Good Readers are Ruminant Creatures
IN BOOK TEN OF HIS Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo refers to the memory as “the stomach of the mind”—an image that probably seems strange to many modern readers, but one that I’ve found very helpful.
In this reference, Augustine isn’t referring to the kind of stomach we humans have, which are a kind of way station for food on its way to the intestinal tract, but the kind of stomachs found in sheep (as well as cattle and goats, etc.), i.e., a ruminant stomach. Ruminant animals gobble down their food and later bring it back up to chew it over. This releases the nourishment in their food and allows them to digest it better.
The whole of St. Augustine’s Confessions is essentially an extended exercise in spiritual rumination, recounting (in the first nine books) his earlier life—the experiences that he “gobbled up” without much reflection and now brings back to mind not only for his own benefit but also for the benefit of his readers, so that they too can derive spiritual nourishment from them. The final books of the Confessions show the spiritual nourishment Augustine has derived from decades of rumination and reflection upon God and His action in our lives. Unfortunately, many readers have already swallowed his story undigested and read no farther; they will find themselves, for years afterward, belching up the “naughty bits,” which are all they can recall of his story, having entirely missed the point where he really begins to meditate on what God has shown him through this process of remembrance and rumination. They should have stayed on for the after-dinner digestif, which is often the best part of any meal.
As a ruminant creature myself, however, I’ve always loved Augustine’s idea of the memory as the place where we store our experiences until we have a chance to bring them back to mind and “chew them over” or ruminate upon them. In fact, one of the reasons I started this blog a few years ago was to give myself an excuse to ruminate on things I’ve read. To my mind, rumination provides a great part of the pleasure of reading. This is why I prefer to read books that will reward further thought—books that are “good” in the sense that C. S. Lewis used that term in An Experiment in Criticism. One of the problems of reading things that are the literary equivalent of junk food is that they really don’t provide much of a “mental cud”—if you try ruminating on them, you find that there is nothing there.
A lot of my rumination these days occurs while I am taking a walk along the shore of the lake where I live. There’s no telling what will come to mind as I walk along. This morning, it was Michael D. O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale, a book I read a couple of months ago, which I’ve been allowing to sit in the stomach of my mind until it was ripe for rumination. I thought I would write about it here, but it’s such a good book that I may have to read it again before I can get full value from it—not because it is difficult to digest, but because it is such rich fare that it will require more time and attention to savor it—that’s how good a book it is.
Judging from some of the reviews that appear on the internet, many readers pick up A Father’s Tale expecting it to be fast food—easy to swallow, with not much to digest. In places such as Goodreads, you’ll find quite a few reviews that indicate the reviewers simply had no idea who to read (much less ruminate upon) this book: they complain about the length of the book (nearly 1,100 pages—one reviewer suggested that you could trim it down to 300 pages and not lose the “essential story”) and the “absurdity” of the plot. Most prospective readers will be put off by such remarks; these days too many people prefer a “quick read” over a good book. They remind me of the crowds that followed Jesus around and listened to his parables (a “quick listen”) and then wandered away satisfied, while his true followers stayed behind to hear what the parables meant.
The truth is that this book is probably fare too rich for such readers, too used to modern novels that traipse quickly and superficially through plot points on the way to their happy (and predictable) endings. Such books are the literary equivalent of a quick meal at Chili’s. The Father’s Tale is not such a one. It is a rich and varied banquet of several courses, one to be savored and ruminated before being digested. Just as a banquet is not gulped down in one mouthful, nor quickly digested before bedtime, I don’t think I can do this book justice in a single discussion, so today I’ll just mention a couple of things that might help you enjoy this story. (I’ll shift metaphors while I’m at it.)
A Book Is a Journey
If you have not yet read The Father’s Tale, here’s a tip: long books often take you places that you didn’t expect to go, and take many turnings along the way. As you read this story, imagine you are embarking on a long journey with an unknown itinerary—unknown to you, anyway. Tolkien tells such a story in The Lord of the Rings, and Michael D. O’Brien does it in The Father’s Tale; both provide delights that would be less delightful if you could see them before you got there. In both cases, the author has planned out the whole trip to provide a series of unexpected vistas through many landscapes, but he will get you safely home.
Another thing about long books: they are often a bit slow getting started, so don’t be in too big a hurry. Just as J. R. R. Tolkien spends quite a bit of time on Bilbo’s birthday party before Frodo’s journey begins, so too The Father’s Tale takes nearly one hundred of its more than one thousand pages to set the story proper in motion. This is because the protagonist himself, like Bilbo, is a bit set in his ways and not anticipating making a move—until something happens that catapults him into action. It’s as if the story is a steam locomotive that must slowly build a head of steam in order to get up to speed—but once it does, the story, its protagonist, and you, dear reader, will take off on a wild ride that is full of unexpected adventures and crazy turns.
About that “absurd” plot that one reader complained about on Good Reads: As you read, you may find that the book seems constantly to be changing from one kind of story into another—don’t let this upset you. The author has divided the tale into four separate parts, which suggests that these kinds of changes are deliberate, and together they create the overall architecture of the story. At the beginning of each part, the protagonist’s life takes a sharp left turn. And what happens when you make four left turns? Well, as the old Shaker song says, by turning, turning, we come ’round right.
By the way, it’s always good to think about not only the contents (action or “plot points”) of a story, but also the way they are arranged. I sometimes do this deliberately, as a formal exercise, and I find it gives me a kind of “God’s eye view” of the plot, revealing the integrity of the story, which may not be evident in a single, superficial reading (the only kind of reading that many novels deserve or require).
If you decide to read The Father’s Tale, you may, like the story’s protagonist, Alexander Graham, discover yourself in places where you never expected to be or may even reach a point at which you despair of ever reaching your journey’s end. But in the end you will “come round right” and find you have been greatly enriched by the experience.
I realize I didn’t say much about the novel in this post — probably because I didn’t know where to start, it stirred up so many ideas in my mind. But I will get back to it one of these days, honest! Meanwhile, I’ve read O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri (his first and only venture into science fiction) which I also liked very much. If you get a chance, read it—there is a big surprise, about two thirds of the way through, one you won’t want to miss.