I have always been someone who has at least two books going at once. Before I had children, I’d often balance a novel with a non-fiction read, slipping in a few magazine articles here and there for good measure. These days, with three young children at home, I am more likely to have eight books going.
This is not intentional, of course. It’s just that uninterrupted reading time is basically nonexistent. I never know exactly when I might happen upon a few quiet minutes so I just leave books scattered throughout the house. There are some on the coffee table, another three by the bed. I have a few in my office to read when I’m restarting my computer or downloading a large audio file for my radio job. I read the books in very small spurts — three pages here, a half a page there. I’ve long since given up on novels as they don’t really lend themselves to this kind of patchwork, but I’ve always been more of a non-fiction reader so this suits me just fine.
I recognize this may seem horribly chaotic, and you might wonder how in the world I ever retain anything. I’ll be the first to admit that many things fall through the cracks. But all we can do is work with what we have, right? Strategy can never be about perfection.
Long before the kids ever came along, I’ve been rather enamored with this idea of reading seemingly disparate topics at the same time and seeing what kind of connections bubble up. It’s not something I try too hard to cultivate. I don’t try to come up with a perfect combination of topics or anything. Rather, I just let my curiosities lead the way and wait to see what commonalities bubble up. Here are a few recent combinations: a book on poor people’s social movements and the spiritual life of children; an anthropological work on the Quapaw in Arkansas and Ta-henishi Coates new book Between the World and Me; Articles on the Young Patriots and Rufus Jones’s Essential Writings; a children’s book about the life of Muhammad Ali and a book about an autobiography of a white anti-racist woman called Memoir of a Race Traitor.
Sometimes I have time to jot down a few notes about the parallels in my journal. Usually, though, the themes just get sewn together without much commentary only later to come out in some radio piece or magazine column. They seep into the groundwater of the collective building of the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources. And, hopefully, they influence the ways I interact with the world on a daily, mundane basis.
Every so often there are books that seem to never be bumped out of rotation. I’ll put them down only to find them reappear on the kitchen table or in the hallway floor, deposited there by my daughter who seems to gravitate toward anything she knows I find meaningful (I recognize this is a short lived phenomenon, and that by the age of 16 she will likely be repulsed by the things I love). One is my Quaker Faith and Practice book. That one is always around. But there’s another that keeps showing up: Louise Erdrich’s collection of poems Original Fire: Selected and New Poems.
I’m not much of a poetry reader anymore, but back in my early twenties I was an avid reader of poetry. These days I crave things a little less distilled. But a few months ago — as I was heading out the door to go camping with the family — I saw the title on the self. I’d acquired it years ago, but I’d never spent any time with it. After reading it by the campfire one morning, I felt something shift. And I have been rereading it ever since.
There is one poem in particular that I keep returning to. I find it to be crushing yet invigorating, futile but with a spark. It’s the kind of spark you have to work for. And I think, maybe, that’s the one thing I’ve come to crave in reading.
The Ojibwe word for stone, asin, is animate. Stones are alive. They are addressed as grandmothers and grandfathers. The universe began with a conversation between stones.
A thousand generations of you live and die
in the space of a single one of our thoughts
A complete thought is a mountain
We don’t have very many ideas.
When the original fire which formed us
we thought of you.
We allowed you to occur.
We are still deciding whether that was
We have never denied you anything
you truly wanted
no matter how foolish
no matter how destructive
but you never seem to learn.
That which you cry for,
this wish to be like us,
we have tried to give it to you
in small doses, like a medicine, every day
so you will not be frightened.
Still, when death comes
you do not recognize it
as the immortality you crave.