Friday, September 4, 2009

Cannonball Read #42: Only Say The Word, by Niall Williams

Niall Williams writes about love.

It's that simple, but he manages to take his examination of the phenomenon so far beyond what most authors achieve that the simplicity of his catalog's overarching theme isn't even the beginning of what these books say about the human condition.
The first book of his that I read was Four Letters of Love, which I still consider one of the best books I have ever read. As of today, I have worn out two copies and the one I currently have was the one I chose to send around in my mailing book club. When we started that club, it was the only book in my mind. When I was in high school, something weird invariably happened to the seniors in upper-level English - they all got goofy about this one book. "Wait until you read Four Letters of Love," we'd hear, "wait until you read it." When it finally came our turn, it lived up to its reputation. Everyone loved that book. After our AP exams, we all waited out in the hall to find our teacher, Mrs. Kerrigan, to tell her that almost all of us had used Letters on the AP exam. I think for most people it was the first time literature had sounded that deep, low organ pipe in the middle of their guts, the one that shakes you and continues long after you've let your foot off the pedal.

I went on to read As It Is In Heaven, which focuses on the love in music where Letters looked at art. I am not really one for formulaic writing; if all of an author's work is approximately the same, I'm unlikely to want to continue with it. Williams understands the depths and differences in the human capacity for love, though, and I don't know that he will ever run out of ways to explore, portray and consider them. More importantly, I don't think he should, nor that we should. If you stop thinking about love, something of your humanity disappears. To steal from a very cute movie, "love really is all around." Love is more than the startling, epic love that we experience only a handful of times in our lives. For me it's the way Rich's arm always finds its way over to my side of the bed after I've gotten up in the morning, reaching even though I'm not there. It's the stupid cat zoning out in a patch of sunlight. It's my brother's one call in like, two years that was about absolutely nothing. It's about singing in a beautiful building.

I just had my first Senior Seminar class on Wednesday and we had a discussion about what a liberal education is truly about. This is nowhere near the complete purpose of it, nor the best description, but it's about engendering a desire to seek out the best, highest, most glorious bounds of human and natural achievement, and about giving you a rich sense of history from which to consider what you find. The professor told us about seeing the Duomo di Milano for the first time, and how he burst into tears. How the hunger he'd been so aware of moments before just vanished. That is love, and those experiences are what drive us. Finding the people who might be able to build that cathedral, finding the duomo's grandeur within the human soul, standing at the steps of the church crying the same tears. This is all love, it's all what makes us human.

Towards the end of class, we discussed where these experiences could be found. Niall Williams must have discussions like that all the time. In Letters, he talked about the nobility of art. In Heaven, music. In Only Say the Word, it's about just that...words, and books, and reading. It is gorgeous, and if you are a reader, you'll feel it deeply. I would say that if you read one Niall Williams book, make it Four Letters of Love. But if you are a bibliophile and if you're interested in exploring the canon, fire this one up. You won't regret it.

345 pages

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