When the lockdown began in March of 2020, schools closed, traffic came to a halt, and the great buzzing marketplace that had always sustained us fell silent. Though it was frightening—those blurry photos of ghostly Covid patients on ven-tilators in packed intensive care wards—it was also weirdly thrilling. There was an emergency on, and we’d suddenly become explorers in new, dangerous territory.
A local DJ is spinning polkas on the radio. It’s Sunday morning. His name is Johnny Kotrick, and the radio station is WNCC in Barnesboro, Pennsylvania. This place is called Coal Country because its very life depends on the black mineral. The pocket of small towns here exists because of coal, and in the mid-1970s, it thrives because of coal.
Legend, the Google definition states, is a “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” Brendan, the 1987 historical novel by theologian Frederick Buechner, uses this term to its advantage. St. Brendan of Clonfert (c. AD 484 – c. AD 577), or Brendan the Navigator in Catholic tradition, is the novel’s subject
So here it is: a quiz game for Close Reading readers. Below are fifteen famous first lines from famous literary works. The sources (the answers) are given below the line of asterisks after the final quote. But DON’T PEEK; it’ll spoil your fun.
I got my first copy of On the Road when I was fourteen or fifteen. I’d purchased it on a whim when Jack’s name showed up in a biography of Jim Morrison. The Doors were never really my thing, but when I was fifteen, I spent a lot of time educating myself about the finer points of rock and roll. Kerouac’s book, when I found it, was a revelation.
I heard of shy Caedmon, sneaking out of the feast before the harp was passed to him, for he could not sing, and he fell asleep in the barn by the animals he was charged to keep and dreamed of an angel who told him to sing, so sing he did, of the creation first and then of every other holy tale until no great thing God had done had failed to find its way into English.
Music was easily the most enjoyable aspect of writing my novel Absolute Music. I mean the sheer amount of contemplative time spent listening to the great range of music mentioned in the novel, all of which I’ve assembled in a Spotify playlist. Not included in that playlist is nearly an album’s worth of Bob Dylan songs which are only alluded to in the text, not mentioned outright.
Cormac McCarthy’s early novels are set in Appalachia—books populated by poverty-stricken characters who can’t comprehend the forces at work in their lives. McCarthy brings a rural culture to life through an examination of morality, personal beliefs, and the darker side of humanity. The author’s language viscerally draws readers into the themes that seem to pulse and breathe on the page.
A couple of months ago I re-read some of the work of an anonymous fourteenth-century figure known as the Pearl Poet or the Gawain Poet. There is little poetry in the English language that affects me so profoundly as that of the Pearl Poet. His two chief works after which he is called, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, form the bedrock of my understanding not just of fantasy literature, but of fiction generally.
My favorite Fitzgerald novel is The Blue Flower (1995). It’s a historical novel, focused on the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801). Hardenberg—or Fritz, as he’s called by family and friends—became famous when he began publishing under the name of Novalis, the` major German Romantic poet.
The earth is dying in a way that it was not (or we did not know it fully) when I was a boy, a way that is different from what is meant when we acknowledge that this world is always, as the Bible puts it, “passing away.” And this fact changes everything. Yet the earth is beautiful and will remain so. How can I show my children this goodness despite what threatens it?
By exploring the consciousness of a narrator—which, as I say, is depicted as a landscape and its human families, a consciousness which he calls the invisible world or the mind, not limited to the individual perspective of an octogenarian Australian—novelist Gerald Murnane discovers that reality is much larger than the one described by the disenchanted materialism of contemporary culture.
I’ve just finished After London; or, Wild England by Richard Jefferies, published in 1885. The story follows the protagonist, almost the only significant human character, Felix Aquila. The jacket copy declares that this book “pioneered the post-apocalyptic genre of science-fiction,” and cites a critic calling it the most beautiful Victorian novel. The story is indeed post-apocalyptic. But the correct term for this fiction is romance.
A quarter of a century before Milton finished Paradise Lost, the young poet began listing topics for his future masterpiece. Ardent devotees who imagine the poet foreordained to create a great religious epic might be surprised to learn that his list of more than a hundred ideas contained thirty-three from British history. His leading idea, at the time, was an Arthurian epic.
The work of certain authors—Ivan Illich, Edward Abbey, Noam Chomsky, and Gore Vidal come to mind—alternately fascinates and frustrates me. Their idiosyncratic takes on urgent enormities like war, the fate of the earth, and the future of humanity occasionally veer from well-crafted arguments and illuminating narratives to what are, in my opinion at least, tiresome rants and dubious anecdotes. Yet they are spot-on far more often than otherwise, which is more than I can claim for my writing.
I felt a shock the other day, seeing notice of him in The Guardian: “The road well travelled: 100 years of Jack Kerouac.” Why a shock? I think the shock has to do with the way Kerouac always surprises me, by which I mean emerges suddenly out of my own indifference or forgetfulness and then opens up everywhere in my imagination once he presents himself.
It was the disaster in Ukraine that moved me to pull Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie from my shelf. Not having read it since graduate school days decades ago, I recalled nothing about it except its gloom. But that was enough to make it an appropriate companion for current events. Not that Sister Carrie is about war. But it is about violence: the violence with which society oppresses and even destroys individuals. The novel’s dominant color is dark.
Lewis the Apologist has never interested me.… Lewis the Storyteller is another matter. His Space Trilogy is excellent and haunting. I would sooner re-read Perelandra than its model, Paradise Lost. The final book of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, only seems more prescient as we slouch further toward a posthuman future. It is also one of the most unique and ambitious modern contributions to the Arthurian tradition.
A common feature of these two highly recommended books is their representation of religious faith in a medium – the novel – that has of late had little good to say about religion. Perhaps they point toward something analogous to the Bechdel Test, in which characters who happen to be religious are presented unironically as full, if flawed, persons who act upon and talk about their convictions without collapsing into the stereotyped roles of hypocrite, fanatic, or repressive killjoy.
I think one of my favorite publications of 2021 was Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of nineteenth-century Austrian author Adalbert Stifter’s collection of short fiction, Motley Stones. These stories fit into a collection of books I’ve been assembling for over fifteen years, writing I call hypethral.… Hypethral writing finds the natural world iconic or sacramental.