The Wonder Report: May 13, 2022
The Joy of Reading
We jumped from winter to summer over the past week, with unseasonably warm days and lots of sunshine. With such great weather, we attended a street fair, learned how to play pickle ball, and hiked at a new park. During a few days we even felt hot and sweaty while we were walking the dogs. It was a welcome change after a cool, wet spring. How’s May shaping up in your neck of the woods?
This week, I want to talk about reading, specifically our summer reading program, where we’ll make our way through the complete works of Kate Dicamillo. But first, I want to talk about reading in general, why and how we do it, what it is that makes us love it so much.
Oh, and in case I forget to tell you later, I’ll be taking the next two weeks off from The Wonder Report. I’ll spend part of that time getting ahead on reading Kate DiCamillo’s work. But we’re also celebrating two birthdays and a high school graduation in the last week of May, so there’s lots of work to do to get ready for those events, too.
First, more about reading. Let’s jump in.
1. Approaches to Reading
I was four years old when I first started sounding out words and stringing them together to find the world of stories they told. In the far reaches of my mind, I have vague memories—just snapshots really—of learning to read. There are rhyming words like jeep and sheep, simple illustrations in pastel peach and yellow, the characters Dick and Jane and their dog Spot. I remember a book of Bible stories at the doctor’s office where we took Grandma Ruth for her blood pressure checks. And lots and lots of Little Golden Books, the very first books I owned.
I remember the way reading allowed us to be close to Mom as we snuggled up together for another chapter in Bed Knobs and Broomsticks or Charlotte’s Web. I remember the outdated reading textbooks we bought at our school’s book sale—my brother’s school, that is. I wasn’t old enough to attend—and the way I’d spread them out on the floor and pick out letters and eventually words while Mom watched her soap operas. And I remember the overwhelming gratitude I felt when I learned that Mom didn’t actually read much or even like reading herself until very late in life. She did it for us.
Over the years, reading has been like a key, unlocking knowledge and providing insight. Through reading, I’ve learned about history and science and culture. I’ve kept up with politics and current events. I’ve explored the depths of my faith. But reading isn’t only about finding answers. It’s also about learning to ask new questions. “All good literature poses unanswerable yet necessary questions about the world we live in,” writes Robert Cording. “It asks us to consider the fickleness of life, the mystery of love, the monsters that lie within us, the pervasiveness of injustice, the inescapability of death.”
This is the greatest gift Mom gave me when she taught me to read: a lifetime of curiosity, mystery, and wonder. She gave me access to places I’ll never visit, problems I’ll never solve, and knowledge I’ll never fully understand. And she did all of this out of love.
“The act of reading is an act of love,” Cording writes, “a going out of one’s nature, a sympathetic identification with the mystery of the other, whether the other is a neighbor, a stranger, or God. We love, as Plato saw, what we do not possess.”
So it’s not just to a book club that I’m inviting you this summer. As we wade into the pool of Kate DiCamillo’s work*, I’m inviting you to an act of love, to a “common denominator of human experience through which human beings may recognize themselves and converse with each other, no matter how different their professions, their life plans, their geographical and cultural locations, their personal circumstances,” writes Mario Vargas Lhosa. I’m inviting you to a conversation where we’ll consider “unanswerable yet necessary questions.” And I hear DiCamillo raises some good ones. And mostly, I’m inviting you to wonder.
There are three ways to participate this summer, and I want to elaborate on each, as these three ways represent the substance of my reading life in general. Maybe this framework will provide a new way of reading for you, even beyond this project.
First, you could try one or two of DiCamillo’s works, treating it as an introduction to a new author or getting reacquainted with an author you’ve only briefly encountered in the past. I do this all the time when I read, picking up a book from the sale table at Barnes and Noble or borrowing a book from the library on a friend’s recommendation. Sometimes, I buy a book after hearing an author speak and find a real gem (that’s true of Cording’s book, Finding the World’s Fullness: On Poetry, Metaphor, and Mystery). There are so many wonderful authors in the world, so I read widely and sample liberally.
Second, if you’re already familiar with DiCamillo and have read some of her books before, you could reread one or two. I don’t often reread books, especially fiction, but I’m finding there’s real joy in coming to a beloved book again and again. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least four times, Hannah Coulter three. I’ve started reading Winter Solstice every Advent after hearing others talk of doing it, and after my second reading, I can see why. Rereading novels provides the opportunity to really understand the characters and develop interest in the subplots that may not be so obvious on first reading. Rereading helps us identify themes in books, and it also helps us identify themes in our own lives. Imagine asking the same unanswerable questions when you’re 52 that you did when you were 30? What impact could that have on your maturity and growth?
Finally, you could take a deep dive into DiCamillo’s work, and read all 25 of her books with me (not counting the picture books). I’ve taken this approach with a few authors—Wendell Berry, Madeleine L’Engle, Louise Penny, William Kent Kreuger, Judy Blume, Scott Russell Sanders, Marilynne Robinson. I haven’t read every single title by all of these authors, but I’ve read most of them. While I’d count any one of their books to be enjoyable all on its own, I’ve found new insights and grown to appreciate their work at a different level because of the depth of the reading experience.
However you choose to do it, I hope you will join me. I’ll be writing about every book and offering discussion questions for those who want to talk about them with me. Each will be featured in its own post, and I’ll link to those in the weekly Wonder Report (rather than bombard you with 25 separate emails).
I’ll spend more time and go a little deeper on three of DiCamillo’s most popular stand alone novels: The Tiger Rising (June), The Tale of Despereaux (July), and Flora and Ulysses (August). Each week I’ll write from the themes and insights of those three books, inviting you into a larger discussion whether or not you’ve read the book. Along the way, I’ll link to essays, works of art, and other resources that will help you think more deeply about the unanswerable questions these novels will raise for us. I’m also hoping we can take the conversation over to Instagram, too. So if you’re there, look for posts and prompts and join in as you’re able.
This is an ambitious project, to be sure. But it’s also going to be lots of fun. I look forward to doing it together.
2. The Poetry Reading by Ivan Gregorovitch Olinsky
I love this painting by American Ivan Gregorovitch Olinsky. The women seem to share the space so comfortably as they read. The gaze of the woman in yellow also has me wondering … what does she see and how does it help her listen and understand? The title says they are reading poetry, which makes this painting different somehow than if they were reading a novel. I wonder why? And the view through the window looks urban, industrial. I wonder where the poem is taking them?
What are you drawn to in this painting? How does the artist’s use of color influence the mood and meaning?
3. The Catherine Project by Zena Hitz
“The pinnacle of intellectual life, so far as I am concerned, is to sit around a table talking about the deep questions, inspired by an excellent book,” writes Hitz. “We are drawn to that table from a desire to understand and to learn, with and from one another. We read, speak, and listen, not to draw a boundary between ourselves and others, but to uncover bonds of human unity.” — Zena Hitz
Drawing on Aristotle, Dante, and Kierkegaard, the Catherine Project has created an online lyceum, and anyone who loves learning can join.
4. Love Your Place: 0 to 60
In addition to our summer reading project, I want to invite you to participate in another challenge to help you learn to love the places you live. In Love Your Place: 0 to 60, we’ll seek out new parks, museums, restaurants, trails, and more in every growing radiuses from our homes. Starting with week 1, we’ll find something in our own block to appreciate. In week 2, we’ll find someplace within 5 minutes of our house. In week 3, we’ll venture out 10 minutes. Week 4, 15 minutes, etc. By the last week of August, we’ll venture out 60 minutes.
For me, this is a way to get to know the new area we moved to back in February. But it would work just as well if you’ve lived in your home for decades. There are always new places to explore, or new ways to appreciate the old places if you have favorites you’d like to visit again. Each week, I’ll share my 0 to 60 find here and over on Instagram using the hashtag #loveyourplace0to60. If you’d like to share yours, tag your posts too so I can easily find them. Or you can tell me about them them in the comments each week.
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. Thanks again for joining me. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together.
As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. I can’t always respond quickly, but I always respond.
Until next time,