Some Wise Books: A List where the order matters

Some of the most intriguing and unsettling conversations I have reside in some of the books I read. These texts keep coming back to me time and time again, their images cemented into present contexts, drawing me into new and different ways of engaging in current conversations. I think this speaks to a kind of wisdom spun through these books.

I am in a second-year undergraduate level course on the wisdom literature in Christian traditions and we are focusing, mostly, on the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. Using some of the lectures and course material, and dependent on the past 5+ years of theological and philosophical undergraduate learnings at a Mennonite university, I’ve written a brief something as to how wisdom can be made sense of: wisdom can be made sense of as the way creatures adhere to and live into their limitations. Learning what these limitations are and how they press themselves o/into our being depends on, at least, two not-mutually-exclusive spaces outside the creature’s self: 1) an imposed terror of something or someone far greater in Being than the creature herself; and 2) a curiosity that pulls the creature into a constant state of inquiry. One way that a creature can lean into this curiosity is by trying to ask “where am I coming from?” and seeking out the limitations that this questions runs up against.

Here is a list of the ten books I have read in the last five years that most appropriately seek out this question “where am I coming from?” After each book’s title I briefly describe how that text asks this question. The list ascends in the order of which books are closer to the asking of this question. So, the last book listed is the one which I think most appropriately seeks to ask this question “where am I coming from?”

This is not to say that there is a wisdom “genre” but rather that these books are struggling through some not too stupid questions.

      10. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

This poem locates the author and protagonist in a dark journey through the most extreme of terrains and relationships. Throughout this entire journey Dante encounters clergy men, politicians and other folks from his past who root him in a particular history that, in part, guide him in the decision making of his current journey.

  1. Dominion of the Dead by Robert Pogue Harrison

An investigation on how ancient poets, philosophers and lay people grieved the loss following death. A few pages in and the reader’s mortality is pounding before her eyes. Harrison’s book asks where we, humans, are coming from by constructing a kind of genealogy of death.

      8. Belonging; a Culture of Place by bell hooks

All 21 essays in this book can be read as stand-alone pieces thinking through the question “where am I coming from?” “A Place Where the Soul can Rest” explicitly thinks through the ways in which limitations imposed in the pest shape the way one learns and lives into (or struggles against) those boundaries today. The essay begins by naming the particular limitations placed on women in public spaces. hooks shows women’s inability (read: limitation by way of gender) to loiter or linger on street corners due to the space being patriarchal territory, thus shaping women to be in a constant state of movement, for survival, or containment.[1] She contrasts this space with the front porches where, in Southern black communities, porch-sitting signified kind of freedom. She continues to describe how different kinds of porches instilled particular limitations and freedoms.

  1. Book of Mercy by Leonard Cohen

This collection of poems spans a variety of emotions from anger to sorrow to gratitude to joy. These diverse states of being describe yearnings for a deeper knowing that, again and again, brushes up against the limits of human knowledge. After hitting up against these limits, Cohen’s poems move into total gratitude, almost in a worship-like stance. This book shows worship as the furthest that one can go in the quest for wisdom; flailing again and again into the limits of what one can know.

  1. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

I cannot imagine a richer way to ascribe belonging and deep history to an orphan – a character who, on all surface level engagements, ought to belong with no one and nowhere. But Montgomery makes the friendships of Matthew and Merilla, the house of Green Gables, and the town of Avonlea, a space that shapes and creates limits for the orphan, Anne Shirley. Anne learns and struggles against some of these limitations (some examples: being an orphan, gender appearance). By trusting these spaces, Avonlea and (some) of the people in it, Anne learns a history which she adapts as her own guide into who she is.

  1. The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan[2]

Through a comic and neo-surrealist genre, this short picture story describes the quest to learn where a creature – called the thing – is from; where and with whom the thing belongs. A nerdy boy comes upon the thing kind of by accident and then chooses to investigate where the thing is from. The boy and the thing seek the thing’s history together. The boy admits the journey is not easy and he doesn’t know what it all means, if it means anything at all. If this journey is read as a quest for wisdom, Tan shows the reader that the strangeness of wisdom, as the thing, compels a kind of curiosity in the ordinary person. This curiosity invokes a desire to learn more about where one is coming from but it is a journey that one can refuse to take part in.

4. Love’s Work; a Reckoning with Life by Gillian Rose

Weaving her philosophical prose through a personal memoir, Rose investigates how certain relationships shaped her into the person she was as she was writing the text. As she remembers and reflects on a variety of relationships, whether it be a love affair with a priest or a friendship with a lively and vivacious older lady, she is struggling to make sense of the death coming to her through terminal cancer. Facing her diagnosis head on, Rose is raw with her memories, describing how her roots in past relationships and her scholarly interests shape her decision making and capacity to make sense of her far-too-soon death.

  1. The Salt-Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara

This stream of consciousness novel takes the reader into the spotted memories of Velma. What is most interesting in this text is how the memories of Velma come pounding in with such a total lack remembering because she has been traumatized. Velma cannot recount many of her memories in full, nor can she recall the memories of those who are working to heal with her. This lack of knowing where she is coming from gives the reader a partial, at best, outline of the Velma character. This is to say, Velma’s limits are never well-known because she herself has been traumatized into not remembering.

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

By continuously naming the places throughout their journey to destroy the ring, Tolkien prioritize the places his characters are coming from, the places the characters are at, and the places they are heading. The first setting of the book begins in the Shire which is often referred to for the remainder of the book. With each remembrance of the Shire, the language and relationships appropriated from other places visited since, shape how they speak about and therefore remember the shire. The places are written about in immense detail describing the terrains that the fellowship of the ring journey through, they are also mapped out to give the reader a visual that she can refer to when looking at the limits each character is up against. Where a character comes from has so much to do with their identity, the shape of their body, their language, their likes and dislikes, their mannerisms, their beliefs.

  1. The Little House: Her Story by Virginia Lee Burton

This picture book traces the three generations of a house’s existence. Through busy images and terse words, this story shows how a house came to be in a quiet little farmyard pre-industrial revolution and how that house didn’t fit in in the post-industrial world because it conformed to the limitations set upon it at the onset of the story. Makena, my attentive and brilliant five-year old cousin, can’t get enough of this story. And it says something when, for her, this story continuously trumps Clifford the big red dog and Amelia Bedelia.

[1] hooks, Belonging, 143-6.

[2] This can be found in the second story in Shaun Tan’s Lost & Found. 

About Lisa

Besides sleeping, I spent most of my time making things. For the most part, oil paint is my preferred medium to work and think with.

1 thought on “Some Wise Books: A List where the order matters

  1. Leaping off from your commentary on Rose’s Love’s Work, it would be interesting to more closely examine the relationships between our limitations and (our) memory. Any thoughts on this at all?


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