When the four books by Madeleine L’Engle were personally recommended to me by staff at a second-hand bookstore I often frequented, I was dubious.
I’d been on the search for anything essay-ish and already had a sizable stack (there must have been a major sale on or else store credit I needed to use up), but these four ‘Crosswicks Journals’ with their watercolour covers and sedate titles were just not going to cut it for me.
I can understand that a writer cannot necessary control what kind of cover is slapped on a book; she may not even have a say in the matter. But she does, at least, have a say about its title, and A Circle of Quiet, the first in the series, didn’t sound like a “journal” I wanted to read. Its cover featured a gentle stream lined with tress, a little house in the background. It looked peaceful, calm, and boring.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy both the country and the quiet, and wish I could get away more. I just have this resistance (perhaps irrational) to read about it, perhaps because I assume there will be little engagement involved.
Granted, the prose might end up being beautiful, but there would be no substance to a book like this – nothing to sink my teeth into. And if you’re like me and in the mood for essays, it’s usually a craving of the intelligent, not for the aesthetic.
For a reason I do not now recall (maybe I didn’t want to offend the otherwise literary sensitive and well-informed staff), I bought the four books anyway. They have been relegated to a second-rate status on my bookshelves ever since, and tend to end up in whatever space is left over (I would not, for instance, have incorporated them into my creative nonfiction section – they hadn’t earned that privilege). And so they’ve been shuffled around, categorically orphaned and left wholly unread.
Now, after years of waiting, they finally have their moment.
I was recently putting my books back on their shelves (after creating the intricate feature photo for On Finding and / or Breaking Patterns and Writing Essays), when I re-found the four ‘Crosswicks Journals,’ and paused over them as I considered where to put them this time. So I left them on my desk for a few days to try and decide, and it was there that a happy coincidence lead me to read one.
I’d been considering reading more books about nature and was also in the middle of re-reading Walden, which I was pleased to find was full of insight, and I thought, well, why not? I might as well crack one of these open and at least give them half a chance.
I was almost immediately delighted, pleasantly surprised. This was not going to be a sleepy story of journal entry after entry, after all (although I do enjoy reading journals, too – you see the irrationality?). Rather, it was an intricate essay, or series of essays, laced with memoir.
Madeleine L’Engle, perhaps most famous for A Wrinkle in Time, writes in A Circle of Quiet about her time at Crosswicks, a summer home which she also lived in year round for a time with her husband Hugh and their children.
The book turned out not to be the “ideal” vision I thought it would, for on the second page, she writes, “The sight of a meal’s worth of dirty dishes, pots, and pans makes me want to run in the other direction. Every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away from everybody — away from all these people I love most in the world — in order to regain a sense of proportion.” It was this unexpected passage, early on, that I knew I was going to like this book (though part of me feels slightly guilty for admitting this).
L’Engle would slip away to a “a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings.” As a fifty-one year old woman, she’d dangle her legs over the brook, to let “things slowly come back into perspective. If the insects are biting me — and they usually are; no place is quite perfect — I use the pliable branch of a shad blow tree as a fan.” The unexpectedness, the realism, and her humour are carried on throughout the book. I would expect this is the case because they are not something she has added to her writing: they are just apart of her.
She writes not only about Crosswicks, but her varying roles of writer, wife, mother, and housewife — not necessarily in that order — “it’s amazing what passing the half-century mark does to free one to be eccentric.” She finds and shares the humour in each of these roles. Several times while reading, I’ve involuntarily burst out laughing. For instance, this passage:
“All during the decade of my thirties . . . I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn’t like a good New England housewife and mother. When I scrubbed the kitchen floor, the family cheered. I couldn’t make a decent pie crust. . . . And with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.
So the rejection on the fortieth birthday seemed an unmistakable command: Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie.
I covered the typewriter in a great gesture of renunciation. Then I walked around and around the room, bawling my head off. I was totally, unutterably miserable.”
But it is more than a rumination about her roles; rather, she weaves who she is into the passages. This is in a large way represented by her consideration of words, especially one which she introduces early on and returns to again and again to consider what it means in life, and in hers specifically: “Ontology: the word about the essence of things; the word about being.” From the experience represented in passage quoted above, L’Engle realizes that she “had to write.” It was part of who she was.
Much of the book is framed, not the place of Crosswicks, but by her considerations of larger questions about being, about God, about joy, about mirrored selves, about icons, about creativity, and about other unanswerable questions that her writing seminar students always seem to ask her. Indeed, her creative writing seminars themselves, and the interactions she has with the students in them, are essential components of this book: they offer the vehicle for the kind of considerations that she wants to explore, the kind I wanted to read when I went searching for books of essays.
And so, before I had even reached page 50, I was experiencing the pangs of regret that the book would at some point end. (That’s when I comforted myself with the fact that there were three more books following in the “Crosswicks” series). I found myself writing on the front flyleaf of my book in pencil my candid responses to it: “Irresistible!” and “delightfully playful” as though my own New York Times review. It was also hilarious, polished, poignantly funny.
What I appreciated most in this book was what she wrote about writing. I have so many passages and one-liners underlined that once I copy them all into my Commonplace Book, it might be bordering on full. Things like:
“A writer may be self-conscious about his work before and after but not during the writing.”
“I’ve noticed in many of my favourite novels that the minor characters are more minutely described, much more physical detail is given about them, than about the hero.”
“I don’t believe that we can write any kind of story without including, whether we intend to or not, our response to the world around us.”
Not only does she write about Crosswicks, but also, surprisingly to me, about her running the local General Store for several years that she and her husband bought; and about conducting the local parish choir, and her deep devotion to role, even as a self-proclaimed agnostic (her wrestling with and complication of her faith is also a significant consideration in her book).
The only point which dampened my enjoyment of the book was to read an uncharacteristically and predominantly narrative portion of the book (most of the movement in the book is through ideas) about a certain family that had moved into the area, their displays of arrogance, the village’s unfriendliness towards them, and a near tragedy. The story was captivating, but I do not think it warranted that which followed: an admission from L’Engle that parts of it were largely fabricated: that is, that there was not a family by that name, that the near tragedy didn’t happen in quite the same way; essentially, that many of the particular details she included in the telling of it were, for all intents and purposes, made up.
As a reader of creative nonfiction, I felt like she violated one of its important pillars, and I found myself feeling tricked, and wondered what other parts of this book were likewise not quite true. (It’s not unlike some of the discussion in the comments for my post This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.) Her purpose in it was, I think twofold 1) to demonstrate that “truth” is not simply the facts — that there is emotional truth, even to fiction and 2) that this is often how she writes her fiction: she does not pay attention or is even aware what is based on events that happened to her, and what has been made up. I could see her point. But still, I would have preferred she told the reader on the outset that parts of what followed were based on some truth, but that it was not a narrative that had happened in real life.
But it wasn’t enough to sway me from the book. I was surprised to find that the time span was also after her living at Crosswicks as well: it included her time living in New York, and working in the Cathedral library and directing a Christmas play with her husband for the private school they sent their children to. And the entire piece enjoys the fluid movement of time, with flashbacks and flash forwards. Chronology is not important (except as a discussion point); any events that are recounted are to move the ideas along, not some narrative or even chronology. In brief, this book covered a lot more breadth and depth in thinking than I could have expected from a book with its title.
I’ve also recently tried to write my own medetative piece about the country. But it was also about the consideration of memories — my own in wintertime –, and why we resist approaching them from a present-day standpoint. Against Retrospection and Change was very different from anything else I’ve published on this blog, and it was largely overlooked, the least clicked on. Did I mess up with its title? Probably. Had I called it something that sounded more captivating, more engaging, it would have done better, I tell myself. Or, if I had somehow made it clear it wasn’t just boring.
Several years ago, I judged a book by its title; now I’ve seemingly been judged by the title of that post.
The staff at the bookstore was right about the Crosswicks journals (though why market them as “journals” when they were nothing of the kind, I don’t know). I think it rather remarkable that I found I loved the book I already owned but had had no intention of reading. It was an unexpected joy,
And so, from a book that’s all about asking the hard questions, I leave a challenge based on what I have learned: go ahead, and click on that blog post you think sounds boring. Pick up that boring looking book, buy it even, put it on your shelf for a few years. You may pick it up some day and be pleasantly surprised.
Question: What book(s) or other writing have you read that you thought would be boring but exceeded your expectations?