To most library lovers, picking up a good book is like taking a mini vacation. Given the seemingly rare time to freely do as we please – the typical holiday, the weekend, or the few precious minutes amid our hectic days and nights - we hungry bookworms delve into our favorite reading material with gusto, hoping to be transported away, if only momentarily, to the rich world of our unique interests and imaginings. The concepts of book and break are almost one and the same. Whether cruising the waters of the Pacific or lounging in the backyard lawn chair, by bringing our books along, we double our experience; by reading, we take a vacation within a vacation. And the rewards for picking up that book are matchless.
For this book junkie, the measure of a good book (and a good vacation for that matter), depends less upon the setting and time, and more upon the state of mind in which it places me during and after the turning of pages. The following righteous reads, both fiction and nonfiction, transcend time and place, and carry my hurried, anxious mind steadily and mercifully to a more relaxed, open, and peaceful point of understanding within myself. As I emerge from their pages, I find I have changed or grown as a person in a way, and it is certainly most fulfilling.
I often reach for "Iron John: A Book About Men" by the poet and activist Robert Bly. Based on the Grimm brother’s fairy tale by the same name, Iron John is a hearty exploration of the development and meaning of manhood in contemporary American society. According to the Grimm’s tale, something strange has been happening around a remote pond in the forest near the King’s Castle – when people go there, they don’t come back. One day a young boy asks the King if he can help, and upon arriving at the place, what he finds at the bottom of the pond, oddly enough, is a large man covered with hair the “color of rusty iron” from head to toe. According to the author, this mysterious man represents the true, positive masculine psyche in every man. Mr. Bly examines both boy and hairy “wild man,” likening their relationship to an initiation into manhood, given from father to son. The exceptional splendor of the book is evident in the author’s personal poetry interspersed throughout, powerful poems that tap into the ancient, almost spiritual roots of the “man” inside all males. All in all, this is a healing, uplifting read.
Another book that challenges my perspective and shapes my mind in a beneficial way is "Steps on the Path to Enlightenment" by the Buddhist monk and scholar Geshe Lhundub Sopa. The word “Geshe” refers to one of the highest academic degrees in Tibetan Buddhism and is roughly equivalent to a doctorate degree in the western world. Geshe Sopa’s brilliant book is an exposition of a 14th century text on Buddhist philosophy, "The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment" by Je Tsongkhapa. In the foreword to Sopa’s book, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, himself the highest authority on Buddhist thought today, writes that the primary goal of these writings is “to discipline and transform the mind.” What I enjoy about this book is both the clear, systematic presentation of the Buddhist path and the authoritative nature of both the author and the text. Geshe Sopa was one of the Dalai Lama’s personal debate partners in their lengthy education as monks, and the text itself is still prominently used in Tibetan Buddhist training today, not only for monks and nuns, but for lay people as well.
My favorite book to date, one that strangely settles my mind instantly and peacefully upon reading only a few lines, is John Steinbeck’s novella, "The Pearl." Based on a Mexican folk tale, it is the story of pearl fisherman, Kino, his loving wife Juana, and their infant boy, Coyotito. Kino and his family lead a meager life on the colorful shores of the Gulf. One morning, Coyotito is bitten by a scorpion and falls deathly ill. Kino must quickly find payment for medical treatment for his only child, and so he dives deep into the dark ocean waters and, fatefully, unearths an exceptionally large pearl, “perfect as the moon,” one that he is certain will pay for help for his sickly son and fulfill his dreams of a better life for his modest family. But in this deceptively simple story, things aren’t always what they seem. What follows is a parable rich in meaning and delivered with Steinbeck’s keen perception into the intricacies of human nature. The story’s pacing and the author’s descriptive language are fresh, alive, and almost meditative, beckoning the reader to heed the life lessons contained within. As Mr. Steinbeck writes in the opening lines, “If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it. In any case, they say in the town that…”
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