Maryanne Wolf's Positive Way Forward for the Modern, Distracted Reader

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World | Maryanne Wolf | Harper Collins

Reviewed by Emily Andrews

Perhaps this has happened to you: Finally finding a minute to settle in with a good book, you curl up on the sofa and crack open the cover of a book you have been eagerly looking forward to reading. At first, the sensation of the text in your hands and the smell of the crisp, new pages feels, oh, so good. You savor the first few paragraphs. But before long, a panicky twitch starts in your gut and works its way up to your brain. The desire to turn your eyes away to something else becomes irresistible. The window, the next room, your phone. You can no longer bear to pay attention to the words on the page, forgetting most of what you have just read. To dedicated bibliophiles, the sensation is alarming. What happened to those long hours of quiet bliss?

If this isn’t something you experience, I am truly happy for you. But for the rest of us who live in the digital age, a shift has begun to take place in the way we interact with words. Our brains have been rewired to require a constant stream of new information. We are physically hindered in our attempts to read well.

Where did our focus go and how can we reclaim it? Cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid) is out to answer these questions in her latest title: Reader, Come Home. The argument for unplugging is hardly a novel one. Perhaps the most renowned advocate for a return to print, Neil Postman made his case over 30 years ago. But Wolf’s ability to look under the hood of the human brain is her special contribution to the conversation, giving us laymen a glimpse into how digital media is changing our physical makeup.

Wolf begins by demonstrating the miracle of reading. Lest we forget, she reminds us that human beings are not born with the ability to read. If we are lucky, it is something we train our brains to do over the course of many childhood years. During this process the brain must build new pathways so that countless signals can fire across the multiple areas of cognition. Her description of the activity required to register a single letter is awe-inspiring. And strangely, our neurology adapts even though there is no immediate, practical benefit to this function. In Wolf’s words, “the act of reading embodies as no other function the brain’s semi-miraculous ability to go beyond its original, genetically programmed capacities such as vision and language.” Reading surpasses the basic senses required for survival. It is apparently unnecessary, and yet it has the power to entirely revolutionize an individual life.

But what does this science have to do with the discussion surrounding modern, digital culture? Wolf outlines three major concerns with the way digital media affects the malleable neurology of our reading brain. The first is the way in which it encourages our novelty bias. Already wired to give primary attention to new signals in our environment, a feature which protects us in the event of danger, it takes concentrated effort and time to teach the brain to focus on letters and words. However, the scrolling and constantly updating sound bytes of the internet split our attention. As Wolf describes it, “In multitasking, we unknowingly enter an addiction loop as the brain’s novelty centers becomes rewarded for processing shiny new stimuli, to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex, which wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention.” As we give into this rhythm of reading, we lose what she calls cognitive patience. Not only do we struggle to focus our attention on the page, but we fail to spend time with the content of our reading. The digitally-trained brain has a harder time pausing to digest the meaning and implications of what has been read. In this way, the highest purposes of reading, self-reflection and the pursuit of wisdom, are lost.

Her second concern addresses the substantive nature of the page. The physical dimension of print provides readers “a knowledge of where they are in time and space” and “allows them to return to things over and over again and learn from them.” She calls this the recursive dimension of reading. Screens do not have quite the same “thereness” as hard copy. The words disappear as we scroll, and we therefore lose the sense of their permanence. In early years the recursive dimension is especially important as children experience repeat encounters with a book. Wolf says, “It involves their whole bodies; they see, smell, hear, and feel books.”

Such repetition allows them to develop the quality which comprises her third concern: background knowledge. Human beings can only acquire insight by comparing new concepts with those they already know. Wolf recounts her attempt to read Ethiopian children a story about an octopus. They had never seen or heard of such a creature and could not comprehend the context in which the story took place. For modern children of the West, Wolf sees a similar problem: “That environment is providentially rich in what it gives, but paradoxically today, it may give too much and ask too little.”

When our world is oversaturated with knowledge, we often fail to grapple with information in a way that makes it ours. We prefer seeking new information to retaining the old. Whether it be an octopus, Achilles, or Ebenezer Scrooge, failure to stockpile cultural background knowledge impedes a reader’s ability to think analogically. Without analogy, a human being cannot formulate a new thought. And more than simply providing background information, reading gives us experiences. For those who have read the ending of Anna Karenina, Wolf claims, “In all likelihood the same neurons you deploy when you move your legs and trunk were also activated when you read that Anna jumped before the train.” Books truly do allow us to become a thousand men and yet remain ourselves, as C.S. Lewis argued long ago.

Wolf’s fears about the effects which these neurological changes will produce in humanity are no surprise. The loss of cognitive patience, the recursive dimension, and background knowledge are sure to diminish the quality of the reading experience, thereby severing future generations from humanity’s long heritage. She laments the loss of deep reading, which produces joy and wisdom responsible for carrying sufferers of all kinds through unspeakable tragedy. She worries for a narrow-minded society that fails to “welcome the Other as a guest within ourselves” through deep reading. As many before her, she cautions us against how easily we have given up slow, reflective reading.

Yet Wolf's optimism for the future is surprising and is what sets her work apart. Recognizing that it is unadvisable to leap unthinking into new technologies, but also futile (even undesirable) to escape our digital present, she imagines a third way forward. Building on research done on the bilingual brain, Wolf hypothesizes a similar binary approach to reading education. Just as a child may easily develop separate neural pathways for English and Spanish language processing, she believes we can develop separate pathways for print and digital reading. A good reader then becomes a “code switcher,” toggling between modes of “light” and “deep” reading as the situation demands. Furthermore, she expands these hypotheses to include not just the training of new readers, but the restoring of adult readers as well. Advances in neurology have shown us how the plasticity of the brain provides a way to reverse negative neural patterns. Wolf suggests that this is also possible for the reading brain.

Whether or not Wolf has landed on the answer, her hopeful outlook is a breath of fresh air. We have no lack of alarmists voicing the dangers of technology today. However, if we only remain alarmed, longing for days gone by, we will soon give way to isolation and despair. Wolf instead searches for a solution that will safeguard tradition while simultaneously embracing the benefits of our digital present. This willingness to thoughtfully occupy her own place in history is a timely example to all anxious readers. She looks forward in good faith to a development we have not yet reached. Thus Reader, Come Home successfully calls its audience into what Wolf proclaims as the goal of good reading: to know what we do not know.

Emily Andrews is an Associate Director at CenterForLit in Spokane, Washington, where she teaches, writes, podcasts, and develops teacher resources. She is an Associate Editor for FORMA.

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For All Mankind

Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight | Jonathan Fetter-Vorm | Hill and Wang

Reviewed by Sean Johnson

In 1662, Sir Cristopher Wren presented Charles II of England with an unprecedented novelty: a textured, three-dimensional model of the moon. This lunar globe—with its verisimilar shadows, hills, and grooves—was made possible by the invention and improvement of the telescope earlier in the same century. Before that time, man gazed at a moon that was idealized and out of focus, but the innovation of Galileo and others provided the first clear, detailed view of the lunar surface. However, as King Charles quickly pointed out, something in that view was still lacking. While half of Wren’s globe was scrupulously detailed, he sheepishly observed, the other half was entirely blank.

The problem, as Wren would explain, was (and is) that our lunar satellite takes as much time to rotate on its axis as it does to complete one orbit of the earth. This keeps the moon’s “dark” side perpetually pointed away from the earth, invisible and unknowable to a mesmerized and desperately curious humanity.

In his graphic history, Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm casts the episode with the globe as a paradigm for modern man’s relationship to the moon. Every time astronomers grew in their power to study or understand the moon, their discoveries would inevitably include some new mystery that continued to elude comprehension. Try as man might, our nearest celestial neighbor would remain a mystery to him as long as he remained held by his terrestrial confines. Though Moonbound is ostensibly a book about the NASA mission that landed the first men on the moon, Fetter-Vorm punctuates the story of Apollo 11 with accounts of the science that made the moon landing possible and the longings that made it inevitable.

Fetter-Vorm tackles the 1969 Apollo 11 mission episodically, and between episodes he turns his attention away from Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, to tell some part of the landmark voyage’s vast history. While these asides include the seeds of the Cold War and more immediate development of the U.S. astronaut program, they also range farther afield to Kepler’s astronomical discoveries (and his science-fiction stories about the moon), Newton’s gravitational theory, and Jules Verne’s uncannily accurate musings on sending men out of earth’s orbit. Here, too, are the obscure Russian rocket scientists that made all space flight possible, the high-ranking Nazis that went from bombing England to building America’s Saturn V rockets, and the nearly innumerable feats of engineering that culminated in what Buzz Aldrin called “that wondrous white machine that was going to propel us off into history—we hoped.” Though I make the book sound sprawling in its breadth, Fetter-Vorm uses the graphic medium deftly to weave all of these threads into a tight narrative that runs quickly and naturally.

Because human fascination—and frustration—with the moon has always had a strong visual bent, the subject is particularly well suited to a graphic treatment. The comic style allows for a broad range of scenes—technical diagrams, historical vignettes, fantastical science-fiction, or the pedestrian reality of menial boredom in a cramped space capsule—to be realized without incongruity. More remarkable is Fetter-Vorm’s ability to employ a handful of illustrated panels along with a few lines of text to demystify intricate concepts. Like a stained glass artist distilling his subject to the most comprehensible elements, he is so frequently explaining rocket science in images and plain terms that at some point his remarkable knack for it becomes unremarkable, but no less effective.

The most singular and affecting aspect of Fetter-Vorm’s graphic treatment of the Apollo story is the power of images to emphasize the humanity of a situation. He is able to give life to small, dignified moments like Buzz Aldrin taking communion after a safe descent to the moon, or Michael Collins listening from the isolation of orbit while his crewmates make history. He draws our gaze to the tightening grip of the aging Tycho Brahe upon his research notes at his first introduction to the young and ambitious Kepler. He gives us the anticipated collage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Armstrong collecting moon rocks and planting the U.S. flag, but also shows us the less glamorous images of that same flag knocked over by the force of their return to orbit alongside the smattering of discarded instruments, scraps of plastic, and bags of urine pragmatically left behind after their departure. Moonbound ends up being at once a celebration of, and a frank wrestling with, the fact that it was humans—nothing more and nothing less—who went to the moon.

Throughout Moonbound, but especially in the Epilogue, Fetter-Vorm reflects on the staggering cost of the Apollo program, and the less than certain benefits (post-Cold War) of having landed men on the moon at all. In the years after the first successful landing, the American government signaled its own ambivalence on this question by dramatically cutting NASA’s budget and failing to maintain the technology and equipment required for lunar travel.

Now that government spending is a perennial campaign issue, Fetter-Vorm looks ahead to the possibility of a second space-age spearheaded, this time around, by billionaires in the private sector. He wonders if men like Richard Branson and Elon Musk are motivated more by commercial gains or if they share in the spirit of earlier space pioneers, and whether they can feasibly expect a return that could justify the expense.

Of course, a similar question was raised in the Middle Ages about the enormous expense of cathedral building. Proponents of the cathedral enterprise could always offer the answer that any expense is justifiable when one builds for God. Fetter-Vorm has a historian’s discipline, so he ends without offering his own answer, but he cannot help raise the question: can one so easily justify the expense when they build “for all mankind”?

Sean Johnson teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida. He is an associate editor of the Forma Journal and the FORMA Review.

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The End of Reason and the Old, Old Story

Interior States: Essays | Meghan O’Bieblyn | Anchor Books

Reviewed by Anthony Barr

In her memoir, Interior States, essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn summarizes her departure from faith. She writes: “I continued to call myself a Christian into my early twenties. When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because being a believer made me uncool or outdated or freakish. It was because being a Christian no longer meant anything.” A lot of O’Gieblyn’s book saddened me: this was one of the lines that scared me. If we had known O’Gieblyn in her youth, we would not have expected this outcome. She grew up in a devout evangelical home, was homeschooled, and attended Moody Bible Institute. She listened to Christian music, read Christian novels, watched Christian movies. She studied Christian doctrine, Christian worldview, Christian apologetics. Theological terms like “prelapsarian” still roll easily off her tongue. And yet . . .

O’Gieblyn begins her book with a preface reflecting on loss of meaning. She writes that “what unites the states of the Midwest—both the ailing and the tenuously ‘revived’—is a profound loss of telos, the realization that the industries and systems that built the region are no longer tenable. And I suppose what unites these essays is similarly an abiding interest in loss, particularly the loss of direction that occurs after the decline entire worldview.” This is the condition of Modernity—the dreadful shift away from Dante’s cosmology toward one in which we feel alone in a cold and uncaring solar system. But O’Gieblyn also experienced the evangelical desperation that attempts to respond to the crisis of Modernity with worldview curricula and entrenched evangelical subcultures. And while her discussion of Rod Dreher is more focused on his writings on religious liberty, one gets the sense that she would not be interested in Dreher’s proposed solution to Modernity’s alienation. For even if Dreher’s “Benedict Option” amounts to more than the fear-based withdrawal of conservative middle-class white people from mainstream culture, O’Gieblyn writes dismissively of “the idea that one can simply ‘step off’ the path of modernity and retreat into the wilderness.” After all, she herself was one of those kids who had the bona fide Benedict Option experience, and it didn’t exactly fortify her faith.

A lot of O’Gieblyn’s upbringing parallels my own. I, too, was a homeschool kid immersed in evangelical subcultures. And while I didn’t end up at a Bible school per se, my brother did, as did many of my friends. My brother and some of those friends still practice. Some of my closest friends no longer do. In any event, much of O'Gieblyn’s experience resonated with my own. I chuckled when I read her discussion of the Christian musician, Carmen: “If you’re wondering what teenager in her right mind would listen to a forty-year old Vegas showman with a Jersey accent rap about Jesus, the answer is: me.” Me too, friend. I winced when she described her panicked childhood prayers for Jesus to come back into her heart again and again, on the off chance that he had left. Again, me too. I resonated with the order in which she ever so tentatively deconstructed the various tenets she had been taught: maybe the flood was local, maybe hell is temporary, maybe the Book of Revelation was written about Nero, maybe God doesn’t require us to vote for Republicans. I laughed aloud when O’Gieblyn described her first exposure to MTV, and the way it opened her up to pop culture. “All I knew was that this music made me stop feeling like a sheltered and naive homeschooler,” says O’Gieblyn, and “I knew it made me smarter and hipper than the kids at church -- that it made me less of a sucker in a world that was trying, on all fronts, to dupe me.” O’Gieblyn is a generation ahead of me, and while I didn’t grow up with MTV, I can still remember the music that played the first time I turned the radio dial to the local hit music station: Kesha crooning out “she won't ever get enough / once she gets a little touch...” Certainly pop culture was and is banal, but that didn’t prevent it from becoming enchanting—at least for a time.

As I write this review, I am preparing to graduate from a rigorous four year liberal arts program at a Christian university. I’ve spent these years studying history and literature, philosophy and theology. As a result of these studies, I converted to Roman Catholicism, and now I’m watching close friends follow that same trajectory. But I’d be lying if I told you that I think this classical education has only ever strengthened my religious convictions. Reading O’Gieblyn’s book reminded me just how vulnerable I am to falling into the same tortured agnosticism. As the tradition teaches, reason is instrumental, it is a capability that may or may not help us achieve appropriate ends. And the ends cannot be supplied by reason alone: our desires shape the ends that we pursue, and if our desires are not rightly ordered, reason will only help reinforce our own errors. We know this. This is Augustine 101. And yet, per Augustine himself, even understanding the technicalities of Augustinian theology is not sufficient for making us Augustinian. I wouldn’t be surprised if O’Gieblyn could teach an excellent high school seminar course on Augustine. But that ability has never been enough to speak to the actual state of our souls.

So where does this book leave us, both as educators and as wanna-be believers? I have two thoughts. The first is that the faith is affective, not just intellectual, and the problems of Modernity won’t be solved at worldview camp. O’Gieblyn writes that “when I finally abandoned my faith, I believed I was leaving this inscrutable world behind...But as it turns out, the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitious I'd left behind.” Well, yes, the world is inscrutable, and we need religious traditions that draw attention to that and indeed celebrate that inscrutability through rituals that enlarge our horizons of meaning. The scientist examining specimens through a microscope is simply observing the mystery; the Christian receiving Christ in the bread and wine is participating in it.

My second thought is that religious formation needs to be centered on continuous, loving affirmation of the Biblical narratives, not merely the teaching of mental constructs—whether systematic theology or complex apologetics. O’Gieblyn writes of the pull that religion sometime still has on her life, describing it as a hope of sorts: “The fevered, elemental hope that the tumult of the world was authored and intentional, that our profound confusion would one day click into clarity and that the broken body would be restored.”

It’s this hope that underscores her flirtation with transhumanism, though she astutely recognizes that transhumanism is a secularized offshoot of Christian apocalypticism and rejects it on that basis. Our hope is not in a system of thought: Our hope is that our personal experience will be enfolded in a narrative of final redemption through the work of Christ.

On her good days, O’Gieblyn struggles to hope; mostly she seems to have lost hope altogether. But her reader needn’t follow suit. Central to the narrative of redemption is our identity as restless souls on pilgrimage. Early in her book, O’Gieblyn writes about the sounds of the trains echoing throughout the Midwest. She writes: “On some nights, it’s easy to imagine that it is the sound of a more profound shifting, as though the entire landscape of this region—the North Woods, the tallgrass prairies, the sand dunes, and the glacial moraines—is itself fluid and impermanent.” Our experience of liquid modernity is destabilizing: We long for permanent structures of meaning to buffer our permanent sense of self. And yet if we take our cue from Augustine, the fluidity of the modern world need not overwhelm us. Indeed, if Augustine is right, restlessness is our natural condition and the very condition through which we are driven toward God. And so maybe, paradoxically, the experience of losing one’s totalizing worldview can anticipate a fuller pursuit of our telos.

In a portion of the book that made my heart ache, O’Gieblyn write these lines: “In the light of a glorious morning, it’s tempting to believe that this is a place set apart: that the water itself is redemptive, that it will make us clean.”

It’s a beautiful narrative, isn’t it, that stepping into this ordinary water can become the place and time in which our souls are made clean? And I guess that’s what I’m left with, having read her book. The constructs, however internally coherent they may be, are constructed, and they can be fairly easily adopted and discarded with just as much ease. But the story itself is something deeper. She writes of the Christian story as “a kind of bone-marrow knowledge that the Lord is coming.” In the end, I think there’s only the one thing that we can all do for ourselves and for our students, and that is to tell the old, old story, and then hope—truly hope—for the best.

Anthony Barr is a graduate of Templeton Honors College at Eastern University where he studied History, Literature, and Orthodox Thought and Culture. He writes for Ethika Politika, University Bookman, and the CiRCE Institute.

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal. The late-summer issue will be mailing in a few weeks.

The Evangelium of Virgil Wander

Virgil Wander | Leif Enger | Grove Atlantic

Reviewed by James Cain

What can a reader make of a novel? Is it good, bad, or evil? Is it comic, funny, or ridiculous? Maybe it’s boring, engaging, or engrossing? From a book’s first sentence, adjectives begin to come to mind. Some novels, though, seem like Sam Gamgee’s Elves: “A bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak. It don’t seem to matter what I think about them.” And some arouse feelings not unlike Frodo’s in the house of Tom Bombadil, when the sight of Goldberry moves his heart “with a joy that he did not understand.”

Leif Enger’s novels—including his third and latest, Virgil Wander—number among these last enigmas. His novels suggest there could be more to the world, and to its people, than we can see. Both his narrators and the stories they find themselves in point to another level of reality existing beyond this one, sometimes barely visible at the edges, occasionally bursting into sight in the form of bonafide miracles. These miracles, though, are not of the greeting-card variety. Reuben Land, the young narrator of Peace Like a River, says a miracle is “like the swing of a sword.” Enger’s characters occupy worlds alive with this kind of miracle, if only they will have eyes to see. In fact, they often journey toward a different way of seeing, seeing with what Philip Yancey called grace-healed eyes.

Virgil Wander begins with this journey, or with the need for it. Virgil admits in the first paragraph that he “failed to notice” the unraveling of his life, that “the obvious really isn’t so” to him, that his seeing wanted “reorganizing.” Then again, he isn’t the most reliable narrator. Virgil’s journey begins as he and his car make “a long, lovely, some might say cinematic arc” into Lake Superior. After this harrowing brush with death, Virgil returns to life a new man, having forgotten his former self, a person he calls “the previous tenant,” along with all his adjectives. He becomes, in his own words, a person “damaged,” “reduced,” “abridged.”

Virgil’s task mirrors that of Aeneas: He must rebuild his life in a now-strange place among now-strange people. He seems to have little enough to work with, as he emerges from the water of Lake Superior. A divorced orphan, he runs a dilapidated movie house called The Empress, showing first-run films (and some others) to the dwindling people of Greenstone, a decaying former mining town on Lake Superior. Following his accident, Virgil reenters his life, experiencing everything and everyone as if for the first time. He experiences a literal “change of mind” ( a metanoia, you might say) thanks in part to the appearance of Rune Eliassen, a Norwegian widower trying to learn the fate of the son he never knew he had.

In Peace Like a River, Enger put his most confident words about miracles in the mouths of children. As narrator Reuben observes the potential violence of miracles, his younger sister, Swede, asserts that:

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave—now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.

Enger implicates readers with that epithet, “good citizens.” We delight in the distant and saccharine miracles on the Hallmark Channel, while resisting the immanence and severe mercy of great miracles. Adults, after all, have put to sleep the ready believism of childhood in favor of the heady drug of realism. But what we consider realism is actually a deep and damaging skepticism that leads to two possible outcomes. We over-elevate the miraculous, moving it from the realm of seldom to never. Miracles are an endangered species, we tell ourselves (if they aren’t unicorns), so we stop looking for them. Or else we demean miracles, making one of any surprising event—our battered car starting on a cold morning, or receiving exactly what we wanted (and asked for) at Christmas.

Stories like Enger’s, though, give us an opportunity to indulge that dormant belief in miracles. We do not primarily watch for grand miracles in Enger’s novels. Rather, we’re meant to see as miraculous that which blesses the characters with a dense, rich grace. These events leave us with an inkling that the visible world is populated by more than we may see—and in Virgil Wander, that not all of it is beneficent. Enger’s novels feel familiar—even if you have not been to Greenstone, it looks a lot like your hometown. But that feeling of familiarity is tinged with uncertainty about what lies beyond your ken. Consequently, when something more actually breaks through, the response is assured and poignant, a mingling of sorrow and joy that is difficult to describe.

C.S. Lewis, borrowing a term from the Lutheran theologian Rudolph Otto, called this feeling a reaction to the numinous. He used the term to describe what arouses a certain response from us, an encounter with a Holy Other, the mysterium tremendum. Lewis described the numinous in The Problem of Pain:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: You would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room,” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: But the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words “Under it my genius is rebuked.” This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.

The feeling that the numinous excites runs deeper and richer than everyday surprise; these days even Lewis’ awe seems insufficient as a descriptor. I join with the Pevensies in that feeling when they first hear of the Great Lion (not safe, but good), and Frodo when he learns of the Ring’s rich history and his own doom. But sometimes a similar response in myself arises when a fiction’s characters or events suggest something more that lies “beyond the walls of the world.” This quality elevates The Lord of the Rings above every subsequent tale, no matter how elaborately the world has been constructed. I experience it when Frodo meets Goldberry in the house of Tom Bombadil and he feels “his heart moved with a joy that he did not understand”; but also in Lothlorien, when Aragorn descends Cerin Amroth “and [he] came there never again as living man”; and again near the end, when the minstrel rises to sing on the Field of Cormallen:

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness. (Return of the King, 232)

This passage vividly represents Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe, that phenomenon of fairy-stories and great tales that ably mingle sorrow and joy, that go “on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it” (The Two Towers, 321). Such an event, Tolkien writes in On Fairy-Stories, is “a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur” and gives the reader“a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Enger might resist categorizing Virgil Wander as a fairy-story of the kind Tolkien describes. After all, Virgil’s “sudden and miraculous grace” comes at the beginning, with his resurrection. But as with the real evangelium, or good news, that grace unfolds over the course of Virgil’s story—and beyond. But some events push at the edges of our credulity. Some are undoubtedly good, a continued outpouring of grace on the characters and community. Rune’s kites, for example, are of outlandish shape and design. Virgil observes that flying one “was like entering a whirlwind where ambition and disappointment are flung off, yet you remain calm in its eye” (55). In fact, nearly everyone who flies a kite has a similar response. One, a ne’er-do-well fisherman doing worse than usual, after taking the string of a kite, experiences a healing of sorts: he relaxes, stops trembling, talks easily, and even begins to laugh out loud. These flights provide the flyer, in Virgil’s words, a singular effect—an “entrance into something else . . . a dream-like fragility.” The kite-flyers might have one hand on an almost-drawn curtain, a breeze blowing it back every now and then (just a bit) to reveal the wonder on the fringes of the seen world.

But not everyone enjoys this effect. Adam Leer, scion of Greenstone’s founder and the town’s resident elite, lives under a cloud of ill will and uncertainty. His experience of kite-flying is decidedly different, more fight than dance, so much so that we’re left to wonder why this should be so. And while Enger’s first two novels reserve expressions of the supernatural for those on the side of the angels, sinister forces appear to be at work in and around Greenstone. Ultimately, Virgil Wander contemplates whether the grace of Virgil’s renaissance and Rune’s abilities as “restless mender and fixer of trifles” will be enough to counter those forces.

Virgil Wander invites its reader to take another look at the trifling, the bland, the everyday, and open an eye to the miraculous. After all, as Rune tells Virgil, “just because a thing was poetry didn’t mean it never happened in the actual world, or that it couldn’t happen still.”

James Cain is a senior editor for FORMA Journal. He teaches and writes from Georgia.

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It All Means Something

Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems | Ted Kooser | Copper Canyon Press

Reviewed by Christian Leithart

Ted Kooser’s latest collection of poems, published in 2018 by Copper Canyon Press, begins with an epigraph, a quote from Stanley Kunitz: “It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self.” If there is one common thread that weaves the poems in Kooser’s collection together, it is that phrase, “the dailiness of life.” Flights of fancy and linguistic tricks hold no interest for Kooser (no puns here). He does not muse on politics or the fate of the human race. He writes about what is within arm’s reach. Very little happens that you would not recognize from your own workaday existence.

The title of the book brings to mind a letter from an old friend, and old friends drop in repeatedly throughout the pages. Even the poems that are written as present observation remind Kooser of things past: “the night when each of us remembers something / snowier” (First Snow, p. 6); “Black streak across the centerline, / all highways make me think of you” (For a Friend, p. 19). Past and present meet, sometimes recognizing one another, sometimes greeting one another with caution. “The Great-Grandparents” (p. 77) describes meeting one’s ancestors, with their odd clothes and funny smells, dropped in from another world. Ages past are another world, one that is mixed with the present, impossible to disentangle.

The loss of the past—and the feeling of missing it—is the source of much of Kooser’s poetry. But loss isn’t the whole story. Kooser’s playfulness is on display in “Barn Owl” and “Song of the Ironing Board” (p. 126-27): “On stiffening legs I suffered / the steam iron’s hot incontinence.” “At the Bait Stand” and “The Widow Lester” (pp. 22-23) present two short pictures of humanity’s quirks, benign and poisonous. “Arabesque” (p. 212) is another example of the same, depicting the dance of a garbage man stepping on and off the back of his truck to “the wild applause of a thousand flies.” “The Urine Specimen” (p. 45) is an ironic presentation of the indignity of being a human: “You lift the chalice and toast / the long life of your friend there in the mirror, / who wanly smiles, but does not drink to you.”

Like Solomon, Kooser learns wisdom by watching the natural world (“How to Foretell a Change in the Weather” p. 13). He’s endlessly fascinated by the tiny wonders around him (“Daddy Longlegs” p. 34; “Shoes” p. 65) and describes them piece by piece, as though he is sketching a picture while you watch (“Old Dog in March” p. 75; “A Jar of Buttons” p. 113). A woman pushing a wheelchair is a pianist striking the keys (p. 108). A round hay bale is “all shoulders” (p. 86).

Again following Solomon, Kooser sees that life holds inevitable and inexplicable trouble. As often as he notices tiny wonders, he sees danger, death, frustration. He does not rant against them. A pained glance, a tired shrug, is enough. After describing an abandoned farmhouse, he sums up the scene with “Something went wrong, they say” (p. 21). Pain and beauty often walk hand-in-hand, as in “Cleaning a Bass” (p. 41). The trick to coping is knowing where to look. Watching a swallow return to its nest, Kooser remarks that “the world is alive / with such innocent progress.” (p. 40) In “Mother” (p. 111) the repetition of nature is one of the great comforts of life, something solid to hold onto: “Those same / two geese have come to the pond again this year, / honking in over the trees and splashing down.” In the same poem, Kooser describes this attention as something he learned from his mother: “Were it not for the way you taught me to look / at the world, to see the life at play in everything, / I would have to be lonely forever” (p. 112).

Kooser hones in on the remains of things, like an archaeologist combing through layers of time. Broken-down trucks. Unused shears. Tree stumps. Ashes. He is especially fascinated by old tools. “Lantern” (p. 143) ruminates on an aged lantern that, even in its prime, gave “not more than a cup of warmth.” At the end of its usefulness, it provides a bed for a brood of mice. They soon abandon it, “the way we all, one day, move on / leaving a sharp little whiff / of ourselves in the dirty bedding.” In Kooser’s eyes, we are no more or less significant than mice. Our only advantage is the ability to write verses about our brief passage. Images and stories illuminate the short, dark path: “Theirs are the open wings / we light our table by” (“At a Kitchen Table” p. 146).

With death looming over every page, writing seems for Kooser to be a spiritual exercise. Graveyards and churches are sprinkled through the book. Often, the formal signs of religion give way to informal, natural spirituality. In “The Red Wing Church” (p 24), a church is dismantled and used to prop up the rest of the town. As Kooser says, “The good works of the Lord are all around.” Notably absent is the cross from the steeple roof. It may be easy to sense divine presence in the world, but salvation is harder to come by: “The cross is only God knows where.” In yet another poem about watching birds, Kooser uses the vivid metaphor of a burning church, “charred pages of hymnals settling through smoke,” and ascribes this image to “a darkness feeding in me” (“Five Finger Exercise” p. 73). The beauty and the pain resurface. Speaking of them is the only fitting response.

The presence of God in nature is displayed again in “Locust Trees in Late May,” which scatter oblong leaves all over the ground. Kooser compares them to the rolled pennies he and his friends would get at the carnival, each with the Lord’s Prayer pressed into its face. “Each of us / got only one, but these trees give many” (p. 160). God does not speak in the book, but His presence is felt. You get the sense that Kooser’s religious position is one of humility. He is aware of his tinyness. In “Nine Wild Turkeys” (p. 164), human beings become turkeys crossing a country road, while God watches from His truck, amused and patient.

Seeing the world’s decay, and feeling it himself, Kooser is not sure what to hope for. Paying attention to the little details and comparisons around him gives him some assurance that it all means something.“I want to be better at carrying sorrow,” he says in “New Moon” (p. 153). The arrangement of words gives his life the illumination that he seeks. In his excellent craft book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Kooser says, “By writing poetry, even those poems that fail and fail miserably, we honor and affirm life. We say “We loved the earth but could not stay” (5).

He expresses again his own inadequacy to the task of giving meaning to life in “Awakening,” in which he describes himself waking up with the metaphor of carrying a bucket: “a weighty thing / like life itself, in which you dip / the leaky cup of your hands / and drink.” (p. 155) Even when the words aren’t up to the task, the sheer act of writing and paying attention is enough. “This is my life,” he says in “A Morning in Early Spring (p. 150), “none other like this.”

The full expression of this acceptance comes in “Deep Winter” (p. 152). Kooser finds himself alone behind a shed, looking out at the snowy fields. He feels the presence of older generations around him, those who have also looked for “something to use to prop / up something else.” The words slip through his fingers. But as he stands among those other lost observers, he feels that they, every one of them, is “a piece of some great, rusty work / we seem to fit exactly.”

Christian Leithart writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He likes old books and staring out the window.

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