Not long ago, several friends — the most kindred of kindred spirits — read Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson. Unanimously, they acclaimed and recommended it.
At various times and with various words, they repeated, “Tina! You must read this book! You would love it!”
As I sometimes do, however, I grew contrary. I did what we are universally told not to do and judged the book by its cover.
“Book Girl!” I scoffed. “I’m not going to read that book. I could write that book!”
Then, I discovered Sarah Clarkson’s voice in The Life-Giving Home. In that book, with evident humility and sincerity, she pours out purity and profundity like fresh water. She seemed destined to be a friendly author, after all.
In Book Girl, she’s like sparkling water — still pure, still profound, but even more delightful. As she writes about her beloved books, she kindles to her subject with a warmth fellow bibliophiles will understand and appreciate, even as she invites new readers into her library with a personal friendliness that not all of us could muster.
In chapters that state their theses, she delves into a wide range of important and relevant ideas about books with admirable equanimity, but her tone appropriately and deftly shifts with the varying worth of the ideas she sifts: Books can broaden your world, shape your story, stir you to action, cultivate the imagination, foster community, open your eyes to wonder, deepen your soul, and impart hope. At times, she speaks with unbridled and easy enthusiasm and joy; at other times, she adopts a calm and consoling tenor, offering hard-won optimism to fellow readers who have struggled — as she has — to maintain faith and hope in the goodness of God, the meaning of life, and the beauty of the world.
In her chapter on the cultivation of the imagination, Clarkson gives to every anxious reader of good literature a great gift: an unapologetic apologetic for the sacred worth of a story. Admitting that she, like many others, has occasionally been suspicious of the deep spiritual comfort of a story and consequently tempted to abandon literature as a path to a deeper understanding of God, she writes:
But this is a profoundly un-Christian view of faith and personhood. 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 a 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 the 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.
She cites C.S. Lewis’ essay called “Meditation in a Toolshed” as pivotal to her understanding of how the imagination works: If a sunbeam strikes us as we stand in a shed, we can understand the beam in two ways … We can observe the beam from outside of it or we can stand inside it and look along it.
“And here’s the key,” Clarkson concludes, “The joy and assurance we find in reading a story is an instant when we know the truth from the inside.”
She acknowledges that imagination can lead us astray, that “we can be deceived in the language of a 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.
Clarkson’s confidence — especially for those of us inclined to second-guess ourselves at every turn — is catching. (Her confidence is striking not only in this instance, but also in her bold reviews of still-living, much-revered authors older than she. She disagrees openly with Michael O’Brien; she labels the matchless Anthony Esolen “grumpy.”)
Along the way, Clarkson proffers more than 20 book lists that amount to hundreds of book recommendations. Because I’ve read many of the books she favors, reading her mini-reviews was like paging through an old photo album, remembering and rediscovering old friends. She never mentions Betsy-Tacy, but her panegyric of Anne of Green Gables was achingly relatable.
Among other reasons, because I have also not read many of the books she acclaims, I most decidedly could not have written this book — and that was a beautifully humbling revelation, for, while books can foster community and while it is true that “there are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books” as Clarkson quotes Irving Stone, it is equally true that we walk our literary pilgrimages solo for much of the time.
Even in the most unburdened life, says art critic Jay Nordlinger, one never has enough time to read as much as one wants. What joy it is, then, to read vicariously through Sarah Clarkson! If we truly love books, knowing other readers are loving other books ought to fill us with a peace and gratitude almost as profound as the knowledge that other mamas are loving other babies. And so this book did.
*One tiny criticism: Clarkson clearly loves the word “afresh” (thus the title of my review) and uses it initially to striking purpose, but eventually so much as to distract. I couldn’t help wishing her editor would have struck it a time or two, as most of the sentences would have stood effectively without it!
If you like this book, you might like:
“The Life-Giving Home” by Sally and Sarah Clarkson
“Tending the Heart of Virtue” by Vigen Guroian
“How to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child” by Anthony Esolen