Extraordinary praise of the Ordinary

I’ve seen movies that deliver more satisfaction in their first ten minutes than others do in their entirety. I’ll never forget my first viewing of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. (Note placement of period and quote there.) When Jock flies that plane carrying Indy (and Jock’s pet snake Reggie) into the sunset, I was ready to get up and leave the theater. I’d already gotten my money’s worth. There was more action, excitement, and fun in that segment than most films carry in their first two hours and three sequels.

Pixar’s “Up” is another perfect example. The opening is a brilliant, poignant short film in its own right that outshines (IMHO) the rest of a good movie.

You probably have a list of such favorite openers. (Feel free to mention some in the comments.) In a few of those, the rest of the movie goes nowhere. You wish you actually had gotten up and left or turned off the DVD or stopped the streaming. More often, the beginning is just a foretaste of a great cinematic experience.

That’s a whole ‘nother post. This one isn’t about movies.

There are books like that, too. In fact, there are paragraphs buried in the middle some books that are so wonderful, you could read just those words, close the book, and savor the experience. I’m reading one of those books. To be more precise, I’m rereading one.

I’ve said before in various places (here is just one such instance) that Mark Helprin is my favorite writer. I have to reread some of his prose on a regular basis. (Unfortunately, he doesn’t write books often enough to satisfy my needs. The good news is that, in researching this post, I discovered he has a new novel!) There have been days when I picked up one of his books and read a page or even a paragraph or two to be reminded what great prose sounds like. The following excerpt from his 1995 novel, “Memoir from Antproof Case”, demonstrates well his ability to capture profound truths in prose that is both poetic and humorous.

So many people spend so much time protecting themselves from the ordinary and the worn that it seems as if half the world runs on a defensive principle that robs it of the tested and the true. But if the truth is common, must it be rejected? If the ordinary is beautiful, must it be scorned? They needn’t be, and are not, by those who are free enough to see anew. The human soul itself is quite ordinary, existing by the billion, and on a crowded street you pass souls a thousand times a minute. And yet within the soul is a graceful shining song more wonderful than the stunning cathedrals that stand over the countryside unique and alone. The simple songs are the best. They last into time as inviolably as the light.

I find that passage simply stunning. It’s only a single paragraph, but the truths expressed therein are worth hours or days of meditation.

For a variety of reasons, this kind of writing is comforting, challenging, thrilling, enlightening, and depressing.

And aren’t those the reasons we read—to think and to feel?

Peace Like a River

PLARThis new blog being primarily concerned with writing, I thought I’d start with an homage to one of my favorite books, “Peace Like a River” by Leif Enger. As one reviewer put it, this book “serves as a reminder of why we read fiction to begin with.”

The reason it’s fresh on my mind is, a couple of weeks ago I finished reading it for the fourth time. It’s weird, isn’t it, to read a book more than once? When we do that, we’re doing more than searching for the end of a cracking good story. If you already know the butler did it, something else must be calling you back to a commitment as significant as reading a 300-page novel.

We read books multiple times is to drink in the prose, to spend time with old friends we know well and want to know better, whose fate (for some odd reason, which I’ll scribble about in a later post) we care about. The writing in PLaR is so vivid, so crisp, so beautifully crafted, I would regularly stop and reread a passage as if I were a sommelier tasting a fine wine; to roll it around as a delicious taste that I wanted to savor as long as possible. Or a song that never grows old.

A few such snippets of Mr. Enger’s prose, in all its glorious Midwestern resonance:

That night Swede and I lay somewhat breathless under a hill of quilts. For drafts, there was no place like August’s farmhouse; you could roast under such strata and your nose still cold as a glass knob.

There’s nothing like a good strong meter to make a poem mind its manners.

I succeeded in worrying about this escalation business for a good day and a half before worry died as usual, at the hand of routine.

Good advice is a wise man’s friend, of course; but sometimes it just flies on past, and all you can do is wave.

So thoughtlessly we sling our destinies.

Winter was a train crawling north.

I won’t pretend that reading those brief lines out of context and without knowing the narrator will drive you to the library to pick up this book. But really, if you haven’t, you ought.

The same reviewer I quoted above also said, “He’s the type of writer that other writers read, and die a little.” While I’m a writer, I can’t say I died reading it — I’m here, after all, after four passes through that would-be valley of death. — but I know (I feel) what he means: Compelling plot, musical prose, lifelike characters… Mr. Enger has them all in a way I could never attain. This is a near perfect book. Rather than depress me (OK, it does depress me a bit) it motivates me to write better. He’s set a standard I can’t even dream of achieving, but it’s best to aim high. For as Mr. Browning says, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Make of it what you will…