Serendipity, or Not Murdering Delight

It is arguable that all very great works should be strictly protected from young persons; they should at any rate be spared the indignity of having their teeth and claws blunted for the satisfaction of examiners. It is the first shock that matters. Once that has been experienced, no amount of later familiarity will breed contempt; but to become familiar with a thing before one is able to experience it only too often means that one can never experience it at all…

…There is in fact an optimum age for encountering every work of art; did we but know, in each man’s case, what it was, we might plan our educational schemes accordingly. Since our way of life makes this impossible, we can only pray to be saved from murdering delight before it is born.

–Dorothy Sayers, “…And Telling you a Story,” in Further Papers on Dante.

I had great good fortune as a young reader, in two respects. I was allowed to read widely, and pretty much without guidance or censorship from my parents; and I mostly had teachers who got out of the way of the stories and novels we read in English class. Or maybe it was my habit of reading ahead, and reading first, before getting around to doing the assigned homework. Whatever the case, my clearest memories of reading as a child and young adult are serendipitous. I know exactly the sensation of the “first shock” that Ms Sayers experienced upon reading Dante.

Some of the books I first “experienced” (often hiding under the covers, then turning on my light after my parents went to bed): Little House on the Prairie, A Little Princess, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, The Hobbit, anything by Madeleine L’Engle, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Westing Game, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler. I simply devoured them, reading whenever I could steal the time away.

As I grew older, it was Rebecca, Crime and Punishment, all of Jane Austen. And in the past few years, I’ve been captured – completely without expectation – by Andre Dubus’ collection of stories, Dancing After Hours; Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety; Till We Have FacesMiddlemarch; and Home, by Marilynne Robinson. They aren’t necessarily my favorite or most life-changing books (some are!), but they all share the common quality of serendipity and delight. I must have hit each of them at the optimum age.

I’m curious to know, dear readers, which books you have had the good fortune of “experiencing”? Which books have you opened, without any particular expectations, and found yourself utterly immersed in? Unable to set down?

I love that last phrase: “we can only pray to be saved from murdering delight before it is born.” Isn’t that one of the great tasks of parenting? It feels terribly important that I somehow reproduce my own delightful childhood reading for my kids – so I spend tons of time planning what to introduce to them when. Whereas in fact the best books were simply happened upon, or providentially handed my way. Probably, then, much of my job is simply to put things in front of my kids, pray, and get out of the way.

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10 thoughts on “Serendipity, or Not Murdering Delight

  1. We always had books in the house. My parents encouraged our use of the public library (and I was allowed in the “adult” section well before my age matched the label.) My mom belonged to a two book clubs and subscribed to Readers Digest condensed books. So there were probably a lot of books I read before I could really understand them, but also many I’ve tried and heartily disliked. (Including Jane Austen-sorry!) C.S. Forester was a particular favorite. I think Hornblower was my first literary crush. I reread the Little House books and the Lord of the Rings regularly. But a few other books have resonated with me well into adulthood. My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, The Cardinal by Henry Morton, and In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. House of Brede was a RD condensed book selection, and The Cardinal was a book club selection that my mom had. I finally “stole” her (original 1951 edition) copy of it from her a few years ago. There are some classic titles (like Rebecca) that I’ve attempted and found wanting. Your post inspires me to try again.

    • It is one of my great sorrows in life that I watched the whole Horatio Hornblower miniseries before ever encountering the books. Alas, I will not make that mistake with my children 🙂

      I just loved My Name is Asher Lev (and The Chosen!); I haven’t read the Gift of Asher Lev – but I’ll certainly be tracking it down. And I hadn’t heard of The Cardinal or the House of Brede before you mentioned them. But you can bet they’re going on my library list!

    • Oh, I loved that post! Luckily my children are still small enough that they get excited about any books I put under their noses – but I’m planning on strewing books around as they grow! (I already practice the inverse – could we call it “disappearing”? – books that I find objectionable or tiresome.)

  2. Crossing to Safety is one that I also discovered (and delighted in) at exactly the right moment. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson was another – I picked it up at a friend’s recommendation, devoured it, and reread it a few months later with a similar enthusiasm (Home was wonderful, too).

    • Hooray for the recommendations of trustworthy friends! I read Gilead at Haley’s recommendation – and will pretty much read anything she tells me to…

      Have you read Angle of Repose (also by Wallace Stegner)? A very different book from Crossing to Safety, in many ways, but also so beautiful and true and poignant. Both made me weep.

  3. I came to comments, Sarah, because I had to ask, did you really find HOME by Marilynne Robinson full of serendipity and delight? I loved Gilead. Loved it, loved it. But haven’t been able to bring myself to review HOME yet, though i read it more than two months ago, because I’m still turning it over in my mind!

    • You know, I did. Honestly, I think Gilead is the better book and the one I am more likely to re-read – I *loved* it, found it so beautiful and meditative and rich. But Home was the one I couldn’t put down in the reading. I think it just hit me at the right time, with its probing of family, forgiveness, grace, what it is to be lost and what it means to come home.

      It’s funny – I found both books “delightful,” but in completely different ways. I took delight in the craftmanship and sheer beauty that is Gilead; but found Home totally riveting as a story, a piece of narrative truth-telling.

      • I can see that. I see what you mean, and I really appreciate your reply. Home is truth telling for sure–it just got right in amongst me somehow and stirred me up. I felt like it was digging into the question of whether or not someone can be saved for the wanting. It was powerful.

  4. Mostly I get caught up in junior high fiction (Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven Series, Megan Whalen Turner’s Eugenides Series), but one more serious writer that I’ve been challenged by is Flannery O’Connor. I’ve only read her short stories and letters in a book group, but I might have to dive in again with a friend.

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