As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.
- The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg
As I continue to rummage through James Mustich’s, 1000 Books to Read Before You Die, I continue to unearth some gems. This season, it was Natalia Ginzburg’s, The Little Virtues. Ginzburg is a mid-20th Century, Italian writer and this small book of essays showcases the ways that true wisdom (and wit) comes from loving others and being present in life whenever and wherever you happen to be. By attending to our lives in each moment and to the people in them, we cannot help but build the great virtues - generosity, courage, a basis in truth, tending to the needs of others, and the desire or longing for more of this kind of connection with our world. We also come to see the folly and danger in the pursuit of the little virtues.
I saw these lessons play out in many of the books I read this season. This often happens in my reading life and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy putting these reflections together - I’ll read something that makes me look at the world a little differently, like great vs. little virtues, and then this becomes a theme for the next several books I read. I read many interpersonal stories this season, so it’s not that surprising that I was able to find this theme within them. I even found two summer heroes and a heroine that embody Ginzburg’s theme fully.
(I talk about this relationship between different types of books in Soul Reading is a Weaving, if you’re curious for more.)
My Summer Heroes
My unlikely summer reading hero is found in a delightful, hard-to-classify, novel. His name is Linus Baker and he is the main character in TJ Klune’s, The House in the Cerulean Sea. This clever and lovely book is a little bit Harry Potter; feels like young adult fiction albeit with a middle-aged protagonist; includes a little romance; and has a whole lot of heart. Linus is a bureaucrat who learns to value the truth more than the big book of Rules and Regulations he is trained to enforce once he meets a group of misfits who make him feel like he belongs for the first time in his life. He learns to love and along the way learns the true nature of generosity, courage, and self-denial in service of others. This bureaucrat learns that great virtues cannot be codified and that sometimes our codes and rules actually get in the way of doing the work of love.
I read this novel on a whim (with thanks for the recommendation to the What Should I Read Next podcast) a little over a month ago and it has stayed with me. So much so that a re-read may be in order before the year is out. If you loved Harry Potter and are looking for something reminiscent or just looking for something completely different to read, check out this heartwarming story.
I found another summer hero, this one not at all surprising, in Louise Penny’s latest installment of the Inspector Gamache series, All the Devils are Here. Armand Gamache continues to be a hero of great virtues even when he is under extreme stress and even when he is on holiday in Paris. Armand, tu es mon heros. If you want a detective series with heart that builds increasingly toward thrillers, check out this series.
My Summer Heroine
My summer heroine was also not a surprising or unlikely pick. It is Anne Elliot, the main character in Jane Austen’s, Persuasion. Disappointed in love years before, the 27-year-old Anne is wise beyond her years. She observes her family’s eschewing of even the small virtues and understands they are missing what’s truly important. Her response is to stay quiet and small and to spend all the time she can with the in-laws of one of her sisters, a family she truly loves. When Captain Wentworth, the man she loved years before, returns to her social world she begins to embody great virtues herself - daring to know and to be known by those she most respects and courageously letting go of the need to please those she does not.
Of Jane Austen’s novels, I had only read Pride and Prejudice before and that was many years ago. I so enjoyed Persuasion and I truly admire Anne Elliot. The 1995 film version starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds is also lovely. I plan to put myself on a regular diet of more Jane Austen.
Romance as a Source of Great Virtue
I said a little bit about this in a Facebook post, but romance novels are a surprisingly good place to find lessons about the great virtues born in our most intimate relationships and especially the kind that involve personal transformations. I read 18 books during the summer months and I would classify eleven of them as romances, including Persuasion and The House in the Cerulean Sea.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s, Cranford is the love story of friends who live in a small English town in the early Victorian era. The small group of ladies in the story fetishize thrift but because of their love and care for one another across the years, the great virtues of self-denial, truth, and generosity bloom among them and as they do, the harmony and peace in their beloved Cranford is maintained.
Seven of the romances I read this summer were all published in the last year or so. They include: The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali, Writers and Lovers by Lily King, Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev, Beach Read by Emily Henry, One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London, Love Lettering by Kate Claiborne and Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan. These books span an emotional range of quite heavy (The Stationery Shop) to really light and fun (Sex and Vanity - I’m not sure I’ve had so much “fun” reading a book in at least three years) and everything in-between. At their core, all of them have believable relationships and each requires the protagonists to change in a significant ways in order to find the love they desire.
Family Drama and Big Romance
I also read Rosamunde Pilcher’s 1987 novel, The Shell Seekers this summer and I loved it so much. This is a family saga with a tragic romance at its core that has definitely stood the test of time. In loving and losing love, the heroine of the book, Penelope Keeling, sees little point in the small virtues and lives her life with the great virtues as her compass and guide. She is generous, much to the consternation of her family. She is honest and courageous and she asks for very little for herself but to be comfortable and able to help those she loves. Through this sweeping story we see how she came to be who she is and how different people in her life respond to her choices. Along the way there is also art, great settings, and some intrigue. It was a very satisfying summer read.
Romances are concerned with the interpersonal and it’s often the interpersonal that sets us on the path to become our better selves. I have found that to be true in my life and I enjoyed this season of reading for letting me see lots of different stories in lots of different places play out in similar ways.
And I refuse to believe that a person’s path is set in stone. A person is more than where they come from. -The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
The Not-Interpersonal Reads
Since travel is not advised during the pandemic, I was excited to read two different travel memoirs this summer. Both are recommended in the 1000 Books book. The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia by Paul Theroux and Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France by Kermit Lynch both sadly fell flat for me. Both feature men out on big adventures seemingly so they can write about them to their audiences. In neither case did I sense personal transformation nor did either author set out on these truly amazing journeys in order to learn new things about themselves. The Wine Route was somewhat interesting to me, but only because I have also experienced some wine travel in France. The Railway Bazaar, impressive at the open because of the sheer scope of his journey, began to get less and less interesting. He describes people he meets along the way, but mostly to complain about them. No one gets in. Nothing seems to change in his world and it was disappointing for me.
I also read Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. I have enjoyed several of Sittenfeld’s other books and I enjoyed much of this one, especially the second half. This book re-imagines the life of Hilary Rodham if she had never married Bill Clinton. It was fun and thought-provoking and if you’re a Hilary fan, it has a very satisfying ending. I wouldn’t usually spoil an ending, but I think it’s helpful here because it is a strange book. If you would like to spend time imagining how Hilary could have been elected president, you’ll enjoy the mental puzzle at the heart of this book.
Summer Podcast Episodes
I very much appreciated a two-part conversation between Harriet Lerner and Brene Brown on Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, called “I’m Sorry: How to Apologize and Why it Matters.” If you care about making the relationships in your life stronger, I highly recommend these two episodes.
I also enjoyed Ezra Klein’s conversation with TaNehisi-Coates on June 3rd and I discovered the Scene on Radio podcast which has devoted whole seasons in recent years to exploring topics like whiteness, maleness, and class. Check it out if you’re interested in these bigger topics that seem to generate so much conversation in our world today.
An Additional Great Virtue: Humility
It seems like our world is full of all kinds of big conversations about important things - race, class, theology, social change, sexism, and political predictions. I enjoy these conversations as well, but I believe I enjoyed my summer reading so much because it was a bit of a break. Of course life needs to be a balance. To be a citizen is to take our learning about important topics seriously and engage in conversations and actions wisely. To tend to our souls, sometimes means we need to just do our best for ourselves, the people in our house, or the neighbors next door. We have to always learn better how to relate to each other one-on-one and in our big, important conversations.
My church read Marcus Borg’s, The Heart of Christianity, this summer. It is an excellent contribution to the conversation about Christianity and God, part of what Borg calls the “unending conversation.” At the beginning of the book, Borg quotes the cultural theorist, Kenneth Burke, as a way of bringing appropriate humility to this conversation:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
- Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form
I find the great virtue of humility to always be in style, especially when engaging the big conversations. It’s also a helpful reminder when doing silly things like setting reading goals for oneself like I did this year only to struggle with them. So, I don’t know what my reading life will be like this fall. I don’t think I will read anything close to 18 books again, but I do know I will learn something and that I’ll be happy to share at the right time.
Happy reading and stay humble, friends.
I love your reviews. Thank you!