The Transforming Power of a Reading Life: An Interview With Sarah Clarkson
Sarah Clarkson is a published author and a recent graduate of Oxford University, where she studied theology at Wycliffe Hall. Today, Matt Nelson catches up with Sarah to discuss her popular new book, Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life.
QUESTION: You have an impressive resume. You’re a wife, mother, published author, blogger, and regular guest on your mother’s popular podcast At Home with Sally. On top of all that, you’re a graduate of Oxford University where you studied theology at Wycliffe Hall and you are considering returning as a graduate student. Why, as an American, did you choose to study at Oxford?
On the idealistic side of things, the great heroes of my young, writerly heart were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Since they both hailed from Oxford, that city of “dreaming spires,” I yearned from earliest teenagehood to follow in their imaginative footsteps by immersing myself in the beauty and intellectual vibrancy of Oxford with its honey toned architecture and library worlds. I dreamed of going to Oxford from the time I was fifteen.
On the pragmatic side of things, that was a dream I wasn’t sure would ever come true, and didn’t until I was thirty. By the time I actually started a bachelor’s degree (I like to say I took twelve gap years), I had developed a hearty dislike for the two years of “general ed” required by most of the American degrees I considered. I was independent, passionate, and knew what I wanted to study, and Oxford’s undergraduate degree programme is focused in topic and work; you spend three years immersed in the subject of your choice, learning mostly through the practice of extensive reading and essay writing (with tutorials or lectures shaping your study, depending on your course). I love the way this method trains you to independent thought, to written excellence, to articulation of your belief. So it was a much better fit philosophically and practically for me.
And on the graced side of things, I do have to say that God was weaving a story that included my long dreams and delight in a way I still marvel to see. I came to Oxford out of a time of confusion, intending to stay one year, but I fell in love with theology and found an intellectual and spiritual belonging I had sought most of my life, not to mention the beauty that so abounds in this city. I also found and fell in love with my husband…but that’s a different story.
QUESTION: Your newly released book Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life is creating quite a buzz. Why did you write this book?
I wrote Book Girl because I believe that the reading life, an existence formed by story, enriched by great words, is a powerful and holy gift, a way of learning that I think is integral to the Christian discipleship process, but one we are swiftly losing in an age of distraction and entertainment. In 2005 I heard a compelling talk by the poet and then-chairman of the NEA Dana Gioia, in which he lamented the decline in literary reading that was taking place through every strata of American society. He argued strongly for the power of story to shape us as citizens and individuals capable of compassion, creativity, and independent thought. That was the first time I became aware of the reading life as a gift chosen for me by my parents, one I had the capacity to pass on. That talk led me into almost a decade of research and writing on the power of story to shape childhood development and identity. I wrote two books (Caught Up in a Story, Read for the Heart) on children’s literature, and in many ways Book Girl is a continuation of that theme. But Book Girl is special because it is first and foremost my own story, the account of my own reading life and the grace I have known in the company of books. As I have studied at Oxford and come alive, again, to the power of words to liven my belief and form my love, and as I have talked with friends who yearn to grow but have never considered themselves to be readers, I’ve found myself driven to find a way to pass along the great beauty of the reading life not just to children but to adults. Book Girl is my way of giving that gift again.
QUESTION: Tell us about some of your favorite books and why they were so instrumental in shaping you personally?
I like to say that Tolkien saved my faith, so I guess I’d better begin with him. In a season of suffering and depression, I encountered Tolkien’s epic as, not just a rip-roaringly good tale, but a healthful vision of agency, hope, and beauty. His work has become my long study as I have wrestled with the power of the world he presented. I’ve written several papers here at Oxford on why his narratives are so theologically compelling in their argument for hope, the way they call us to agency in our own stories, their defense of beauty (and home—ah, the “last homely house”).
Wendell Berry is also a continuing and fundamental influence. He was one of the first contemporary authors I read who explained myself to me. I knew I felt vaguely distressed by the shape of the modern world with its increasing loneliness, with its disconnection from creation and community, but he gave me the vocabulary and vision to understand the patterns of isolation and resist them with a chosen “fidelity” to people, place, and faith. His essays in The Art of the Commonplace are touchpoints of sanity, wisdom, and grace to which I return again and again. And his Hannah Coulter is a quiet masterpiece of a novel. (I used it as an example of incarnational theology for an Oxford essay!)
Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, and St. Teresa of Avila were the writers who first introduced me to the idea of the “interior life of prayer,” who taught me to yearn for quiet in a noisy world, and to work toward that centeredness of self that is a way of receiving the fullness of God’s presence.
C.S. Lewis, of course. Incisive, imaginative, profoundly human and continuously relevant to our modern world. I want to read everything he wrote.
And Elizabeth Goudge—I’ll be reading her novels on rotation until I die.
QUESTION: Books can have all sorts of effects on us intellectually. Good books propose interesting ideas, form our imagination, and renew our sense of wonder. But aside from their effect on our intellect, do you believe that books play an important role in stirring us into action?
I do, and I believe it urgently and with great passion. I am convinced that stories are integral in helping us to recognize the narrative nature of our own existence, to see ourselves as caught up in the story God himself spoke into being at creation, a story in which we have the capacity to act as heroes or heroines, villains, or fools. We are, by nature, storyformed beings (something I argue in my earlier book Caught Up in a Story), our identities profoundly shaped by the narratives we hear from our earliest years. Even if we aren’t readers, we are shaped by the narratives we believe, and our action (or lack of it) is rooted in the kind of story we have received. To be immersed in the best stories of literature and in the ultimate narrative of Scripture is to recognize two fundamental things: I was created for goodness and I have the capacity to choose, two basic truths that undergird our capacity to act in courage within the story of our own lives.
In the introduction to Book Girl I talk about these two truths as gifts I hope my baby daughter Lilian will discover as I give her the reading life. I want her to begin with beauty, with an immersion in stories that reveal the goodness of creation, the gift of existence, the possibility of fellowship and creativity because I want her to have an identity formed by beauty, by knowledge of herself as created to love. Our capacity to resist evil must be rooted in a profound knowledge of goodness as original and ultimate. But since she will live and fight and journey in the broken place of this fallen world, I want her to know that her choices actually have decisive power to restore and to heal, to participate in the renewed story told by Christ (the living Word!) in the coming of his kingdom. I think she will gain this knowledge by an encounter with the characters whose brave or truthful actions actually shape the good endings of the stories in which she finds them. I hope that in the company of Frodo and Lucy Pevensie, Anne of Green Gables, and Hermione Granger she will recognise her own capacity to fight, learn, forgive, create, and love. It’s what I hope for us all in the reading life.
QUESTION: Which book have you given most frequently as a gift to others?
I love to give Elizabeth Goudge novels (Pilgrim’s Inn, Gentian Hill, and The Scent of Water are some of my favorites). I’m a bit of a Goudge apologist as I’ve rarely encountered a novelist with so wry and humorous a grasp of human nature and so deep a sense of the way that the eternal glimmers up the stuff of the ordinary. Her writing is rich in what I have come to believe is a sacramental beauty (she grew up in cathedrals so I think her imagination was formed by those spaces). She is sometimes perceived as a prim, lady writer of the postwar period in England, but she’s a masterful narrator and in her very quiet, beautiful way, she was tackling issues like personal integrity (is truth something I make for myself or a reality outside myself to which I m formed?), postwar trauma, the power of home, the psychological need for hope, and even mental illness.
The other book I frequently give is Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle. It’s a robust, delightful, grumpy riposte to a reductionist view of the world, something I think too easily creeps even into a believer’s way of seeing creation.
QUESTION: In a world today that is riddled with sin, violence, scandal, and religious indifference, the situation can often seem hopeless. How is it that books can impart hope?
I’ll return briefly to The Lord of the Rings here. I say that Tolkien’s great work saved my faith but it did it largely by restoring my capacity to hope. When I first read that book, I was an angsty, despairing teenager wrestling with a diagnosis of OCD and my first real disillusionment both with the church (over a split in my local church) and with the God who seemed to allow my mind to be broken and my heart to grieve. I lost my capacity to grip God’s goodness, to be aware of beauty and of his presence in it. The horizons of my life seemed suddenly to shrink in discouragement and lethargy.
I began to read The Lord of the Rings in that period out of sheer boredom but into the shadowland of my mind crashed the epic of Middle-earth, with a story that set me back on my feet and told me I had a choice to make, a quest to follow, that livened me to beauty and made me hungry, with an aching, healthful yearning for a goodness I could barely name. I encountered Sam, the hobbit, who kept faith in a “light and high beauty” before which “the darkness was a small and passing thing.” I encountered the elves who gave their lives to creating and protecting realms of goodness and beauty that reflected the goodness of the edenic land from which they first came. I encountered Aragorn, the king who arrived in his war-torn city with “healing in his hands” and suddenly I could imagine Christ as that king, I could see myself as Sam, I could believe that there was a story and goodness beyond my pain, challenging me to faithful action, promising me a happy ending even if I didn’t yet know what that might mean. I looked up from The Lord of the Rings upon my own existence with eyes healed by hope.
That is the gift of great stories, and the gift of hope is, I think, a common one in some of the best epics and novels the world has seen. Such novels teach us to look beyond the evil and anger, the grief and despair of the broken world. Rowan Williams writes in his book Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, Fiction about incarnational characters, those in whose presence there is a Christ-like, incarnational renewal of possibility. They begin the story afresh when the horizons have been closed by sin or suffering. Stories with such characters confront us with that possibility again and again. As Tolkien himself said, the happy endings of fairy tales (and novels and myth and fantasy) are a kind of “evangelium” proclaiming that disaster and suffering are not our ultimate ending. Rather, they allow us to glimpse the redemption we yearn for, piercing our hearts with a “joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
QUESTION: C.S. Lewis famously remarked (reflecting on his own experience) that “a young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” It seems that the underlying principle here can be applied to any Christian man or woman. With limited time and energy, and almost unlimited great books to choose from, every book one reads should be chosen with care. Do you have a specific strategy for deciding which books you will read and when?
I do in one sense and I don’t in another, but both are purposeful choices! I do have a strategy in that I am definitely a list maker, especially when it comes to nonfiction. I have an ongoing and ever-growing list of the books I want to read to understand God and the world, a list I’ve been adding to since I was about fifteen. I’ve culled these titles from mentors, friends, from “books on books,” and authors I love, and formed the lists along the themes I want to be thinking about for the rest of my life: prayer, incarnational theology, beauty, narrative, home. So in that sense, when it comes time to choose another book, I’ve already been thinking strategically for years about the direction I want to go spiritually and intellectually and I can turn to that ongoing list for something that I know will further my learning.
But I also approach reading as an adventure, driven by the whisper of the Holy Spirit. I really believe God has brought books into my life at special times and so I’m always open to the arrival of a new book as grace. And when it comes to novels, I am both more spontaneous and choosy. I am always reading a novel. I find that I deeply need the nourishment of imaginative space, especially in the midst of study or the nitty gritty of daily life with a baby. But I’m ruthless about quitting a story that doesn’t nurture what is holy and good in my heart. That doesn’t mean I read light stories with all happy endings; it means I read stories that tell me the truth about myself and the world, revealing both my frailty as a fallen human being and my hope in the possibility of redemption, beauty, and love.
QUESTION: What advice would you give to someone who says “I’m just not a reader” or someone who would like to read but feels they do not have enough time?
In total honesty, I would say that not one of us can escape the influence of words, the formative, daily, shaping power of words (in conversation, in books, online, in Scripture) in teaching us how to view the world and ourselves. To be a reader isn’t a frivolous or optional thing in the larger scheme of personhood; rather, it is to take charge of the way that words form us. In writing Book Girl, I wanted to try to remove the somewhat specialized aura surrounding the idea of being a reader, and make it plain (and exciting) that the reading life (because it is a way of living by story and Scripture, by Psalm and poem) is open to every single person. Further, in an age dominated by information and entertainment technology, we simply have to be active, muscled participants in the cultural conversation about self and the world, and I think that means having a mind, soul, and imagination formed by great words, and a heart formed to redemptive hope by story.
As to how to make time, well, I think there are always a few penny bits of minutes we can claim, and that’s no bad place to begin with reading. I love the poem by Malcolm Guite that opens with the line, “Begin the song exactly where you are,” because the reading life is something that begins the minute you open a book, sit with a poem, read a picture book to your child, or read five minutes of a devotional. Reading is a habit and rhythm we can cultivate over time but it begins with the smallest choice just to sit for a moment in the company of a book. Don’t start by deciding to read the Western canon. Start with the novel you’ve put aside for a rainy day, with the poem you saw in a magazine, with a story for the little ones at bedtime. From those moments, those little choices, the reading life grows. And its harvest is rich.