My end-of-the-year ritual begins anew with the publication of The Best American Series books. The series began in 1915 and remains strong 90 years later. The concept is interesting and allows for a certain amount of consistency by having a series editor, but also includes a different writer each year who is responsible for the final selection of entries and the introduction. This provides the various editions with a distinct flavor. The writings and spiritual expressions range far and wide and are not bound within the confines of any one faith. This year Zaleski, in his forward, considered the spiritual works created over the centuries and produced a list of “Twenty Five Great Works of Spiritual Writing.” We should, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, not judge a book but “see the object as in itself it really is.” Zaleski then quotes Mathew Arnold’s dictum on how spiritual texts should be approached:
“The correct way to approach a text is with open arms; to embrace, if only for a time, the author’s view of things, to engage his or her work not with suspicion (the default position of so much modern criticism) but with trust. We should read as a friend; and in the light of this friendship we will gain both enjoyment and a dash of wisdom. This approach, I would add, is a specifically spiritual exercise, training in sympathetic understanding, a strengthening of one’s ability to meet whatever comes one’s way.”
In his intro, Barry Lopez recounts a morning trek toward an embayment on the back of a valley glacier in the Lo Gorce Mountains of Antarctica where he experienced “a sudden immersion in the profound mystery of life, a mystery that seems to originate in arrangements of time and space that precede the advent of biology.” He stood before a “rigid tsunami” ice wall and felt a silence that “induced an aura of anticipation” and gave him that religious experience without the symbols of religion known to so many who become intimate with nature. This experience and emotional elation triggered an inquiry into time and space and revitalization. Where did this profound sense of release come from? Is this what lies at the heart of “spiritual writing” he wondered. What exactly does comprise “spiritual writing?” Lopez’s essay probes these questions and provides the reader with a compass for this year’s anthology.
Natalie Goldberg offers a sensitive look at her relationship with her Zen master in When the Candle is Blown Out, while Todd Gitlin, A Skull in Varanasi, A Head in Baghdad, engages in a dramatic reflection of a trip to Varanasi, “renowned for pilgrims, for immersions, and for cremations.” Like Mark Twain who witnessed the same skull-cracking cremations, Gitlin is left to agree with the American humorist that “India is a hard country to understand.” The impact of witnessing such an event is what makes up the rest of the essay. Leaving time and space, Oliver Sacks, in Speed, tackles the whole notion of speed and confesses to his fascination for the “wild range of speeds in the world around me.” As a boy, young Oliver wondered at a tortoise’s slow pace across his yard and how it was that he could never catch the Hollyhocks or roses moving, yet saw the results of their growth every day. He sought to photograph ferns and document “their tightly wound crosiers or fiddleheads, tense with contained time, like watch springs, with the future all rolled up in them.” His fascination led him to two H.G. Wells’s stories, The Time Machine and “The New Accelerator,” and he questioned whether “the young Wells had seen, or experimented with, time-lapse photography of plants,” as he had. Sacks continues to reel in people’s perception of time and speed, from race car drivers to those suffering from epileptic seizures; then, using physiology and today’s advances in science as a springboard, Sacks ultimately considers how we may, some day, “enter all speeds, all time.”
The anthology’s rich variety is achieved with the inclusion of writings by Edward Hirsch, Patricia Hampl, Thomas Lynch, Richard John Neuhaus and many, many more. Some are a bit didactic, or at best require a slower pace of reading; but if you enjoy diversity of thought and love a search for that which is reverant, you’ll find more than enough to enjoy in this year’s anthology of “spiritual writing.”