The List – a poem for World Book Day

The List
By Naomi Shihab Nye

A man told me he had calculated
the exact number of books
he would be able to read before he died
by figuring the average number
of books he read per month
and his probable earth span,
(averaging how long
his dad and grandpa had lived,
adding on a few years since he
exercised more than they did).
Then he made a list of necessary books,
nonfiction mostly, history, philosophy,
fiction, and poetry from different time periods
so there wouldn’t be large gaps in his mind.
He had given up frivolous reading entirely.
There are only so many days.

Oh, I felt sad to hear such an organized plan.
What about the books that aren’t written yet,
the books his friends might recommend
that aren’t on the list,
the yummy magazine that might fall
into his hand at a silly moment after all?
What about the mystery search
through the delectable library shelves?
I felt the heartbeat of forgotten precious books
calling for his hand.

Reading as a lover

Woman reading a letter by Johannes Vermeer ca 1662
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter by Johannes Vermeer ca 1662

In an address to a recent seminar on teaching RE and Christianity in schools Professor David Ford draws attention to the importance of “reading religiously” by referring to these words from Paul Griffiths:

So far as I can recall, I have always been able to read, to make sense of and be excited by written things. I know, of course, that there was a time when I could not read; it’s just that I cannot remember it. But I was never taught, and have still not properly learned, how to read with careful, slow attentiveness; it is difficult for me to read with the goal of incorporating what I read, of writing it upon the pages of my memory; I find it hard to read as a lover, to caress, lick, smell, and savor the words on the page, and to return to them ever and again.

I read, instead, mostly as a consumer, someone who wants to extract what is useful or exciting or entertaining from what is read, preferably with dispatch, and then move on to something else… I’m not alone in this condition. Most academic readers are consumerist in their reading habits, and this is because they, like me, have been taught to be so and rewarded for being so.

But I’ve also spent a good portion of my life trying to understand what it means to be a Christian, as well as much time studying literary works composed by Indian Buddhists. Both of these practices have gradually led me to see that consumerist reading isn’t the only kind there is. It’s also possible to read religiously, as a lover reads, with a tensile attentiveness that wishes to linger, to prolong, to savor, and has no interest at all in the quick orgasm of consumption.

Reading religiously, I’ve come to think, is central to being religious. Losing, or never having, the ability so to read is tantamount to losing, or never having, the ability to offer a religious account of things.

Paul J Griffiths. Religious Reading. The place of reading in the practice of religion (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) pp.ix-x.

Lines of Thought

Circular Tire Tracks on Highway 9

“I really don’t see the point of reading in straight lines. We don’t think like that and we don’t live like that. Our mental processes are closer to a maze than a motorway, every turning yields another turning, not symmetrical, not obvious. Not chaos either.”

Jeanette Winterton, 2001, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Vintage – quote picked up from Friday Mailing


>Lynn Walsh blogs from Australia as a facilitator. She wonders how possible it is to enter conversations/meetings/training without an agenda, and she refers to a meeting that she had recently with people who were prepared to begin with no agenda. She refers to several resource books which have gone on my wish list because I am so intrigued and she quotes Robert Poynton:

“Improvisers … distinguish between action and activity. If someone is changed by what happens they call it action. If not, it is activity. … Embracing change in this way is not an attitude many people habitually adopt. Yet how can an organisation learn, or create action, if the people in it don’t.”


>Reading Postures

>How do you read?

R.S. Sugirtharajah in Post-Colonial Reconfigurations suggests “post-colonialism” as a reading posture – more a mental attitude than a method and “a process of cultural and discursive emancipation from all dominant structures, whether they be political, linguistic or ideological”.

Resting from my reading posture I met – by chance – someone who is producing a paper to challenge art colleges to think through their procedures which admit predominantly white (upper) middle class students.

So that’s what I call “writing with a post-colonial posture”. According to R.S. Sugirtharajah “the task of post-colonialism is to ensure that the yearnings of the poor take precedence over the interests of the affluent … and that the participation of the marginalised takes priority over the perpetuation of a system which systematically excludes them.”

Writing post-colonially from the context of Church – it means looking at Church and how the dominant structures and thinking have marginalised so many and reflecting on why it is that we are so slow in following Jesus’s “post-colonial” ministry turning his back on the dominant structures to face those cast out. When he said “You have heard it said (bad news), but I say to you (good news, alleluia!)” he was good news to the poor and the colonised.

Birds without Wings

You and I used to fancy ourselves as birds, and we were very happy even when we flapped our wings and fell down and bruised ourselves, but the truth is that we were birds without wings. You were a robin and I was a blackbird, and there were some who were eagles, or vultures, or pretty goldfinches, but none of us had wings.
For birds with wings nothing changes; they fly where they will and they know nothing about borders and their quarrels are very small.
But we are always confined to earth, no matter how much we climb to the high places and flap our arms. Because we cannot fly, we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us. Because we have no wings we are pushed into struggles and abominations that we did not seek.
conclusion of Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

>Book List

>Doing a bit reflecting in the shower I concluded that books no longer are my main source of learning. It’s probably debatable whether they ever were but the assumption was that a student needs books if s/he is going to learn. I would have to say that significant turning points – things that have set me thinking have been articles I have stumbled across on the internet and chance encounters and experiences. But books are easier to categorise – they are there on the shelf as visible reminders, and if I was to stack the ten which I think had had the most impact on me over the last ten years, these would be them:

  1. Transforming Mission by David Bosch
  2. Team Roles at Work by R Meredith Belbin
  3. Hard Times by Charles Dickens (and it only cost me a penny!)
  4. Transforming Priesthood by Robin Greenwood
  5. Ministry in Three Dimensions by Steve Croft
  6. I and Thou by Martin Buber
  7. A Sideways Look at Time by Jay Griffith
  8. Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan
  9. Being as Community by John Zizioulas
  10. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

These are books which have been memorable. Of course there are others – and I didn’t give it a great deal of thought – and I haven’t included any read in the last 12 months because it’s easy to be enthusiastic about what I’ve just read. None of them have been particulalry authoritative as once they might have been which leads me to conclude that the way we learn has changed so much and reflects our networked society – with one thing leading to another and learning being practical and contextual. Perhaps more relevant to me would be to list the 10 theories, or the ten thinkers, which have had the most impact on me – but that’s another post altogether.

Image is be Faeryan

>An old friend

>Friend Jim came by with a quote from the work of Laurens van der Post. I enjoyed his books when I read them. A lovely man, great story-teller and lover of humanity. I particulalry remember reading one of his books on a train journey at a time of bereavement, and remember noticing feeling so much better at the end of the journey. Not many writers can be so inspirational.

The quote:

Jung believed that the unique achievement of Western Europe, particularly Christian Europe, was the creation of the individual who would be sufficiently individual and integrated to take the burdens of his community and the world upon himself, to resist this collectivization of the spirit.- he goes on to say that he felt that it was the failure of this in Germany that allowed Hitler to rise to power unchallenged.

And another one from his intriguing solemn requiem (based on the Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse) by the editor of Feather Fall:

Gradually I have formed the impression, now a certainty, that Laurens van der Post is a member of a vast family which constitutes a community of spirit and heart that has existed throughout our history. Like those wells in the desert that are so difficult to find and so far apart, yet are linked beneath the ground and combine invisibly to quench one’s thirst, this vast and ever growing family of fellow-travellers is the company in which, step by step, century by century, we can all join in the ultimate quest, following the flight of the great white bird of truth, ready in heart and mind for its eventual feather fall.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence was a film based on two of Laurens’s books which describe his experience asa japanese prisoner of war where he gained a reputation for building up the morale of people of many different nationalities. here’s the trailer.


>Good authors gift us with pearls. Here are some pearls polished and presented by Timothy radcliffe from my reading today – What is the Point of being a Christian?
How about this?

  • As fish were made to swim in water, human beings were made to thrive in the truth (p121)
  • When Wittgenstein was asked how philosophers should greet each other, he replied ‘Take your time.’ (p123)
  • We come to see people as lovable because we see other people loving them. (p124)

and then Radcliffe uses this story. “one day a rabbi asked his students, ‘How can you tell that night has ended and the day is returning? One student suggested, ‘When you can see clearly that an animal in the distance is a lion and not a leopard.’ ‘No’, said the rabbi. ‘It is when you can look on the face of another person and see that woman or man is your sister or brother. Because until you are able to do so, no matter what time of day it is, it is still night.'”

>World Book Day

>When Prince Charming married Cinderella – it was World Book Day. I’ve just waved Jeanette off to her school in her Willie Wonka outfit – no doubt going to see all the oompa-lumpas. It’s World Book Day – when children will be dressing up as characters from well loved books. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody in a costume other than what that is derived from film, which shows how dependant we are on those who can visualise and transfer a character from one media to another. Some schools will be having a bookstall and some will be having authors coming into school.

I wonder what everybody will be reading today in the cafes, tubes or stretched out on the settee. One blogger, Sonya Worthy, spends her time asking people what they’re reading – her blog, People Reading, is a real celebration of books. As for me, I shall be reading more from What is the Point of being a Christian? because I promised myself that for Lent – and today I have already come across this lovely quote from Salman Rushdie’s article Is Nothing Sacred?:

I grew up kissing books and bread. In our house, whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall a chapatti … the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but also kissed, by way of apology for the act of clumsy disrespect. I was a s careless and butter-fingered as any child and, accordingly, during my childhood years, i kissed a large number of ‘slices and also my fair share of books. Devout households in India often contained, and still cotain, persons in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything. We kissed dictionaries and atlases. We kissed Enid Blyton novels and Superman comics. If i’d ever have dropped the telephone directory I’d probably have kissed that too. All this happened before I ever kissed a girl. In fact it would be true, true enough for a fiction writer, anyhow, to say that once I started kissing girls, my activities with regard to bread and books lost some of their special excitement. But one never forgets one’s first loves. Bread and books: food for the body and food for the soul – what could be more worthy of our respect, and even love?

That’s from Granta 31:1990