Monday, June 6, 2011

Destination: A New State of Mind

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…”

Other recommended reading:


  1. I just started reading Carla Neggers novels. They are great mystery books. So far I have read The Widow and The Angel. I look foward to reading more of her books.

  2. It's hard to beat a good mystery! Curious - do the Carla Neggers novels star a single character recurring as detective or are her books separate reads?

  3. Classic literature is wonderful. Much of it has a beauty to the writing and the story development that can touch us and stay with us. However, I in my experience, many people find "classics" inaccessible, unrelatable and intimidating. I think that the idea that they should be reading "those kinds of books" is one of the things that turn people off to reading.

    It's okay to pick up that paperback novel, that chick lit, that western or that beach book and have fun. Because of all the things reading should be, it should be fun. And for me waiting for Hemingway's old man to catch the blasted fish was not fun. Then again, I find Hemingway as attractive as root canal. But that's the best part about many different books.

  4. Rebecca Hollands6/08/2011 10:53 PM

    I'm with you I really don't care for the classic novels. I enjoy historic novels most of the time but sometimes it nice to pick up a paperback for a quick romance story to take me away from the every day routine. I'm glad our library system has wide selection to choose from.

  5. Bring on the books! Libraries have a great ability to serve the unique pursuits of everyone, no matter your cup-of-tea.

  6. I read one Carla Neggers book so far. The posts encourage me to try another. Any recommendations on a favorite to try?

  7. I've just finished reading Swan by Frances Mayes, who also wrote Under the Tuscan Sun. As I usually prefer faster paced, quickly read books with lots of action and/or dialogue, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Swan, GA became so real to me that I had to look it up on a map. Although there really is a Swan, GA located in the north near Blue Ridge, the fictional Swan is located in J.E.B. Stuart county in south GA.

    What happened in the story? Not much. But the characters and locations set in July, 1975 are so real to me now that I feel I would recognize them on sight. I could almost smell the flowers, feel the perspiration, and taste the iced tea.

    Although I saw the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, I've never read the book. May have to do that now.

  8. Just finished Palindrome by Stuart Woods, which largely takes place on Cumberland Island. I last visited there 17 years ago, and this book took me back, at least for a few hours! So many books, not enough time!

  9. Another "destination" novel I've read this summer is "An Irish country village." Set in the mid 1960s, this is the story of a brand new Irish doctor who's just apprenticed to an older doctor in a tiny town between Belfast and Bangor, Ireland. The story itself is interesting, but the characters in the tiny town are just delightful! Kinky, the housekeeper, O'Reilly, the older doctor whose bark is just that as his heart is as big as all out doors, Councilman Bishop, the villain in the piece, and many others are really intriguing and entertaining. And I even discovered I already knew some of the Ulster dialect!

  10. I loved reading "An Irish Country Village". There are several more in the series by Patrick Taylor. Have read one other - "An Irish Country Doctor" and thoroughly enjoyed that one. Planning to read his others. They are very comfort-type storylines - and I always want to have a nice cup of tea as I read!

  11. James W. Harris7/29/2011 3:50 PM

    For quick inspiration, in addition to the Bible, I sometimes dip into these:

    * Books by Anthony de Mello: An Indian Jesuit who wrote many books of marvelous short spiritual tales and parables, many funny, all enlightening. His work is a joy, whether read in short bites or longer reads.

    * Collections of Sufi tales compiled by Idries Shah. These are short tales and parables, often told in the form of jokes, each carrying kernels of wisdom and enlightenment. Like de Mello’s books, fun to dip into.

    * The two best, most useful self-help books I’ve ever read are Your Erroneous Zones by Wayne Dyer and How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World by Harry Browne. I’ve read them many times, and continue to learn from them, decades after first reading them.

    * H.L. Mencken is arguably the greatest American prose writer; in my opinion only his idol Mark Twain can challenge him for that honor. He is a great humorist and satirist and an incisive critic of American politics and culture. His style is electrifying: like many readers, I find that just reading a few paragraphs of him at his best is incredibly exhilarating and fills me with energy and zest. Today, alas, he is being accused of racism and anti-Semitism; I think that is nonsense, as he was actually one of the greatest champions of the rights and liberty of Jews and blacks of his time. But the argument goes on. There are many fine collections of his work. My favorite anthology of his work is The Vintage Mencken. Last year the Library of America released the massive H.L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series, a whopping 1400-plus pages which contains many of his greatest essays.

  12. I have just finished a two series books by Francine Rivers. The first was called A Mothers Hope and The second was Her Daughter's Dream. These are a must read. The books are based on the dynamic of mother daughter relationship. How tough love can prove beneficial cause they get the can do attitude. Having my own daughters i can totally realte to this series. I wanna push my daughters to be independent strong women without making them to head stung and dont know how to love or have that one on one connection with people. The book shows how faith brings them all 4 generations back together. I would highly recommend these books to anyone who loves reading people overcoming their own family dynamics and proving that love which is what they thought they were missing is actually the one thing that kept them all together.