Monthly Archives: July 2009

My eldest son set me a task as we were driving up to Parry Sound this past Saturday: “Dad, let’s find a salamander.”

This task, I knew, would be harder than he realized.  Though my brothers and I regularly found salamanders during the summers we spent on Manitoulin Island and in Blind River, I found the little creatures to be much less common when I went to find them as an adult, even in the same places.  We used to keep in a bucket six or eight specimens at a time of what I now think were Redback Salamanders, but I have not seen more than one of these a summer in recent years, though I am unsure whether this is due to a decline in their population or to a decrease in my patience in looking for them.

In any case, I was non-committal about our chances of finding a salamander during our stay at the lake, and my caution proved justified.  I turned countless rocks and logs, discovering more ant nests than I thought possible and a precious few worms that went to feed our catch and release fishing sessions from the end of the dock.  I also found a toad, a patch of previously unknown blueberry bushes, and several species of beetle, but no salamanders.

On the first day we were there, however, on a whim, I tossed the minnow trap into the water beside the boathouse.  It was unbaited, and I did not expect to catch anything much.  I may even have forgotten about it entirely if it had not begun to rain on our fishing yesterday afternoon.  I caught sight of the trap as we headed for shelter in the boathouse, so I decided to check it as we passed, and there, huddled against the side, was a common mudpuppy.

This was certainly not what my son had meant by a salamander, and certainly not what I had expected to find for him, but it was a very interesting creature nonetheless.  The mudpuppy is an aquatic salamander, having external gills and spending its time almost exclusively in the water.  It also grows quite large, our specimen being something like ten inches in length.  My son was overjoyed, and I was excited as well, since it was the first time I had been able to hold and examine a mudpuppy at such close quarters.

As we were releasing the salamander back into the water, I suddenly remembered a conversation that I once had with Dave Humphrey about seeing.  It occurred to me that I had been looking for something in particular, for something that I expected to find only in a certain way and in a certain place, rather than seeing what was actually there, rather than being watchful for what I might actually encounter.  Rather than allowing myself to simply explore and see what was there, and I had been looking past my surroundings in search of something that may not have been there at all.

Of course, the act of seeing may still involve rolling stones, or tossing out a minnow trap, for that matter.  It just rolls stones differently.  It rolls them, not in order to find something in particular, not in expectation, but in order to see what there might be, in wonder.  It explores rather than searches.  It attends.  It approaches.  It encounters.  It experiences.  It allows itself to be surprised.

The Jewish scriptures tell of a stone that the Israelites erected in order to memorialize a place where God had helped them overcome their enemies.  They called the stone, Ebeneezer, which means, “Thus far God has helped us,”  and I am interested in how this kind of memorial might represent a proper theology’s attempt to articulate the moment of encounter with God.  Let me outline what this might mean.

My theology needs to be, not an idol, not an altar, but an ebeneezer.  It needs to be, not an attempt to show the face of God, not an attempt to provide an adequate sacrifice to God, but a necessarily inadequate gesture which says, like Samuel, “Thus far God has helped us,” or like Jacob, “Here I wrestled with God; here I was broken; here my name was changed.”   It is not an idol to which I might scarifice nor an altar on which such a sacrifice might be made, but a marker that recalls to me the reason for my sacrifice. It does not attempt to make God present, but recalls a moment when God was present, beyond all guarantee, and anticipates the moment when God will be present again, beyond all hope, according to a promise.

Some people have taken me to task recently about what I mean exactly when I talk about reading well and about teaching good reading. Let me clarify.  What I certainly do not mean is that there is some set of essential techniques that most be followed in order to discover a text’s single proper meaning.  What I do mean is that good reading must be characterized by a certain attentiveness, a certain concern, a certain watchfulness, that it comes from an erotic  passion and a desire for the text, and that it comes to be expressed, necessarily though not essentially, through a personal practise of reading.  This practise and its techniques will not be the same from reader to reader, but they will be present in one form or another in every reader.

So, since I feel capable of speaking for nobody else, let me share my own reading practise as an example of what I mean:

First, I read with sticky notes, many sticky notes, an unhealthy number of sticky notes.  In fact, my biggest question about readers of the past has to do with how they managed to cope without sticky notes.  I use them to flag quotations that I want to take, passages that I want to engage, ideas that I want to consider, connections with other texts, possible ideas for my own writing, and anything that might relate to the rather broad set of themes and images that I track through everything that I read.

Second, I read with a commonplace book, a hardbound notebook that I use to keep track of the books that I read.  Each book gets a place on a titlepage that indicates where it can be found within the notebook.  Each book’s own section begins with the date and a full bibliographic notation.  The notes consist mostly of quotations and my own responses to them, with the relevant page numbers in the margin.

Third, I read with a scribble book, a hardbound notebook that I use to write whatever else needs to be written.  This book has no premeditated form.  It includes everything from sketches for the composter I am building for the garden or the blocks that I am making for my kids, to notes from the conversations I am having with a friend over coffee or a coworker in a meeting, to drafts of things that I am writing for this blog or for my other projects, and to just about anything else that needs a place.

Fourth, I read with a whole range of computer files.  Usually these files are about a certain topic, or theme, or image, and I copy quotations or write my own notes into them toward future projects that will probably not, but just may, achieve a polished form at some point in the future.

Fifth, I read with this blog and with letters to friends.  When something strikes my imagination, I open a new post or a new email, and I jot the beginnings of something there that might eventually become something that I send.  I often use these media for the things that I would not otherwise know where to place: an interesting but academically insignificant literary connection, a personal or emotive response to a text, or a random piece of paper that I find in a used book.

Fifth, I read most books at least twice.  On the first reading, I read the whole book, thoroughly, stopping only long enough to mark the things that I may want to read or consider or write later.  On the second reading, I return to the most significant portions of the book, copying out quotations, writing responses, scribbling, thinking, pausing, reflecting.

Sixth, I read books with friends.  This is not usually a formal process where I read a book with a friend for the purpose of sharing it, though I sometimes do this also.  It is most often a process of sharing and recommending and discussing the books that I read as they naturally become relevant in the conversations that I have every day.  It is a process of making my reading a part of my living.

This is how I read.  There is nothing essential about the techniques themselves, only about the attention and the concern that requires such techniques in order to express itself.  My practise of reading is essential only insofar as it is the form that passion for reading has come to take in my life.  Your practise will be different, of course, but I would insist on this much: that you do find for yourself some practise of reading, something that forms your reading, in order for you to read well, and so that you can say also, “This is how I read.”

I have decided to approach my Survey of English Literature II course a little differently this fall.  It will be my fourth time teaching the course, and I have already experimented with it quite heavily the past two times I have taught it, but I have never been satisfied with the degree to which it, or any of my other courses, encouraged students to learn and read and write independently.  I always felt that I was perpetuating the very kinds of educational dynamics that I find so abhorrent.

A short while ago, however, Dave Humphrey posted on modes of lecturing or, perhaps, if you will pardon the neologism, on modes of unlecturing.  He was responding to another post by Kuis von Ahn, and I will not go into the details of the discussion, but I was particularly struck by something he wrote: “Let your own students produce the things they actually want. Let them build examples needed to teach these concepts. Let them critique and collaborate on the work, improving it iteratively. And let this process of collaborative learning and teaching become what happens in the classroom.”

What Dave is describing here is far more than collaborative teaching or experiential learning or any of the other classroom techniques that come in and out of fashion.  It is an approach that puts the onus for learning entirely on the students.  The students are responsible for determining what it is that they need to learn, for how it is that they would learn this best, for how their learning might best be supplemented, and for how this learning should be shared with their peers.  The teacher, far from abdicating the role of teacher, is then forced to teach truly, to enable, facilitate, encourage, model, and provoke the process of learning that the student has chosen.

Dave and I have discussed these ideas before, and we had a chance to discuss them again shortly after he posted. During this conversation, he made several suggestions, and I suddenly realized what it was that I wanted to do with the course this year.  Let me explain.  Then you can all tell me exactly how and why it will cost me my career.

The first day of class will be much the same as any other:  introductions, administrative details, etcetera.  The second class, however, will be held at a local used bookstore, where the students will be asked to buy five books from the time period covered by the course.  These books can be of any length and of any genre and of any variety.  They need meet only a single criterion, one unilaterally enforced by myself: No crap.

The students will then be responsible to read the books, think about them, reflect on them, and then post responses to them on a group blog that I will create for the class.  They will also be asked to comment on each other’s posts.  There will be no assigned format for these posts, but they will have the same criterion as the texts: No crap.

The classes, which may or may not be held in the classroom on any given day, will be primarily constituted by discussion.  The subject of this discussion will begin with the texts that the students are reading and with the posts that they have been writing, but it need need be restricted to these things.  Like any useful discussion, it will probably range in far different directions, though I will try to keep it circulating around questions of literature as much as possible.

I will also participate in this whole process.  I will buy five books, read them, and post on them.  I will comment on other posts.  I will participate in the class discussion.  Though my participation will necessarily be different at times, because of a differential in knowledge and experience of the subject that we will be discussing, and also because my goals will consciously include those of the teacher, I hope to encourage a discussion that permits each student to take the initiative in respect to the books that he or she has chosen, rather than relying on me for direction.

My goal is simple.  It is not to train literary scholars or literary critics.  It is not to produce academics.  If it were, my approach would be worse than useless.  My goal is to provoke my students into reading, into thinking, into writing, into sharing, into conversing.  It want to model for them an approach to literature that is based on passion and desire.  I want them to encounter something, even if it is only one thing, something that they love, something that will cause them to keep picking up the books around them in the hope of finding something else that they will love.

I want to stop teaching literature.  I want to start teaching reading.

Well, since I did promise Dave Humphrey that I would provide him a list of the fifty books that I think are most relevant to our time, and since I have already dodged this request on one occasion, and since he has reminded me of this situation more than once, here, at last, with many reservations, is my list.

Reservation the First: Though I have become more aware of the art of the list since I read Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, this list will have no art whatsoever.  It will be alphabetical by author’s surname, without specific commentary of any kind.

Reservation the Second: I have not yet read very much in my life, and I can obviously draw my list only from those books that I have read, so this list will be hopelessly deficient.

Reservation the Third: I cannot possibly compare literary works with philosophical works, so I have divided the one list of fifty books into two lists of twenty-five, one for literature and one for philosophy.  I know this is arbitrary, but will do it anyway.

Reservation the Forth and Most Serious: I am still completely uncertain of the criteria that one would use to determine which books are relevant to our times or any other times, so I am not sure how useful any list of mine will actually be.

However, for Dave’s sake and for the sake of anyone else who might conceivably care, these are the fifty books that I would say are relevant to our times.

Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot
Jorge Luis Borges Ficciones
Albert Camus The Fall
Albert Camus The Plague
J. M. Coetzee Foe
Leonard Cohen Beautiful Losers
Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
Simone de Beavoir The Blood of Others
Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe
Fydor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment
Fydor Dostoevsky The Idiot
Alaxandre Dumas The Count of Monte Christo
William Faulkner As I Lay Dying
William Golding Pincher Martin
William Golding The Spire
Franz Kafka Metamorphosis
Franz Kafka The Trial
Ken Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Malcolm Lowry Under the Volcano
Dow Mossman The Stones of Summer
Gabriel Garcia Marquez A Hundred Years of Solitude
George Orwell Homage to Catalonia
Thomas Pynchon The Crying of Lot 49
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein

Gaston Bachelard The Poetics of Space
Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse
Roland Barthes Mythologies
Jean Baudrillard Simulacra and Simulation
Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project
Maurice Blanchot The Instant of my Death
Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship
Martin Buber I and Thou
Michel de Certeau The Practise of Everyday Life
Guy Debord The Society of the Spectacle
Jacques Derrida The Gift of Death
Jacques Derrida The Politics of Friendship
Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish
Michel Foucault The Archaeology of Knowledge
Rene Girard Violence and the Sacred
George Grant Philosophy in the Mass Age
Martin Heidegger On the Way to Language
Martin Heidegger Poetry, Language, Thought
Ivan Illich Deschooling Society
Ivan Illich Tools for Conviviality
Soren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling
Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity
Jean-Luc Marion God Without Being
Georges Perec The Species of Spaces
Desmond Tutu No Future Without Forgiveness

I try to refrain from sharing sentimental anecdotes about my children since these kinds of stories usually entertain only the parents themselves.  I am about to make an exception to that rule, however, so you may either humour me or find something more interesting to read.

As I was putting my eldest son to bed last night, he asked me, “Dad, can we go in a rocket sometime?”

I told him that not everyone can go up in a rocket, just astronauts.  I also told him that being an astronaut would mean lots of learning and practising and work, but that it would be an exciting job to try.  He was very quiet for a minute, so I asked him, “Would you like to be an astronaut?”

“Yes,” he told me gravely, “and Daddy too, so we can hold hands on the moon.”

I suddenly saw the two of us, hand in hand, standing in the loneliness and the darkness of space, tethered to the barren rock only by the tenuous gravity of the moon, and I could think of no better image to express the love of a father and a son.

I have some fairly large sections of Wild Carrots in the areas of my yard that are still pretending to be a lawn.  Wild Carrot is sometimes also called Queen Anne’s Lace or Bird’s Nest or Bee’s Nest or Devil’s Plague or a variety of other things, and these names are sometimes applied to other similar looking plants as well, but only the species Daucus carota is properly called Wild Carrots.   It is a very common plant in our area and is usually considered a weed because of how prolifically it seeds.

Wild Carrots are edible, though few people actually eat them, perhaps because they look similar to the poisonous Water Hemlock plant, though the roots of true Wild Carrots can easily be identified by their distinctively carrot-like smell.  Wild Carrot roots are tasty when they are young, though they get woody much sooner than their cultivated cousins.  Their leaves can be used exactly like those of cultivated carrots, as a way to add carrot flavour to a broth or a stew.  Their flowers and roots can both be used to make a tea, though there is some evidence that it interferes with the implantation of fertilized eggs in humans, so it should be avoided by women who are pregnant or who would like to become pregnant.  Their flowers also make attractive and edible garnishes for salads and other foods.

Beyond their culinary uses, wild carrots play an important function in the ecosystem, as highly nutritious food for browsing herbivores, as habitat and nourishment for butterfly larvae, and as nectar for bees.  They are also an attractive plant with large delicate white flowers that attract butterflies over a long blooming season, so they make and interesting addition to a garden, even if they are difficult to control.

Now, I have not spent all of this time describing Wild Carrots merely for the sake of information, but also for the sake of making an observation about how urban gardens have come to be cultivated.  Despite the fact that these edible, nutritious, attractive, ecologically significant plants grow easily around us, even without cultivation, we ruthlessly eliminate them whenever possible to make way for less useful and less attractive and less beneficial garden plants.  Though there is some justification for this on the basis that Wild Carrots are technically an exotic species, they are nevertheless a long naturalized species that poses no particular threat to the ecological system, to browsing livestock, or to humans.  The reason for our objection to them, the reason that we classify them as weeds, is far more based on the simple fact that they are common.

Gardening generally, and the urban garden in particular, is dominated by an obsession with the rare and a distaste for the common.  What distinguishes the expert gardener is the cultivation of plants that are rare and difficult to grow and that are uncommonly showy in their bloom or their foliage.  What reveals the poor gardener is the invasion of common local plants into the garden space.  Yet, I would suggest that rarity is not actually a very useful criterion for judging a garden or a gardener, particularly in a world that can less and less afford to spend its resources on the merely frivolous and ornamental, and in a world that must find ways to make the most of its land and its labour.

However, if we are not entirely to replace aesthetics with functionality, we will have to find ways to make the functional beautiful and ways to understand the functional as beautiful.  An essential part of this movement, in my opinion, will be to reassess the value of the common and the rare.  Rather than regarding the common as something to be eradicated in favour of the rare, we will need to regard it as beautiful precisely in its commonality.  I do not mean that we should merely let our gardens be overrun by what happens to sprout there, because this commonality would not be any more functional than rarity.  Neither do I mean that we should leave our gardens altogether without aesthetic form, because this would serve only to eliminate the essential role that the garden plays as a place between the human and the natural.  What I mean is that we need to identify and cultivate and form the very things that grow naturally around us, to recognize the beauty that is found precisely in their commonness.

Many documentaries, because of the subjects that they address, are faced with the question of how to represent the image of death in film, of how to do justice to the image of death without reducing it to an object of mere voyeurism.

I first encountered this problem in Seeing is Believing, by Peter Wintonick and Katerina Cizek, where the filmmakers were faced with the question of how to include images of a man who had been shot in the thigh and who was rapidly bleeding to death. If they showed him actually expiring in the film, how would they avoid turning the scene into a snuff video, into an exercise of fetishism and voyeurism? Their solution was to fade away from the wounded man just before the moment of his death and then to fade back to him afterward, but I am not certain that this approach is all that effective, since it still makes a fetish of the moment and the image of death, only in reverse. It refuses to show the moment of death, but only in such a way that draws attention precisely to this absence. It occludes the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer, but only in order to arrest and fix this gaze on what has been occluded.

There is a similar moment in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. The film’s protagonist and a friend have gone into the wilderness to live among the grizzlies, and they have been attacked and killed by one of the bears. Their video camera happens to be running at the time, and though it is thrown aside so that there are no images of their deaths, the camera still captures an audio record of the attack. When Herzog is presented with this audio, he appears on camera and explicitly raises the question of whether to play it for his viewers. The film then shows him listening to the audio through earphones, so that the viewers cannot listen themselves but can only watch Herzog listening to it, and then the filmmaker declares that he will not include it in the film, having piqued and then disappointed his viewers’ interest. Here, again, the moment of death is omitted, but only in such a way as to fetishise it more entirely.

Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls, which I screened at this past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc, faces a similar problem, but its solution is different and, in my estimation, more proper. The majority of the film is composed of interviews with the family members of the four young girls who were killed in a church bombing during the civil rights movement, with prominent civil rights activists who were operating in the area at the time, and with other celebrities. Lee inserts into these interviews the period footage that is relevant to them, and there comes a time when the interviews begin to discuss the physical condition of the girls when they were found dead, the wounds that they had sustained, and the process of preparing them for their funerals. The period footage that would be relevant to this discussion, however, raises once again the question of how to employ images of death. Would it be right to avoid these images entirely? Would this be a failure to confront the horror of the acts that were perpetrated? On the other hand, would it be any more right to put the images of these broken bodies on the screen as objects for the fetishising gaze of strangers?

Lee addresses this problem by including photos of the dead girls, but only very briefly. The images are introduced hardly long enough for the viewers to register what they are before the film returns to the person being interviewed. Rather than showing everything but death, and thereby fetishising death all the more, Lee shows death in a way that refuses to make it into an object of voyeurism. His approach does not shy away from the fact that these girls were broken and killed, but it refuses to dwell on this, refuses to let its viewers dwell on this, and chooses instead to emphasize how the girls are remembered by their families and friends and how they influenced the growing civil rights movement.

This, to me, is a more profound understanding of death, one that refuses either to avoid or to fetishize it, but that chooses instead to put death in its proper place in relation to the life that it follows and the memories that it precedes.

This is the fourth chapter of the Lindy novel.  I know that it has been some time since the previous instalment, but it is gardening season after all.  If you want to start from the beginning, you can find it at Chapter One.

Chapter Four:
In Which There Are Still More Surprises

Lindy remembered almost nothing about the walk to the house, but she did remember coming through the side door into a room that was just big enough to have a coat closet and a wooden shoe rack and an old hot water radiator. It was dim, but the door to the next room was ajar, and there was a light escaping warmly from around it, and with the light there came the sound of a ladle stirring and the smell of bread baking. It was all very familiar somehow. It was as though she had walked with Clinton and Morris through that little room a thousand times but was only just now remembering it, and she knew at once that whatever lay behind the door was something good and safe. The house itself seemed to tell her so.

This is why she was not surprised when Clinton wiped his feet very carefully on the mat, or when he opened the door without really touching it, or even when he began to look very unlike the Clinton that she had just met. She already knew somehow that the light from the open door would seem to burn away his very clean clothes and his very white skin and his very bald head. She already knew that the light would leave him full with a kind of glowing, as if every colour had come together to make him into something that was brighter than white and darker than black. The house whispered all these things to her, and it whispered also that there was no need for her to be afraid.

Clinton turned back to Lindy and motioned for her to follow him. His face still looked much as she remembered it, but it was different now too. It reminded her of pictures of her grandfather as a boy, where the face of the boy in the picture and the face of her grandfather looked the same and different at the same time. The new Clinton and the old one were just like that. They were the same person, but their faces were from different times and places.

Lindy started to follow the new Clinton through the door, but she suddenly remembered that Morris was behind her. Though she knew what she would find even as she turned, the sight of the new Morris was still frightening. His leather clothes had become a heavy and sagging skin that draped over his lean body, while his hands and his feet and his head had grown even larger than they had been before, as if they were meant for a taller and broader body. His face was wider too, like a frog’s, but it had a few strands of hair and a mouth filled with teeth that made him look much more fearsome than any frog. Even though Lindy knew that he was the same Morris who had been so friendly to her, she still felt a little scared.

Morris slowly reached out his huge hand, with its long nails and webbed fingers, and patted her shoulder. His new mouth widened into a smile. “It’s alright, Miss Lindy,” he said, “I wouldn’t blame you for having a good scream, ugly thing like me following behind you. Should’ve warned you, of course. Only we’re all so used to each other that we forget.”

“It’s okay,” said Lindy, though she was not quite sure that this was true. “I know you wouldn’t hurt me. The house told me so.”

“Well,” said Morris, “talking houses are a new one on me, but it’s true there’s nothing to be scared of, not here in the house. Plenty that’ll make you shake your head the first time you see it, of course, but nothing that’ll do you harm. Just don’t trust the look of things. That’s my advice. Nothing is ever what it seems to be here, not for long.”

Lindy nodded, and Morris smiled his smile. He shuffled toward the doorway where Clinton was still waiting, and Lindy followed them through the door and down a few steps into a room that she already knew would be the kitchen. It was bigger than any kitchen that she had ever seen, probably bigger than her whole house, and it was set low into the ground so that its doors were halfway up the walls with little stairways leading to them, and its windows were all very high, almost like skylights. There was a huge fireplace with a fire burning, and there were big stone ovens where the bread was baking, and there were gas stoves with pots boiling on them too, so the kitchen felt very warm indeed, but it was the comforting kind of warmth that kitchens have after a cold walk, and Lindy felt right away that she was welcome and at home. Besides the fireplace and the ovens and the stoves, there seemed to be cupboards and counters everywhere, and in the middle of everything there was a huge wooden table surrounded by mismatched chairs and benches.

The house was whispering even more clearly now that Lindy was in the kitchen, though its whispers were more like pictures than words. The pictures were of the kitchen, with its copper pans and its hanging vegetables and its steaming pots, but it was full of people too, so many people that they were often in the same places at the same times, as if she was seeing all the people who had ever been in the kitchen all together at the same moment. They were eating at the table and cooking at the stoves and working at the counters, and they all blended together, and they came and went, and their faces changed from one to another, but the kitchen stayed the same, and Lindy knew that she was in the heart of the house, where it was strongest and warmest and deepest.

Now, I have not really been describing the kitchen in the same way as Lindy saw it, because I have so far left out the one thing that she could not help but see first, even as the house was whispering to her so strongly. In the midst of that warm and fragrant kitchen, taking bread from the stone oven with a long wooden paddle, was a most singular cook. Stripped to the waist except for an apron, with thick hair curling over his back and arms, he was both very wide and very short, and Lindy would have called him a dwarf, except the house told her that he was not.

“Hello Penates,” said Morris. “Here’s our visitor. Her name is Lindy.”

“Hello Lindy,” said the cook, though he did not stop even long enough to glance at her. He kept moving from one thing to the next, dusting the fresh bread with flour, stirring something in the big pot on the hearth, cutting vegetables on the long wooden counter, and he talked as quickly as he worked. “Are you hungry? Supper’s not for a bit. Soup’s ready, though. May as well try the bread too. Never taste better than it will right now.”

Now that Penates had mentioned it, Lindy did feel a little hungry, so she said that she would love some soup and bread if that was okay, and Penates said that it would be no trouble at all. He did not seem to interrupt the flow of his work, but he quickly brought a bowl of soup and a slab of bread that were far too large for her eat by herself, and Lindy was soon relishing the tastes of thick homemade butter and warm brown bread and dark onion broth.

“Has Alaisdair returned?” asked Clinton. “It would be best if he were to take charge of our visitor himself.”

“No,” replied Penates, dicing some carrots very small. “I can’t feel him in the house. But these things can take some time. Depending what the problem is.” He turned to stir something simmering on the stove. “Morris,” he called, “get another goose from the cooler, will you? Can’t underfeed the company.”

Morris grinned and looked at Lindy. “Only come to the kitchen if you want work,” he told her. “Penates won’t let you sit around for long.”

“If you’re not eating, you should be cooking,” said Penates as he diced, and he looked up long enough to wink at Lindy, who was working her way through the soup much faster than she had expected.

“Yes, well,” said Clinton, “in any case, I will go prepare your room, Miss Lindy. Morris can escort you there when you are finished your meal. And I do apologize for bringing you in through the kitchen entrance. Things are not quite as usual around the house, and we thought it best to bring you in by the shortest way. We certainly intended no offense.”

Lindy was not actually sure why she should be offended, but she assured Clinton that she accepted his apology, and he had already left the kitchen before she realized what he meant about preparing her room. She was about to tell Morris that she did not really need to stay the night, but just then the sunlight from the high windows was shadowed, and Lindy looked up to see a flock of birds flying into the kitchen. They looked like little brown songbirds, like wrens or sparrows, but Lindy knew as soon as she saw them that there were people in the heart of them. She could already see how they would become taller and more human as they landed, with feathers for hair and with the delicate movements of birds, but with human faces and voices.

Even before they had landed, however, Lindy knew that things were not as they should be. Their flight was frantic, and their agitation became still clearer when they fluttered to the ground in a cluster around the table.

“Penates!” cried one of them, as she rushed toward the cook, “shut the house as soon as may be. Danger comes!”

“Cleanna?” the cook asked, dropping his knife in alarm, “has Alasdair sent you?”

“Yes!” the bird woman replied, still urgent. “He comes as quickly as he can, but the danger comes before. Waste not a moment.”

Penates turned, and he looked much less like a cook now and much more like a hero from one of Lindy’s storybooks, sterner and firmer. “Morris,” he said, “take Miss Lindy to her room right away. And send Clinton to me if you see him. Quickly now.” His voice was very calm, but for the first time since she had entered the house, Lindy was afraid. She did not know what there was to fear exactly, but it was enough for her that Penates and Morris and the house itself seemed suddenly alarmed. Everything was watchful now and careful, and Lindy was frightened to think that something had been able to disquiet the house so quickly. Then she found herself being picked up in Morris’ massive hands and rushed along corridors and through doorways, up staircases and across landings, but she could not see any of these things clearly. The house whispered nothing to her now, but she could sense its concern, and her own fear deepened.

At last they arrived in a small room, somewhere deep in the house, and Morris laid her on the bed. He turned to go, assuring her that he would return as soon as he could. A sudden terror went through Lindy at the thought of being left alone in the strange vastness of the house, and she started to cry out for Morris to stay with her, but she suddenly found that she could not remember what it was that she wanted to say. Her eyes closed, quite against her will, and she slept.

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Dave Humphrey recently directed me to an article in Newsweek called “What to Read Now. And Why“, which lists fifty books that, in the judgement of the author, “open a window on the times we live in.”  Dave suggested that I should create a similar list of the books that I thought were most relevant to our present time, and I began to do so until I was confronted by a consideration that I think deserves a little attention.

I would suggest that the relevance of a book to our time has much more to do with the way that it is read than with the content of the book itself.  Though some books may certainly appear to be more or less relevant for a variety of reasons, any book of any artistic or intellectual value at all should be relevant in whatever era it happens to be read.  It will only require a reader who approaches it in a way that seeks and constructs these relevant moments in the text.

What readers of our time need, therefore, is not a list of books that may or may not be most relevant to us and to our era, though I have certainly written and read such lists of recommendations.  What readers need is the ability to approach each book with the attention and the concern that is necessary to determine its relevance through their reading.  They need the time to do this.  The need the critical tools to do this.  They need an intellectual community to encourage them as they do this.

The greatest obstacle to reading in this way, however, is the very thing that prompted the Newsweek article in the first place: lack of time.  The list is necessary, the article explains, because we live “in a world with precious little time to read.”  So, rather than make the time that is proper to reading well, it becomes necessary to create a list of the best books, something that everyone can read and feel that they have done their duty, something beside which readers can put their checkmarks.  Reading becomes reduced, like so much else in our era, to doing the homework that has been assigned to us.

So, I do not intend to assign you any such homework, at least not today.  Though I have endless numbers of book that I would recommend as having influenced me personally, I will offer no titles that I think would be essentially relevant to our present time.  I will only ask that you take the time to read well, whatever it is that you read.  Read slowly, and read attentively, so that everything you read will bear upon you and on the times in which you find yourself.  This, I think, is what it means to read well.