Curling Up with a Good Book

Philippe Mercier, “Young Girl Reading by Candlelight”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading inspired one of my favorite Scott Bates poems. Jesus’s instruction to his followers (Matthew 5:14-16) not to hide their lamps under a bushel basket triggered a contrarian impulse within my father. Here’s the passage:

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

My father imagines himself as an introverted candle focusing on his own spiritual nourishment. And surely Jesus wouldn’t disapprove. Furthermore, although my father loved disappearing into books, he also didn’t hide his light but shared his poetry and ideas with anyone who would listen.

So maybe his poem can be read to balance out Jesus’s message: there is a time to focus on the inner life and a time to share one’s gifts with the world.

I’m open to anyone who can find a pattern in the books mentioned in the poem Maybe the connecting thread is that all, with the exception of the Elizabethan sonnets, are contrarian. Russian poet Yevtushenko and social theorist Thorstein Veblen challenge the State; fairy tale author Charles Perrault, nonsense author Lewis Carroll, and utopian author Samuel Butler challenge conventional reality; and La Rochefoucauld, through his maxims, challenges conventional wisdom. Maybe the sonnets are thrown in because they seem irrelevant to a modern world obsessed with practicality.

Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves and for the world is curl up with a good book.

The Retiring Candle

by Scott Bates

A Candle
Burned under
A bushel

He did not let his light shine forth
Among Men
He did not even let his light shine forth
Among Potatoes
The bushel was empty
(Being upside down)
And somewhat stuffy besides

They all called down to him
To come up on deck
And get some air
They wanted him to be the life of the party
To shine
Illuminate eternal verities
Set the world on fire

But no
He politely declined
He didn’t want to set the world on fire
All he wanted to do was stay down in the hold
And smoke
And curl up with a good book

Which he did

He smoked and curled up with
The poems of Yevtushenko
The Theory of the Leisure Class
Perrault the Duc de la Rochefoucauld
Erewhon and Through the Looking Glass
Also assorted Elizabethan sonnets

When he had finished
He put himself out
And went to sleep

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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