Sometimes, I’m forced to read a book. That’s right. Utterly forced. Even as I try to open my mind to more and more books, I get pigeonholed into reading something specific, a “required read” that – because of it’s non-organic nature – feels more like a high school book report project. As long time readers know, I like the fluid motion that comes from going between books on a whim.
This September, downtown Sioux Falls will be hosting the Fourth Annual South Dakota Festival of Books, which means South Dakota will be heading full swing into a grand display of oneness as we join together to read this year’s One Book South Dakota: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.
Which means that by the end of September, there’s a good chance that many of us South Dakotans will be sitting stunned, not by any grand force of action, but by the wordplay Robinson engages in her story of an elderly priest coming to terms with his age, his son, and his vocation. Yeah, that’s right – I enjoyed this required read. Very much. And I had no problem writing the book report to go along with it.
This month’s Book of the Month was easy to choose – I mean, no offense to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (two books that I finally got around to reading and enjoyed, though their legend and mystique far outweigh the true nature of their stories), but the Pulitzer spoke, and it forced my hand. Gilead it is.
Gilead is a basic story with an inventive style, employing an old pastor’s journal to dictate its pace and breadth. In doing this, Robinson is able to dive into the feelings of a man, John Ames, who was raised to be as pious as life will allow. Inner struggles with his own interpretations of faith and the differences between his father and grandfather’s views on sin serve as a primer to theological thinking, while the prospect of explaining himself – his legacy and theology included – seems daunting, yet necessary.
Robinson presents Ames as a man who has won and lost so many times in his life that he’s filled with a melancholy happiness, one that grasps the failure of life and holds it up as triumph. He celebrates everything as a grand experiment in “experience,” and his narrative serves a double track; he’s both telling the reader about his life and preparing his son – a seven-year-old boy from a second marriage – for the death of a father.
There is a certain sadness in reading someone’s final words. Ames uses this narrative to connect with his son from beyond the grave, to try to make up for years of unwanted separation. Through his comments, he reveals the frustration in becoming a father with so few years left to give. In fact, Ames has already conceded that he will have little chance to watch his boy grow up. And from this stems an incredible outpouring of experience; pages after pages of his life story, his thoughts, and his feelings.
Robinson’s writing brilliantly captures every desire of Ames’ life, though there is an incredible, solemn nature floating just below the surface. It punctuates the idea that we all die, but that we cannot forget to live. There’s no reason to fear the end. We should still try to live what’s left of our storied and vast existence.
Ultimately, Gilead presents itself as an incredibly heartbreaking masterpiece, pitting the laws of time against the power of hope and the sheer wall of nostalgic history, forcing each of us to take a long time in thinking about what it takes to be remembered. It underlines the thought process in throwing life away a sliver at a time and remembering the cold, calculated truth: we’re all mortal, and regardless of how important we are, we’re all destined to be swept away in the throes of time.
September isn’t just a month. It’s a bridge between the life-bearing summer and the slow decline of fall, when animals and plants disappear, leaving the trees bare and the ground piled with dead leaves. We all feel a little bit more mortal in the fall, and though we celebrate the past summer with gusto on Labor Day, we all know what we’re in for as the coming months begin to freeze over and become stagnant.
With that in mind, a certain bit of parallelism can be found in autumn’s return and in Gilead. We all need to celebrate our lives while they’re still in bloom. But the ultimate freedom might be found when we realize we’re merely here for a short amount of time, in knowing someday we’ll be gone, and that our thoughts and actions dictate a great deal about what we’ll be remembered for. In John Ames’ case, we’re left with a picture of a grand man; a caring father who took great pains to strengthen his son’s life before it was too late.
Life’s too short to live in the past. Preparing for the future might be the only way to really live forever. In Gilead, that might be the most important piece of advice to remember.