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This summer, building on our list from last year, we’re offering reading recommendations for people to enjoy wherever and whenever they travel. This is the third in a series of posts to come from our in-house staff and editors. Enjoy.

Gilead (2004)

By Marilynne Robinson

This Pulitzer-prize winning novel is set in Iowa in the mid-20th century and told as a series of letters from an older man, John Ames, writing to his young son. John anticipates that he will die before his son grows up, and he hopes these letters will serve as a vehicle for his son to know him, and to quietly impart whatever wisdom he has gained. In this way, the novel is a meditation on what makes a good life – what is a life well lived? If John lived a good life – and I personally think he did – then what contributed to it? 

One letter has continued to resonate within me. John, who has been a minister all his life, has a lifetime of sermons packed up in boxes in his house, and he’s reflecting on what to do with them. His conclusion, which he reaches quite matter-of-factly, is that they should all be burned. His lifetime of work, the only written copy that exists of his painstaking labor, sent up in smoke. And his reasoning here is simple: these sermons have served their purpose. He gave them at a time and a place, they impacted who they might impact, and their work is now finished. And John is at peace with this. 

This peace conveys a rich humility, a quiet acceptance that while his life may have been small, this smallness does not in any way mean it was meaningless. When I think about this passage, I often turn it into a prayer: may I too have peaceful acceptance that however big or small my vocational contributions end up being, that I would gratefully acknowledge their unique value, and then let them go. 

John also has an ability to unflinchingly “see” people. He does not shy away from recognizing that those whom he loves – his father, grandfather, brother, wife, and a pastor friend – have flaws in addition to their virtues. As John tells stories about each of them, he does so with a warm, empathic tenderness – he seeks to understand and accept them, even as he sometimes disagrees or disapproves of some of their decisions. 

A key point of tension within the story is the difficulty that John has with extending this loving empathy to Jack, the son of his pastor friend. You feel John’s longing to love Jack, and you sit with him in his uncertainty on whether this is possible. This too becomes a prayer for me: may I see and come to love the people before me as they are, not as I wish they were. 

So, if you’re looking for a beautiful image of a life formed by humility and love, read Gilead. If you can, listen to the audiobook.