2021 Themed Reading: World Religions

As you might know, every year I try to read a substantial number of works from within a particular genre, category, or what have you. This year, for example, I focused a lot of my attention on Southeast Asian literature and on poetry (often a combination of those two). Next year, I will be focusing on world religions. I have chosen 6 texts in particular that I plan to explore, and I would love to invite you all to join me in a read-along for one or more, or all, of them, as your interest and schedule dictate. 

The books:

  1. JANUARY: TAO TE CHING: This Chinese text is known as “the original book of mindfulness.” What better way to begin a new year than to focus on being mindful and present? The Tao Te Ching dates back to the 6th-Century BC and is purportedly written by a sage named Laozi, though this is debated. The oldest dated portion, however, does indeed date back as far as the 4th century BC. The Tao is one of the fundamental texts of Taoism, which is both a religious and philosophical practice that focuses on “The Way,” or the essential process of the universe (and our individual place in it.) Taoism influenced Legalism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, so it seems an added bonus to start here, since the second text of the year will be a collection of Buddhist Scriptures. I will be reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation, New English Version, published by Harper Perennial. ISBN: 9780061142666.
  2. FEBRUARY-APRIL: BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES: Buddhism has no central text comparable to the Bible or Koran; however, there is a body of scripture from across Asia that encompasses the dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. These teachings range from original works in Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Pali, and more. Often, they describe elements of the Buddha’s supposed origin story or of his past lives, including explorations on the qualities or qualifications of the bodhisattva, or person who attains enlightenment, including, for example Buddhist monks. Enlightenment itself is also a subject of the scriptures. The edition I’ve chosen is the Penguin Classics, edited by Donald S. Lopez. It covers all these topics through historical and geographical lenses. ISBN: 9780140447583.
  3. MAY: THE HOLY VEDAS: According to Pandit Satyakam Vidyalankar, “The four Vedas contain the divine, infallible knowledge revealed to those primal men whose soul was specially illuminated to by the grace of god to receive and impart humanity the words of almighty god.” The Vedas of Hinduism are the sacred heritage of India. In this book an attempt has been made to bring together representative hymns which encompass all the aspects enshrined in the Vedas. The author has tried to retain the spirit of the original Sanskrit mantras in English renderings and to impart some of the holy ambience of these sacred texts which are the fountainhead of Hindu philosophy and culture.” I am using the illustrated, versified edition from Clarion books, which I recognize is not directly translated and which, apparently, intermixes the four Vedas for the benefit of western audiences. It seems a good place to start. ISBN: 9788193935590.
  4. JUNE-AUGUST: THE TALMUD: One of the most significant religious texts in the world, The Talmud is a compilation of the teachings of major Jewish scholars from the classic period of rabbinic Judaism. In a range of styles, including commentary, parables, proverbs, and anecdotes, it provides guidance on all aspects of everyday life. The edition I have chosen is another from Penguin Classics (because I trust them.) According to the description, this is a selection of the Talmud’s most illuminating passages. It is intended to make centuries of Jewish thought accessible to modern (western) readers. Particularly helpful, I think, will be the introduction that includes information about The Talmud’s arrangement, social and historical background, reception, and authors. ISBN: 9780141441788.
  5. SEPTEMBER: RELIGION FOR ATHEISTS: What if religions are neither all true or all nonsense? The debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is the starting point for de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. The quest begins with the premise that supernatural claims of religion are false – and yet that religions still have some very important things to teach the secular world. Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. The major topics range from building a sense of community without a church, to the spirituality of travel, to finding purpose in art, architecture, and music. The edition I’m using is published by Vintage. ISBN: 9780307476821.
  6. OCTOBER-DECEMBER: THE QUR’AN: The final text of the year will be the foundational text of Islam and the one most important to the Muslim world, The Qur’an. I’ve chosen the Oxford World’s Classics latest edition, translated by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, as it comes with high recommendations for its accuracy and ease of reading. In this edition, for example, dialogue addressed to the Prophet is identified to aid western readers, paragraphing and punctuation have been included, and verses are marked for reference but in superscript, which allows for uninterrupted reading. This edition’s introduction also provides a history of the Qur’an, including its important features, to aid understanding. ISBN: 9780199535958.

As you can see, three texts are scheduled in single-months, while the other three are scheduled over three months. This is because, upon examination (and in simple page length), three of them are rather short and seem to require much less time, while the other three are longer and more complex. I wanted to be sure to give myself (and anyone joining me) enough time to spend with those more complicated texts. I’ll likely be doing some secondary source reading as well, to help me understand what I’m reading, just as I’ve done when reading the Christian bible, for example. 

I’m very much looking forward to reading these important voices across disparate religions and non-religions alike. I’m going to do my best to treat each text fairly and delicately, and to avoid any offense as I communicate my thoughts about them. That said, I should also explain that I’ll be reading these texts as literature and philosophy rather than taking any religious perspective on/from them.

As to the reading itself, I have no plan, yet, to compare and contrast them, but instead think I’ll take each of them at a time and see what happens as I go along. Who knows, by mid-year I might start synthesizing as my reading, and the ideas borne of it, progresses. 

Care to join me? 

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

To begin, I’m not much a fan of Henry James’s writing. He’s verbose, long-winded, and indulgent in a way that irks me. This is not especially unusual in Victorian fiction, to be fair. I often have to remind my students, when we’re reading classic literature, that, well, this was the entertainment of the day.

Verisimilitude and detail and heightened realism were not just expected in the form, but desired, because quite frankly there wasn’t much else for most people to do; certainly there might have been concerts or opera, but even those were reserved primarily for the wealthy or for special occasions, not the way we might put on a movie or pop in a video game (or I suppose, “stream” a movie and “download” a video game is more appropriate, now). So, in a world with very little competition for entertainment and past-time, novels had little competition and could be–maybe even should be–as full an experience as possible. But, honestly, just look at this opening line:

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” 

I’m exhausted already! 

Still, Henry James has always just rubbed me the wrong way. As one of American literatures giants, and a closeted homosexual one at that, I know I should be championing him, but alas, if I never read him again, I won’t cry over it. (But of course I’ll read him again.) That said, while I didn’t exactly enjoy The Turn of the Screw, even finding I had to force myself through it at times, which is odd for me in general, especially with such a short work, there are some reasons to appreciate it. 

In the first place, the novel is billed as a ghost story, but it’s really a much more complex plot than that, littered with complicated themes about sexuality and perhaps abuse. The ghosts in this novel are, I think, either psychological remnants of a particular kind of hell that little Miles suffered, or they are projections of Miles and the Governess’s own sexualities, what at the time would have been classified as deviancy. In this way, the book is far superior to this year’s Netflix adaptation, which followed the enormously successful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

Where Netflix got it absolutely right with Jackson was in keeping true to the general tone and atmosphere of the original work, even while modernizing the story. At the height of Hill House are issues of gender, sexuality, and mental health. Those same themes are at the heart of the Netflix adaptation; so while the adaptation is a “loose” one, sharing some character names and relationships, for example, but otherwise straying from the original plot, the general feeling of it is spot on: Eerie, confusing, beautiful. The adaptation for Haunting of Bly Manor attempts to do the same, but where they update the story, they fail spectacularly. Rather than eliminating the purely supernatural antagonist (as Hill House does), they take what is actually not supernatural in the book, and add it to the film adaptation. This leaves out the true horror of the original text, the confusion at its core, and makes for a weaker interpretation. It’s a lazy bogeyman that the story simply didn’t need. 

So, I suppose that it’s a good thing I read the book just prior to watching the Netflix adaptation, because the adaptation makes me appreciate the original work much more than I would have. The main issue this short novel deals with–homosexuality (and perhaps a bit of feminism dashed in)–is an incredibly daring one at the time. I’m not sure how many readers would have grasped what James was getting at, though certainly early reviewers made it clear that they knew exactly what the subject was, and they were horrified by it. “In proper society…” blah blah blah. In that case, maybe this is a classic horror novel, and a damn good one at that. After all, it certainly jarred its original audiences. For contemporary readers, it might fall just a bit flatter, but the main questions, and especially the last few pages, are stupendous. 

Confession time? I read this little book more than a month ago, and here I am now, still thinking of it and sitting to write about it. If that’s not the sign of something, I don’t know what is. “No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!”

Notable Quotes

“He had broken a thickness of ice, the formation of many a winter; had had his reasons for a long silence.” 

“Of course I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that, even at the time, I perfectly knew I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an antidote to any pain, and I had more pains than one.”

“The summer had turned, the summer had gone; the autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. The place, with its gray sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theater after the performance–all strewn with crumpled playbills.”

“I call it relief, though it was only the relief that a snap brings to a strain or the burst of a thunderstorm to a day of suffocation. It was at least change, and it came with a rush.”

“I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his perhaps being innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?”

 

 

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

While I was reading Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, which is labeled “Fiction” on its back cover, someone told me, “Oh, that’s a memoir!” To which I responded, “you’re full of sh*t!” Or something more delicate and intellectual, if you’d prefer to think of me that way.

In any case, I found it hard to believe. But I took it upon myself to do a little bit more research about the book, and it is actually considered an “autobiographical novel.” We describe those in a variety of ways, but I think creative memoir works. After all, it is based on Duras’s real life, real childhood, real family, and real events. And yes, her real lover. It’s just told in such a dreamy, disconnected, modernist way, that it’s impossible to read it like a memoir unless you’re really trying.

The memoir begins this way: “I often think of the image only I can see now, and of which I’ve never spoken. It’s always there, in the same silence, amazing. It’s the only image of myself I like, the only one in which I recognize myself, in which I delight” (3-4). Duras is referring to the mental image of herself as a young girl–fifteen and a half–standing on a ferry that’s crossing the Mekong River. She’s writing about this image from her perspective as a much older woman, aged somewhere around seventy. And yet it is this single image that informs the entire memoir, because it sits squarely atop the moment she comes of age. Everything prior to this image is innocence, and everything after it, experience.

In episodic, atmospheric descriptions, Duras recounts her relationship with her family, strange and tragic, and with her first lover, a much older Chinese man. Throughout, she constantly belittles his appearance, his weakness and femininity, in stark contrast to the presence of her older brother, whom is the exact opposite. There’s a severe danger alluded to in her relationship with her brother, and his dominance over her, even when her much older lover is in the room, is bizarre and unsettling. It becomes clear that this has affected her deeply, including the way she sees herself, her place in the world, and everything that happens or anyone else she meets.

Often throughout the retelling, Duras seems to interrupt the past moments with insight from her current perspective as someone much older and experienced. There’s a lingering longing in these confessional interjections, as well as some chastisement. I sometimes wondered just how much of young Duras was truly aware of what she was doing, and how much of it was influenced by the fact that Duras is writing about these experiences in retrospect. The non-linear narrative and the coy, curious way she unravels the events of this part of her life, make it difficult to find the boundaries between past and present, youth and age, fact and fiction.

Ultimately, this is one of the more interesting memoirs, or “autobiographical novels,” that I’ve ever read, but it requires, I think, at least two reads to really understand what she’s doing here. I almost want to assign this one to my students to see what happens.

Notable Quotes
“I wanted to kill–my elder brother, I wanted to kill him, to get the better of him for once, just once, and see him die. I wanted to do it to remove from my mother’s sight the object of her love . . . to punish her for loving him so much, so badly” (7).

“Drink accomplished what God did not” (9).

“I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door” (25).

“The way my elder brother treats my lover, not speaking to him, ignoring him, stems from such absolute conviction it acts as a model. We all treat my lover as he does. I myself never speak to him in their presence” (51).

“I forget everything, and I forgot to say this, that we were children who laughed, my younger brother and I, laughed fit to burst, fit to die” (62).

“I am worn out with desire” (74).

Giveaway: Everyday Mindfulness

I was pleased to receive from TCK Publishing two copies of Melissa Steginus’s new book, Everyday Mindfulness: 108 Simple Practices to Empower Yourself and Transform Your Life. After a brief scan of the book, I have decided to work through my copy starting in the new year and, as the rush of “new year new you!” commitments are sure to be rolling in soon, even in these strange times, what better time to get the second copy of this one into someone else’s lucky hands

With 108 mini-exercises, the book is designed to take you through exactly four months of practice. In her introduction, Steginus explains the importance of that number, 108, and her reasons why she asks the reader to commit to four months of practice rather than a quick shot of, say, 12 days, as is popular in many self-help type programs these days. In the last few years, I’ve worked through a number of writing and thinking practices, ranging from The Writer’s Daily Devotional, to See the Bigger Picture, and from A Writer’s Q & A, to The Daily Stoic. In 2021, I’ll be adding Everyday Mindfulness to my collection of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Everyday Peace, which is also a collection of 108 daily prompts for thinking and being in the world. 

About the Book: 

Transform Your Life with 5-Minute Mindfulness Exercises

Everyday Mindfulness guides you through the most powerful daily mindfulness practices that help you rewire your habits and rewrite your life. With step-by-step instruction and evidence-based exercises you can do in as little as 5 minutes a day, it’s never been easier to make positive changes stick in your life. This is a powerful personal development program cleverly disguised as a book.

Connect with Yourself and Discover Your Capacity

Most of us are so busy that we forgot to focus on how we really feel, what we truly desire, and what we need to do to move our lives in the right direction. This book is your master manual for reconnecting with yourself and your inner resources so you can take immediate action to transform your life. The power to change your life is in the small things you do every day. This book guides you through over 100 simple practices, in small doses, so you can discover what works best for you and build on it. This book is designed to help you master the six areas of your life:

  • Physical: Listen to your body and reconnect with yourself
  • Emotional: Understand your feelings and learn to trust them
  • Rational: Observe your thought patterns to gain mental clarity
  • Spiritual: Explore your relationship with yourself and your truth
  • Occupation: Manage your time and energy to pursue your priorities
  • Network: Nourish relationships that deepen your sense of belonging

Each of the six sections has 18 exercises, complete with reflection questions, to help you reclaim, redefine, and realize your untapped potential within that area of your life. With Everyday Mindfulness you will awaken to yourself, connect with your inner wisdom, and tap into your capacity for self-empowerment, fulfillment, and transformation. It all begins with paying attention. This book includes 108 daily mindfulness practices, explanations of the purpose behind each practice, and over 300 reflection questions that encourage profound self-exploration and transformative action.

About the Author:

Melissa Steginus is a coach and wellness specialist helping people structure their work and lives to be intentional, empowering, and fulfilling. She has served thousands of people through her workshops, online courses, and 1:1 sessions. For more information, visit: http://www.melissasteginus.com.

Giveaway:

The giveaway will run from December 7th at 6:00 a.m. until December 16th at 6:00 a.m. One entry per person via Rafflecopter. Bonus entries can be earned by following the prompts in Rafflecopter. The winner will be e-mailed and will have 72-hours to respond before a new winner is selected. Good luck! Click here to Enter.

Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry

Black Dog, Black Night is a collection of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, collated and translated by Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover. The collection includes poets from the Vietnamese Writers Association (VWA), which is the government-sanctioned and sponsored writing organization, but perhaps more importantly, it includes Vietnamese writers from outside that group, including many who have or had been imprisoned for their political views and poetic/creative choices.

As a communist country, every form of expression in Vietnam is closely monitored, and only speech sanctioned by the government will see the light of popular publication. Knowing this, Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover set out on a mission to find, translate, and publish/distribute the greatest contemporary Vietnamese poetry they could, regardless of whether those writers were part of the authorized VWA or not. The result is a collection that acts as a study in Vietnamese writing, society, culture, and government; it is at once a virile condemnation of censorship and a championing of Vietnamese creative arts.

The collection is divided into small segments by poet. Each section begins with a brief introduction to the poet; as a western reader new to Vietnamese poetry (as most readers will be, especially anyone who does not read Vietnamese), I found these introductions, though brief, enormously helpful, as was the introduction to the collection, which discusses the realities of writing and publishing in Vietnam, as well as the penalties for going against state sanctioned themes (imprisonment, execution, etc.)

This collection is remarkable, and the styles, voices, and themes of these poets are unique, refreshing, and edifying. Some of my favorites include Te Hanh, whose “Missing My Home River,” begins, “My home country has a dark green river / Its water is like a mirror in which bamboo can see its hair / My soul is a summer noon / covered in shadow all the way to the shining river.” So many of these poets include nature imagery in their poems, but for many western readers, the metaphors and settings will be fresh and new, because unencountered.

Other favorites from this collection are Van Cao as well as Hoang Hung, whose poem dedicated to Nguyen Do lends its name to the title of the collection. Hung is one of the poets who was imprisoned (for thirty-nine months) and sent to a reform camp because he attempted to get his poetry published outside of Vietnam. Another stand out is Thanh Thao, who is the first member of the Vietnamese Writers Association to not be a member of the communist party.

One of the most interesting features of this collection, though, is that it includes poets who lived through the Vietnam (or what they call the American) War, those who are younger and know it only from the stories, those who are natives still living in Vietnam, and those who have expatriated. This provides a rich, complex experience with multiple perspectives and, perhaps, a hint at the changing landscape of and possibilities for Vietnamese literature now and in the future.

“Don’t” by Linh Dinh

According to a theory, the first word

Ever uttered was perhaps “don’t.”

Managing an unruly horde of kids,

The cave mother had to “don’t” nonstop.

Don’t [put that thing in your mouth]!

Don’t [climb up that branch]!

Don’t [wake your father up]!

150,000 years ago, the main purpose of language

Was to prohibit. In many places on earth, now,

The main purpose of language is still to prohibit.

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