San Antonio (St. Anthony!)

A holiday journey brings thoughts of how reading books – both fiction and nonfiction – helps us make sense of the world, become better people by seeing how virtue is done, learning from others’ mistakes, growing in wisdom from the wise words and examples of others. Well, two trips in one! First to San Antonio, Texas, to the annual American Academy of Religion meeting, and then on to Riverside, California, to be with family for Thanksgiving. A momentous two weeks away and I am finally over the jet lag that followed. So come along with me in this blog and I’ll show you my recent journey.

First, San Antonio – named for St. Anthony (known as the “Saint of Lost Causes,” I believe – someone can correct me). The lead photo here is a beautiful statue of St. Anthony along the famed Riverwalk near my hotel. Each of the five days I was there I took several walks down the Riverwalk, mainly to restaurants and such. The second and third photos below show a beautiful shot of the river that runs through that area, and the tour boats – taken from the balcony of a restaurant where I was eating lunch – that ply their trade up and down the river with boatmen steering and giving a commentary on the various sites as they pass by.

The highlight of the meeting for me – and the main reason this year that I was there – was that my new book, The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime, was on display in the Exhibits Hall. The fourth photo shows my book –  my labor of love for the past four years – on the table of my publisher, Wipf & Stock. The AAR meeting is an exciting time for authors to see their hard work actually come to fruition and so my mood was celebratory during the entire meeting. Met my editor for a glass of wine one evening and we toasted to its success. And I stayed an extra day so I could go to my publisher’s annual party – always a big bash each year at some local venue.

Then on to Riverside, California, where my youngest son and his family live – joined by my older son and his little ones. So both my “boys” were there and we were all together for a family holiday. A fun and wild time we had, with kids ranging in age from 9 to 17. Because rooms in the family “inn” – that is, my youngest son’s house – were quite occupied, I stayed nearby at The Mission Inn. Frankly this is where I always stay when I visit because it’s a grand, historic hotel with four different restaurants – ranging from Mexican to Italian to REALLY upscale. Plus there’s a swimming pool near the front of the hotel where my family likes to swim when I’m in residence. The next photo below shows the arch leading to the hotel entrance, while the final three shots display the Christmas tree in the lobby and finally the fireworks that initiated the Festival of Lights – an annual ritual where the crowd counts down to the lighting of the thousands of outdoor bulbs on the hotel, followed by a tremendous display of fireworks ushering in the Christmas season in Riverside.

Hotel guests and other citizens from all over California gathered in the front courtyard, spilling into the blocked-off street in front and across the way. Attendance counts the next day reported that there were more than 60,000 folks gathered that evening to revel in the lights and fireworks. As they say, the whole display was awesome!

All in all a wonderful two-week journey. But let me circle back again to the meeting in San Antonio and the display of books – hundreds if not thousands of books on display in the Exhibits Hall, set out on tables and counters in a gigantic ballroom by dozens of publishers present for the annual gathering. Given that I’m not only a writer but also a passionate reader, it was so tempting as I wandered through the hall to buy – if not everything in sight, at least to load up my already overloaded luggage – to take more books with me on the rest of my trip. (I refrained, but it was very hard being so tempted and not following through on my urge to buy. You can imagine me in my local Barnes & Noble store, right?)

Now coincidentally – or maybe not, maybe providentially – on Thanksgiving weekend there appeared a think piece in The Wall Street Journal titled The Need to Read by Will Schwalbe. Echoing the same theme that I write about in my own new book, the author makes the point that reading books – both fiction and nonfiction – helps us make sense of the world, become better people by seeing how virtue is done, learning from others’ mistakes, growing in wisdom from the wise words and examples of others. Schwalbe says reading helps him get his head around the big questions that he has while answering some of the small ones along the way. He says:

Socrates (as quoted by Plato) said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reading is the best way I know how to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone. It is a solitary activity that connects you to others. … And any age is a good age for examining your life.

Most of the rest of Schwalbe’s piece (actually an excerpt from his new book titled Books for Living) gives examples of books he has read that have actually played some part in changing his life. In my own new book, I also describe some books I’ve read along the way (such as Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin, Plainsong by Kent Haruf, A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler, and Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos) that have made a major difference in my own life. His final words in the WSJ article are these: “Rereading [these] books and others, I’m reminded that reading isn’t just a respite from the relentlessness of technology. It isn’t just how I reset and recharge. It isn’t just how I escape. It’s how I engage. And reading should spur further engagement. … It’s one of the world’s great joys.”

I couldn’t agree more. My next blog entry is going to be a further discussion and reflection on the effects of social media on both our brains and on our engagement with the community of others. So stay tuned. …