Thursday, October 16, 2014

PSA: Read James Herriot!

I’ve put off writing this for quite awhile because it’s daunting to write about the books I love the most. A book that was merely so-so—that I can write about. You want to know what I thought of Eat, Pray, Love? No problem: mostly self-indulgent narcissism, albeit mildly entertaining and pleasantly written. But you want to know about a book that really moved me, stopped me in my tracks, and transformed the hours I spent with it from commonplace to beautiful? Well, how do I pull the words up out of my soul to explain the magic of a book like that? Whatever I say will never be good enough, so there’s a part of me that doesn’t even want to try. Still, Anne Lamott says: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” So I will give it a go anyway. 

The man of the hour is James Herriot. And, to tell you the truth, I thought I had James Herriot all figured out. As a kid, I had a children’s collection of his stories that, for some reason, I was not overly fond of. I think it had to do with the fact that one of the stories was quite sad, and, being a sensitive child, I didn’t really like the way it made me feel. I also wasn’t an animal lover. So I always thought of James Herriot as the man who wrote pathetically sad animal stories that I didn’t want to read.

As I have found so often in life, I couldn’t have been more incorrect. In this case, I was mercifully rescued from my long-standing ignorance by none other than the Los Angeles freeway system and the Los Angeles County Public Library. The hours I spend commuting each week have forced me to plumb the depths of the library’s collection for audiobooks that might make the strain of traffic a bit more bearable. In this exploration, I came across an audio copy of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, and, desperate for fresh listening material, decided to give it a try.

This was my golden ticket to a world of warmth, joy, humor, and beauty such as I have rarely found between the pages of a book. I could not believe my ears! Far from being a fuddy-duddy old veterinarian who wrote boring animal stories, I found an author full of wit, a stunning sense of humor, and keen insight into the human soul, who was charmingly self-deprecating, while knowing how to tell a story with a Muse-given talent for spinning a yarn. Brilliance came pouring out of the speakers in my car, leaving me breathless with laughter. Let me assure you, it is a rare book that makes a person not only not mind being stuck in traffic, but actually long for the traffic to last so one can just keep listening to the story!

Maya Angelou said that people will mostly likely forget the things you said and did, but not the way you made them feel. I find that to also be true of so many of the books I love, and especially true in the case of Mr. Herriot’s stories. He created a world which it was a solace to enter—a world of brightness, natural beauty, laughter, heartiness, hard work, quirky characters, and sincere, unaffected emotion. I like books that make me a better person. Some books do that by providing outstanding examples of people with unparalleled courage and conviction, who make me want to be like them. Some books, like James Herriot's, do it simply by being beautiful, and wholesome, and good--and thereby teaching one's soul to love and enjoy those things. 

I can’t recommend his books enough. However, he is a veterinary surgeon who writes vividly about his work so if blood and bodily organs make you feel squeamish, take this as a gentle word of caution . (I found that I must have read so many books on midwifery that not much of what he wrote seemed to phase me!) I would recommend listening to the audio version of the books done by Audio Renaissance and read by Christopher Timothy. I think half the joy I had from these books came from the reader who brought the books to life in a way that I can only compare to Jim Dale’s reading of the Harry Potter series (which is pretty much the highest compliment I am capable of giving). If you can’t get your hands on the audio books, read the stories aloud with a loved one and enjoy laughing your heads off together over the antics of Tristan and Tricky Woo, among other marvelous characters.

The good news is that there are five fantastic books to read:
All Creatures Great and Small
All Things Bright and Beautiful
All Things Wise and Wonderful
The Lord God Made Them All
Every Living Thing

I’m still working my way through all the books myself, but I have yet to be disappointed by their excellence and have decided my current mission in life is to convince anyone who will listen to me to read them posthaste!