Thursday, November 15, 2012
My Life in Books: The Man Who Was Thursday
Everyone encounters their favorite author in a different way. For some, it is the first sentence which grabs them. Others are wooed in gently over time. Still others, like any romantic comedy you've ever seen, have a strong aversion that works itself into attraction. This last category is the closest corollary to my experience with G.K. Chesterton, who has become one of my favorite--if not my favorite--authors.
I first encountered the name of G.K. Chesterton in my reading in and about C.S. Lewis. I had voraciously read almost everything Lewis had written in high school and college, and now that I was out of college, my reading surrounded Lewis himself.
In a book I read recently, the author suggested whim leading our reading paths "upstream" rather than downstream. In other words, instead of reading derivative works (like fan fiction), which mimic and impersonate the writing we like, why not try reading those who influenced our favorite authors? Of course, this book only came out recently, but this bit of advice was intuitive to me. I loved Lewis; why not try Chesterton?
It was a depressing time for me. I felt God had called me to drop the education part of my degree and major in just English, a decision that on the face of it seemed a sure path to unemployment. (A brief aside: I don't use the "God called me" phrase lightly; I was almost finished with my education degree, and as much as I hated it, I didn't want my electives to be education classes. Still, when God calls, what choice have we?) Because I obeyed, I expected an instant reward: a job! a career! But no one was lining up to offer me jobs. I mailed 5-15 resumes/cover letters a week, following up on each one. Nothing.
These weren't the greatest circumstances within which to celebrate a birthday. But time waits for no man, and so there I was—another year older, four years of college behind me, and seemingly nothing before me. (Yes, I had allowed despair to creep in.) My sister and her husband were graciously allowing me to live with them, and they took me out for lunch on my birthday. She saw my low spirits and gave me a $5 Borders gift certificate, which she rightly knew would lift them.
When I went to Borders, I looked at the C.S. Lewis books and quickly realized I had read all the ones they had. But before I moved on, I remembered the name upstream--G.K. Chesterton--and found a fashionable paperback edition of Orthodoxy that even made mention of Lewis on the back. This was it: I had found what to spend the gift card on.
Long story short (since this post is not about Orthodoxy): I hated it. It was rambly and far from the "logical" arguments I was used to in my philosophy classes (and even the more logical approach of Lewis). I found it to be all style and no substance. Still, never look a gift card in the mouth.
Fast forward two years. Things were looking up. My sister and I, as we often do over her school breaks, decided to read a book together, and I found one that looked interesting: The Man Who Was Thursday. How can a man be a day of the week? I wondered. I saw the byline and reconsidered, but then I remembered the profound influence Chesterton had on C.S. Lewis and suggested to my sister that we read it. She agreed.
I devoured it. I don't know what it was about this book. The mistaken identities, the uncertain allegiances, the serious story wrapped in whimsy. The ideas were brilliant, the writing was witty, and I realized that wrapped inside this entertaining yarn was a truth too deep to ignore. Admittedly, there was the knotty problem of what it all meant, but I knew that it meant something, and something profound--something worthy of being drawn out, studied, reread, reread, and reread. I had expected to explore an empty field and found instead a great treasure.
My sister was not such a fan. Oh well.
After finishing The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton shot to the top of my must-read list. I looked for more books by him, searched for and attended lectures about him (it's nice to live close to the Wade Center), and read and read. What I had at first found inscrutable and frustrating I now found was sheer brilliance. I reread Orthodoxy and now consider it one of the most novel and winsome approaches to explaining the Christian faith that I've read. I found books of his essays and read, read, read. I read Father Brown, I attended a few meetings of a local G.K. Chesterton society (and quickly stopped because they didn't actually discuss Chesterton, despite what their reading schedule said). The point is that I swam upstream to see what was there and discovered an island, one that demanded to be explored.
Unlike most of the other books I have discussed so far in this series, The Man Who Was Thursday remains in my top ten fiction books. It has stood up after multiple rereads (even if the main conceit is "spoiled"). I keep thinking I will read the annotated version (which I flagged as VERY HIGH PRIORITY one year on my Christmas list) in order to understand the book better, but each time I reread it, I get swept away in the story and ignore the annotations. I have my thoughts on what it means, and I'd rather stick to the mists of mystery here. It gives me an excuse to keep coming back.
(A hint for those who haven't read the book: keep the book's subtitle--"a nightmare"--in mind. It will save you some perplexity. Also, it might help to read Chesterton's introduction to the book of Job as an appetizer.)