Wednesday, September 21, 2011

from the book pile, 2011: The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor

I've been working my way through the tower of books teetering off the antique writing desk that serves as my nightstand.  Working my way through reading and working my way through the thoughts and learnings each title provokes.

When I first started this blog in 2006 (is it possible that this April marked my fifth anniversary of blogging?!?) one of my goals was to nurture a forum that kept me accountable for the cultural goods I consume.  Of course, I didn't really know then to articulate the goal in those terms.  The truth dawns gradually: as in in worship so as in culture -- I did not make it, but it is making me.

Having also gotten quite clear with the truth that I will never be a professional book reviewer, I've let myself off the hook and changed up the way I document my reading.  Hope you enjoy!


18. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor
Authorselected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald
Genre: Non-fiction (memoir, biography)
Published: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1979

General Impression:  Reading this book was a labor of love.  Since I read her first short-story, Flannery O'Connor intrigued me.  Not only because of her masterful storytelling, but because she wrecked all the preconceived notions I'd formed of her.  For years before I'd had the opportunity to read any of her work, I felt like I knew her from the way her famous quotes were plastered in every essay, article, book and blogpost on the subject of art and faith I'd ever read.  

"This woman must be amazing!" I thought to myself.  Since my conservative Baptist schooling had never even breathed the name Flannery (and that's probably just because she's a devout Catholic, let alone somewhat vulgar), I'd never read anything she'd written.  Until I read The Violent Bear It Away.  And I did not immediately understand her brand of genius, but I really, really wanted to.  

So, last summer I read a biography (Flannery by Brad Gooch) that I found in the new release shelf at my local library.   And that was definitely helpful to my understanding of the author.  But I still wanted to better understand her writing.  So this summer I tackled The Habit of Being.  The book is formed from Flannery's prolific letter writing over an almost twenty-year span until her painful death, lovingly curated by her author friend Sally Fitzgerald.  The book (before the index) is 506 pages long.  And I read every single one.  It felt a bit like searching for clues to answer my question "Can I take this woman seriously when she says that she loves God and loves the Church and loves writing?" 

 Her take on the world is completely outside of my paradigm.  If she were alive today and lived next door to me I think I'd avoid her for fear of her sharp insight into human behaviour, my behaviour to be specific.  But letters, I could handle and letters seemed to be her favorite form of communication as well. 

What surprised me most was the way she seems so often gentle, empathetic, even silly, in her letter writing voice.  This felt quite different than her storytelling voice and rounded out my perspective on Flannery as a woman, daughter, mentor, and friend.  

This is a book I've shamelessly marked up and will return to time and again.  I hope that by the time I actually get to meet Flannery in person, I won't be so afraid of her.  In the meantime, I'd like to be a little bit like her, the way she refused to take herself too seriously while at the same time observing fervantly the truths of God and the human condition and writing them exactly the way she saw them.   I'd like to make her a little bit proud, but I'm guessing she wouldn't admit it either way.

A Brief Apologetic In Response to the Criticism that Her Writing Was 'Perverse':  

"I think what you do is to reduce the good and give what you take from it to the diabolical. Isn't it arbitrary to call these images such as the cat-faced baby and the old woman that looked like a cedar fence post and the grandfather who went around with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger - perverse? They are right, accurate, so why perverse? I think you call them perverse because you like them. They may be perverse to the bourgeois mind. Thomas Mann has said the grotesque is the true and anti-bourgeois style. But you don't have a bourgeois mind and for you perverse means good. Nobody with a religious consciousness is going to call these images perverse and mean that they are really perverse. What I mean to say is that when you call them perverse, you are departing from the word's traditional meaning."

The Response to Criticism from Protestant Christians That As An Author She Didn't Understand the Mysterious Inspiration the Holy Spirit, in Which I Felt Understood in the Criticism I Received From Protestant Christians That As A Worship Leader I Didn't Understand the Flow of the Holy Spirit In Service Planning:

"The problem in answering a letter like this is to admit your own sins without having them laid at the door of the Church. All this flow business he is filled to the gills with and the flow is considerably above reality. You can never put your finger on him. Those of us who deal with matter and form can be nailed to the wall, but these people who are always rising to flow with the spirit, just go on flowing. ... Even if one were filled with the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost would work through the given talent. You see this in Biblical inspiration, so why think that it would be different in a lesser kind of inspiration? If the Holy Ghost dictated a novel, I doubt very  much that all would be flow. I doubt that the writer would be relieved of his capacity for taking pains (which is all that technique is in the end); I doubt that he would lose the habit of art. I think it would only be perfected. The greater the love, the greater the pains he would take."

Not Necessarily the Best Example of Her Writing Advice, but the Most Succinct:  

"The gist... is that all writing is painful and that if it is not painful then it is not worth doing."


With the emotional and physical turmoil of our move, I've been doing some comfort reading lately.  Just want to list the titles here for the record-keeping's sake.
19.  The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
20.  Roast Beef, Medium & Pink Tights and Ginghams, Edna Ferber
21.  Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
22.  Peace Like A River, Leif Enger

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