There is much to be said for reading plans, programs, and lists. And there is something to be said for chance. That is, some wonderful reads are the result of a book that one stumbles across, opens curiously, and enjoys immensely.
I chanced upon the novel Peace Like a River by Leif Enger some few years ago. My first thought was that the book was a western, and I don’t tend to read westerns. But it was like new, hardback with the dust jacket, and really cheap ($2). One weekend, I was ailing and weary and needing an easy read. So I picked the book up and hardly put it down until it was finished.
Peace Like a River was a compelling and lyrically beautiful read. It was also a Christian novel, but not the type you find in the Christian bookstore with Amish people on the cover. The faith was portrayed with depth and in unexpected ways.
My discovery of Enger and his notable book came several years after his book been published. As usual, I was behind the times. Only slowly did I realize that the book had been a best seller and that the author had successfully reached a wide audience.
After I finished Peace Like a River, I began telling others about the book and also looking to see what else Enger had written. As it happened, his second novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome, had already made its way to the bargain shelves. (Note: I have very little money for books.) So, I picked up Enger’s second novel. Then I shelved it for several years. Somewhere along the way, I heard someone say, in passing, that Enger’s second novel was not nearly as good as his first. So, on the shelf it stood, waiting.
Over the past couple of years, I began reading more and more recent fiction (meaning, writers who published books after Faulkner and O’Connor died in the early 60s), and discovered the great writings of Bret Lott, Pat Conroy, Charles Portis, Louis Auchinloss, Anne Tyler, Tom Wolfe, and Marilynn Robinson. I had some really enjoyable reads and some that left me with questions. (One such question is, John Updike?) I realize that one cannot appraise an author very accurately with one read, but the reader has to start with one book.
I am not sure why, but a few weeks ago, I pulled So Brave, Young, and Handsome off the shelf and starting reading. I think it was due again to the weekend-wearies, to that desire to read without challenge or effort. None of the other books I started had magnetic draws, so I thought, “Why not?” That is a fairly profound reason for reading a book.
So B, Y, and H is a fairly short book (less than 300 pages) with incredibly short chapters. At the end of a school year, with Chaucer and other Medieval studies beckoning, with Quintillian and Abraham Kuyper, and with a dangerously high stack of theological heavy weights, a short book with short chapters sounded good.
So B, Y, and H is a good read, a fun book, a light story that is well written. It may not match Peace Like a River, but it is a good book. It is the story of a writer, named Monte Becker, who published one successful book, but who has not been able to complete anything else in years.
Then an adventure comes along in the form of a man named Glendon, whose shady past and winsome personality favorably affects Becker and his family. Becker then leaves with Glendon who goes in search of his ex-wife in order to seek a reconciliation with his past.
A man on a journey, a man on a journey with a companion, a man on a journey with danger and adventure, a man who discovers his life story while on a journey: This encompasses whole shelves of great literature from The Odyssey to Huckleberry Finn and more. Add to that, the theme of redemption. No, this is not Flannery O’Connor or Les Miserables, but neither are most books.
Enger achieves what every writer–published, unpublished, would-be, could-be—would like to achieve: A good story, well written. I hope he gets his next book out soon.