Your First Summer Read

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Your first summer read must be Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.

I don’t recommend a lot of books; life is short, our time is limited, and there’s too many books out there. Choose wisely, I say. (This is the deserved fate of those who choose poorly by reading, say, renowned author Dan Brown‘s new Inferno.) But if you choose Dreher’s book, you’ll have chosen wisely. Why? Both the compelling story but also what that story offers by way of critique of modern life and encouragement to live differently in a particular place, by grace, in simplicity.

I’m too tired tonight to give the thing the poetic description it’s earned, so in a nutshell: Rod and his sister Ruthie are part of a family growing up in small-town Louisiana. Rod leaves for the bright lights and big city, but, as those of you who know Rod as the author of Crunchy Cons know, Rod came to value localism in theory. He was able to put it into practice in a big way when his work for The American Conservative allowed him to relocate home to rural Starhill, near St. Francisville, in West Feliciana Parish, LA (the same WF so important to Walker Percy, by the way).

And then Ruthie gets stricken with cancer. Much of the book concerns her illness and how a small community rallies to support her and her family, and also how Ruthie dealt with it. The book’s title evokes the “Little Way” of St. Therese the Little Flower, who committed herself to simplicity in the everyday, to do ordinary things with extraordinary love. Rod sees Ruthie in this way: Living a quiet, real Christian life of simplicity and among her family, her neighbors, her students.

Rod is an internet friend; we “met” when I was wrestling with whether to convert to Catholicism. His Crunchy Cons hit me between the eyes, giving me a new vision for life, effecting a paradigm shift in my thinking. The internet being what it is, he was easy to get hold of, especially as he was at the time blogging furiously at Beliefnet. A convert to Catholicism himself, he helped me frame issues and think clearly as I was contemplating such a drastic change, ironically at the same time, roughly, he was leaving Catholicism for Orthodoxy.

And so I got to read a near-final draft of the book some months before publication as a Word file (see page 271), which as you know, isn’t great for sustained reading. But I couldn’t stop. I got the file, I think, late at night, perhaps ten one evening, and read the thing, as a Word file, on my Macbook Air, straight through, until roughly sunrise.

It’s that good. Maybe good isn’t the word, as that usually has to do with the capacity of a contemporary book to entertain, like John Grisham before he ran out of gas, or Tom Clancy before the USSR broke up. (I miss the Cold War for that reason alone: the decline of Clancy.) Perhaps the two best words are “gripping” and “compelling.”

Rod’s writing here is real, and open without being overly raw and certainly not exploitative. The reader feels he knows these people as Rod brings their lives to the page honestly. The tale tells itself, and Rod need neither lecture, preach, nor editorialize.

I don’t like crying. So sue me: I’m a German/Dutch-American from what my sister calls Baja Saskatchewan, the town of Minot, in frozen northwestern North Dakota, having played hockey and football. I sometimes joke with my students that crying is morally wrong. It’s just not what I do. But reading this book, I just lost it at points. OK, for most of the wee hours. (And like Augustine who in Book 9 of his Confessions also seems to think crying is wrong, I’d pray, dear reader, that if ye be tempted to heap scorn upon my tears, ye would rather weep for me and my sins in my grief [Conf. 9:12/33].)

In short, this book isn’t merely a good read. It’s catharsis, grace, and challenge. It may just inspire you to think, and live, differently, authentically, simply, in the everyday.

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