August is an unusual month for anyone who lives by the rule of the school year. Since it straddles the summer and the start of classes, it tends to feel too much in-between, not enough of a month unto itself. When work begins again midway through, it’s like the month ends with jarring, anxiety-inducing abruptness.
But this August was a different bird. Since my only responsibilities are teaching my classes and preparing for prelims, I didn’t experience the usual “student anxiety” that accompanies the start of school. No textbooks to buy, no syllabi to read closely, and no schedules to rearrange to accommodate seminars. My student days, at least in the formal sense, are through. (It has been glorious so far.)
Below are some August miscellanies: books, trinkets, moments, and ideas I found delightful in the first month of (almost) fall.
Illuminations in Medieval prayer books:
I’m not sure there’s anything like this in the contemporary church, or at least not in mainstream Christian publishing. But in the Medieval period (roughly the 5th to the 15th century), devotional books were utterly forgettable unless they were filled with beautiful “illuminations”—usually micro-paintings and etches of Biblical scenes or characters. Today, I would guess that the most well-known illuminated text from this period is the Book of Kells, an 8th century Latin Gospel book. (Maybe you’ve heard of the animated film The Secret of Kells? This is the same book.)
I love gazing at illuminations because it’s impossible to look at them mindlessly. An invitation to pondering, they show how much beauty can fill the tiniest, most unexpected places—like inside the cavern of a letter G. I wish we had modern prayer books filled up with illuminations. (Maybe we do and I just haven’t discovered them yet.) Here are a few favorites from the Dresden Prayer Book:
Much loved books from August:
Persuasion, by Jane Austen. This isn’t my first Persuasion rodeo. It could very well be my tenth. I picked it up while waiting to meet with a student in early August and promptly gushed through it once more. This is some of Austen’s best psychological drama, rife with the romantic intensity of the smallest gestures between Anne and Captain Wentworth. (Also, I’m convinced that the edition linked above is the highest quality there is: includes sturdy introductory material and Persuasion‘s alternate ending.)
In this House of Brede, by Rumer Godden. I checked out this book a long time ago, and, since I use a university library, I just clicked “renew” a dozen times until I’d kept it for nearly a year. If you use a local library, this behavior is not encouraged—academics keep library books for unreasonable amounts of time. I point out how long it sat on my nightstand to emphasize how surprised I was by the sudden need to binge read it; it was engrossing.
This book revolves around nearly ten years in the life of a female Benedictine monastery in the UK. Although Godden tethers the central narrative to Philippa Talbot, later Dame Philippa, the book is really about all the women at Brede Abbey pursuing vocations as Benedictines. When a friend asked me what it was about, I replied, “It’s about nuns and all their nun business,” which is absolutely true. But what is most surprising about the book is its underlying arguments: (1) a monastery may be enclosed in principle, but that doesn’t mean its inhabitants are cut off from the wide, wide world; and (2) we cannot escape our gifts, even when we seek total subjection to a religious rule—our gifts and talents are meant to be used. “Nun fiction” at its best.
Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way, by Shauna Niequist. A friend recommended Niequist’s books a long time ago, so when I saw Bittersweet on sale for 99 cents on Kindle, I nabbed it. This was a really wonderful book to read amidst all my dense prelim literature—it’s quality, wandering micro-memoir. The refrain I enjoyed the most in Bittersweet was Niequist’s love of deep friendship. There were very few chapters that didn’t include a vignette of her fostering a friendship or yearning for it. While reading Bittersweet, you get the strong sense that she sees the delineations of her life’s story by friends held dear in each season.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver. I’m about halfway through this memoir of Kingsolver’s family’s year of eating locally and from their farm. It’s having the intended rhetorical effect on us: our global food economy is rife with corruption and the only way to take complete charge of what goes into our bodies is to meet, face-to-face, the people who grow our food. So we’re trying to make changes immediately. (See? Intended rhetorical effect at work.) Kingsolver is a gifted storyteller, so her memoir (written partly with her daughter Camille and husband Steven) has all the energy of a well-crafted narrative drama, even while the subject is her family’s day-to-day food culture.
More neighborhood strolls and (questionably constructed) standing desks:
I read a really troubling article this month about academics sitting down for so many hours a day that they cause their bodies to be subject to all sorts of preventable illnesses. Evidently, sitting too much at work can cause you to work yourself into an early grave. Properly terrified, I constructed my own standing desk out of some of my prelim reading. I also resolved to go for more walks around our neighborhood. We’re so lucky to live where we do—a tiny block lodged between an elementary school and a church, with regal historic homes on every corner. There’s no excuse not to explore this neighborhood more.
Memento—a long forgotten red feather pen:
One day this month I was digging around the teaching assistant office looking for a plug—and I found this incredible red feather pen (a souvenir from the Tower of London gift shop, says the label) lodged behind a filing cabinet. It was one of those magical, secret discoveries where you see a tiny hint of something out of place, and you imagine it’s something spectacular; then you look closer, only to see that your first wondrous instinct was right.