I’ve always felt that reading is balsam für die Seele, meaning “balm for the soul,” a phrase I learned from a friend who’s wondrously fluent in German. Immersion in the universe of a book is a form of escapism from real world concerns, causing the heart rate to slow, the breath to deepen. It’s easy to forget that it’s also a luxury. For many throughout history, reading was discouraged or forbidden. In The History of Reading, Alberto Manguel cites a law prohibiting enslaved Africans from learning to read; those caught doing so would be flogged on the first two occasions and lose part of a finger on the third. Women’s literacy was also tightly controlled, as noted in “Turning the Page,” Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article on the topic. “With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, access to power required knowledge of the world. This could not be gained without reading and writing, skills that were granted to men long before they were to women. Deprived of them, women were condemned to stay home with the livestock.” Even now, in some parts of the world, women’s reading material is heavily monitored, to the extent that girls seeking an education hide banned books at the bottom of sewing bags, as Christina Lamb chronicled in Sewing Circles of Herat: A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistan. As you settle in with a hot drink and your latest read this winter, take a moment to recognize the privilege it is to simply enjoy a good book.
“One of my reads over winter break was the latest poetry collection from Ellen Bass, titled Indigo,” writes Blog Editor Bridget Lillethorup. “I’ve been a subscriber to The Sun for many years, where Ellen Bass is a regular contributor. Although I tend to gravitate to nonfiction, her poems always stop me in my tracks for her sweet musings on everyday life, and also for her wry humor. Reading Indigo was a continuation of those poignant experiences. Bass is grappling with the longevity of life in this collection: many of her poems have a retrospective outlook. In ‘Taking My Old Dog Out to Pee Before Bed,’ Bass examines her old dog, noticing his grey fur and faulty joints, but also his Hollywood-esque beauty. In the final line of the poem, Bass writes, ‘We don’t speak. We just wait, alive together, / until one of us turns back to the door / and the other follows.’ It seems like there is a mirror between her dog and herself, giving a sense that they both hold age and beauty. Bass does this in many poems; she takes everyday experiences and turns inward, weaving in and out of nostalgic musings. Something else I really loved about Indigo was that I felt like the structure of the collection was a journey around her physical home. While reading, I saw her kitchen counter, her front yard, her garden, her morning coffee, her daily walks with the dog, and her wife in the living room chair. It was incredibly grounding to see these everyday details, and since I have been spending so much time in my own home, it helped me appreciate all the little aspects of my space that I often overlook. But Bass doesn’t just open physical doors for us: each poem reaches into deeper meaning, often just with one simple line. For example, in ‘Sous Chef,’ Bass is in her kitchen, pitting cherries and husking corn, but then, she writes, ‘Somewhere there is hunger. Somewhere, fear. / But here the chopping board is solid. My blade, sharp.’ Many of us are so lucky to have access to food, and time to enjoy it. Grounded in the visceral details of food, Bass asks the reader to see a more global perspective. This push and pull continues throughout the collection. By the time I finished reading, I felt like I was better at noticing all the little things around me, and the way they connect to the wider world.”
Senior Editor Libby Maxey writes: “Never one to seek out the newest thing, I’ve recently read Seamus Heaney’s 1966 poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist, the Nobel Prize-winner’s first book. Published when he was in his twenties, it contains primarily poems of childhood, family and homeland. These subtly formal verses often have a sharp, realist edge; the child Heaney recoils from a mob of frogs, struggles with a fear of rats, mourns how quickly the blackberries would always mold. Kittens are drowned, a four-year-old sibling dies, ghosts of famine rise from overturned dirt. Even so, the ugliness of nature and of humanity is counterbalanced by beauty and fidelity: ‘the small wax candles melt to light’; ‘the pigeon that deserts you suddenly / is heading home, instinctively faithful’; ‘humming / solders all broken hearts.’ Wild nature inscribes its own poems on Heaney’s world, and he calls back. Although he offers several explanations for why he writes—to dig as the Irish people have always done, ‘to set the darkness echoing’—‘Saint Francis and the Birds’ shows us words spoken for the sake of truth and joy. Both shine through ‘Honeymoon Flight’ and ‘Churning Day,’ whose small miracles lifted me right out of the dank fields. I’ll be remembering that freshly churned butter—‘coagulated sunlight . . . heaped up like gilded gravel in the bowl’—for a long time to come.”
Senior Editor Christina Consolino shares her latest read, “the forthcoming Get Thee to a Bakery by Rick Bailey, an entertaining collection of essays that span anything and everything the author experiences and observes, focusing mainly on food, language, aging, the environment, and travel. In the opening essay, ‘Get Thee to a Bakery,’ Bailey fuses the mundane task of cleaning out the gutters with the history of pumpkin pie and the importance of noce moscata (nutmeg) in Italian cooking. Later, in ‘You’re Not Going to Eat That, Are You?’ he recounts taking action against squirrels with a BB gun before moving seamlessly into a discussion about the ‘long tradition of squirrel eating in the southern United States’—all the while proclaiming, ‘I shop at Kroger.’ And Bailey rounds out the collection with ‘This American Smile,’ in which he expounds on the significance of nonverbal communication in diverse cultures and the evolution of the friendly smile. In each essay, Bailey both poses and answers questions, some that readers didn’t even know they were asking, and I found myself intrigued by the level of detail and research that must have gone into the crafting of each essay. Bailey writes with a style that only a well-seasoned writer can, almost like a baker with a tried-and-true recipe, and leads readers to the end of each essay, leaving them feeling full and asking for more. While I savored these humorous, rich essays in print form, I’m hoping the author releases an audible version of the collection. I think listening to these essays with Bailey’s cadence and intonation (audio excerpts are available on his website) will be a real treat.”
As for me, I’ve found tranquility with A Book That Takes Its Time: An Unhurried Adventure in Creative Mindfulness. Created by Irene Smit and Astrid van der Hulst, the forces behind The Netherland’s Flow Magazine, the book is like a multimedia meditation workshop that gently prompts the reader to slow down. As its editors write in the introduction, “It’s during moments…when we have a bit of spare time…that little doors appear. These doors open to reveal new thoughts and new notions; paths to creativity; paths that lead to great plans, funny ideas, and happy thoughts.” The book’s contents include short yet meaningful articles on letting go of perfection, becoming more observant of nature’s miraculous details, breaking out of one’s comfort zone, the art of being vulnerable, and the power of smiling. This wisdom is interspersed with pages of poetry, a plan to get you chi-running (something I’d never heard of), and recipes with calming names, like celery root, fennel, and sweet potato soup. The book has no shortage of goodies to tear out and work with—notecards for recording beautiful moments, a lesson on hand-lettering, postcards, materials for collage-making, and several small, detachable notebooks filled with quotes to contemplate as you jot down thoughts and ideas. It’s also a workbook of sorts, with pages to fill in answers to thoughtful prompts—about what you want more of in your life, what you value—as well as a place to write a compassionate letter to yourself. A pull-out timeline is included, to chronicle your life’s choices, leading to increased self-awareness for future decision-making. The book encourages readers to set aside grownup concerns for a moment and engage in a bit of playfulness before returning to them, invigorated and refreshed. Balsam für die Seele, indeed.