ruins of that Baptist church, and my father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch, and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain, I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn’t. HIs hands and his face were black with ash-he looked charred, like one of the old martyrs- and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from the inside of his shirt, and he did break it, that’s true, and gave half to me and ate the other half himself. And it truly was the bread of affliction, because everyone was poor then. There had been drought for a few years and times were hard. Through we didn’t notice it much when they were hard for everybody. And I guess that must have been why no one minded the rain. There had been so little of it. One thing I do always remember is how the women let their hair fall down and their skirts trail in the mud, even the old women, as if none of it mattered at all. And then the singing, which was very beautiful as I remember it, though I’m pretty sure it could not have been. It would just rise up with the sound of the rain. “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” All the lovely, sad old tunes. The bitterness of that morsel has meant other things to me as the years passed. I have had many occasions to reflect on it.”