Author Jed Brody was the only contestant to enter the written essay portion of our Summer Reading Program contest. He wins the final prize, an Amazon gift card, by default. That makes it sound like Jed was an easy winner, but his essay on what he read over the summer is pretty awesome. Read below.
Reading is a great way to spend your convalescence after vomiting yogurt in the courtyard of a Tibetan college in India. Luckily, I’d purchased three used books from a small shop surrounded by alpine pasture. First I read The Book of Man by Osho. I liked the message to follow your heart in spite of established social norms. Then I read The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie. I was loving it until I discovered that 30 pages were missing from the middle of the book. Next I read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie. Her later novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is one of the best books I ever read and a horrifying glimpse of a genocide I’d never heard of.
After returning to the U.S., I read The Hunger Games Trilogy. It deserves its celebrity. It feels like a modern incarnation of ancient archetypes, and a reminder of the potential for mythic grandeur inside each of us.
Later, as I flew back to Atlanta for the start of the school year, I read Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. I’d had this double-book for 20 years before I finally decided to read it. Incidentally, before the yogurt incident, I’d gone 30 years without vomiting. This was a big summer for dredging up the past.
Next I read The Life of Milarepa, a biography of the great Tibetan yogi, poet, and folk hero. Though full of Buddhist moral exhortations, it’s a suspenseful and harrowing drama. Milarepa undergoes an astonishing series of transformations, from helpless squalor, to avenging sorcery, to extreme contrition and asceticism.
Finally, as the fall equinox approaches, I’m reading Traditions of Divine Transcendents, a 1600-year-old compilation of stories of Taoist saints. For example, one saint healed people and instructed them to plant apricot kernels (either one or five, depending on the seriousness of the condition they were cured of). Eventually he had a forest of hundreds of thousands of apricot trees! People could come gather apricots in exchange for an equal measure of grains. It was on the honor system, but if people took apricots without paying, tigers would kill them. If their families returned the apricots, they’d come back to life. The saint distributed the grains to the poor.
I do believe that reading is a way of entering into the collective human spirit. I believe that greater powers than human brains are behind mythmaking and storytelling. Books with timely messages seem to appear with a magic that rivals the wonders they describe. But like any magic, its purpose is to step out into the world. And after reading about yogis, it’s time to emulate them. This summer, I became acquainted with acroyoga, which is yoga while balanced on other people’s feet and hands. It’s a kind of storytelling, with human bodies as runic symbols. After a third of a century of reading, I know that the acroyoga story is one I need to enter, to improve my balance, literally and metaphorically.