The Enlargement of Being (by reading): Novels

Posted By on Jul 10, 2017 | 12 comments

The summer I was eleven, I discovered the Anne books for myself. I’m pretty sure my Mom had read me Anne of Green Gables aloud before, and I’m pretty sure I liked it. But when the sunny hours stretched long (and in Texas far too hot for outdoor play) one July day, I reached for the second book in the series. Suddenly, the Anne books became a world that blossomed in my imagination, a place and a people almost as real to me as those of my house and family. Anne called her pond a ‘lake of shining water’, she made ‘kindred spirits’, she wove the ordinary of house and farm and kitchen into a drama of discovery so that each person around her appeared like a figure in a fairy tale, each house a living story, each day a gift set in her hands by a grace beyond her ken. I dwelt in her vision and began to see my own world afresh.

My engagement with ordinary life was different after my sojourn with Anne in P.E.I. The rich mystery that Anne made of the everyday livened me to a new and heightened awareness of my own world as gift. The descriptions of landscape and person that I discovered in the Anne books instigated my own forays into writing as I attempted to see and begin to describe my own life in her charmed and sacred terms. The Anne books offered me that ‘enlargement of being’ that C.S. Lewis describes as one of the great gifts of story in his pithy little volume An Experiment in Criticism. 

As he so fervently states, ‘in reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.’ 

These are exactly the qualities at back of the novels I’m gathering to recommend in my new book. I’m hard at glorious work on Book Girl, gathering quotes and making impossibly long lists of my favourite books. In honour of the (supposedly) lazy days of summer and as a fit start to this project I’ve used these first weeks to revisit the novels that allowed me that ‘enlargement of being’ so rejoiced in by Lewis. I’m reading back through a few Anne books, I’ve revisited the lonely, revealing inner narrative of Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson, savouring its slow, slow growth in grace. I’ve traveled back through The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, and remembered the way that reading connects us to each other and this sweet and weary old earth. There’s no way I can make it through this summer and the writing of this book without a bit of Goudge’s sacramental enchantment in The Little White Horse. And since I am regularly teased about being a Wendell Berry apologist, I think I’d better revisit Remembering: A Novel (Port William) too, as its one of the books that helped me to understand my old-souled self and my place in this strange, modern world. (And my goodness, his Selected Poems have ministered to me of late.)

But now, I need to adventure a bit. Obviously, I have dozens of beloved novels on the lists already. But I want to adventure a bit before I set them in stone. Below, I have a list of novels, a few essays, and a bit of poetry, none of which I’ve yet read. These are the books I’ve heard about, been told I should read, or just had covers I couldn’t resist. I know there are countless thousands of titles I could read or recommend, but I’m looking for the books whose stories enlarge my vision, not randomly, but with greater insight into the workings of love, the ways of grief, the real wrestle with frailty, or the forward march of hope. Books, in other words, that teach me what it means to be human, and what it looks like to reach for the wholeness of love in its thousand different ways.

I would love to know the books that you would list as the sort that help you to live and live a bit more to the full. I’d love your thoughts on any of the books below. And I’d love to know what you’re reading yourself. If there’s one thing I want Book Girl to be, it’s a fellowship of readers, so consider yourself invited. And let the reading continue.

I’m off to snatch a few more minutes with Lila…

A Thousand Mornings: Poems
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel
84, Charing Cross Road
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (New York Review Books Classics)
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel
The Summer Before the War: A Novel
The Light Between Oceans
The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation


  1. What about The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery? It is one of my favorites of her books although I love everything she has written.

  2. A Little Princess by FHBurnett was my favorite girlhood story. So many lessons in how to treat others, how to live life regardless of circumstances. I checked this book out nearly every time I went to the library. Which back then, unlike my twice-weekly trips now, happened every few months. Tasha Tudor’s illustrations were forever etched in my mind. Quite a different life for a girl growing up in the desert of the Southwest. Reading it enlarged my world for sure.

  3. Have you read Life is Mostly Edges: A Memoir by Calvin Miller? I read it for the first time in 2014 while traveling with my husband. I would read him a passage or two aloud, which led to more and more, until I could say that I read this one mostly aloud. And my hubby is not a books kind of guy — prefers talk radio!! :o) We laughed and choked down tears and had great conversations while reading this book. It is one I would highly recommend!

  4. Please write what you think of Lila. I would be very interested.

  5. Hey Sarah! So excited about your Book Girl endeavor! I loved 84, Charting Cross Road – it has stuck with me for many years and taught me a lot about friendship and life. One other thought I had is have you found the Backlisted podcast? Their goal is to bring new life to old books and they are dusting off classics that don’t get much press any more. I read A Long Way from Verona (can’t remember the author) and Venetia (georgette Heyer) after hearing about them on the podcast and they were both very well written. You might just peek through the books they’ve covered to see if anything tickles your fancy. Hope you’re doing well xx

  6. Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Some of the most beautiful, imaginative, world-changing books I have ever read. Emily’s vivid wit and dreams, her moments when the curtain of life draws aside and she encounters the world beyond, her ‘flash’ of unimaginable sweetness and longing to her earth-imprisoned spirit, have completely captured my heart and imagination. I love Anne and her world of delightful dreams with all my heart, but if you haven’t read Emily yet, you need to!

  7. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is a profound book in which I felt great kinship to Maggie on her quest to stay loyal no matter the cost. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is another favorite, a powerful testament to perseverance, love, and overcoming odds.

    I am currently reading In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden about a woman who leaves her successful life to enter a convent; I am enjoying it so far, especially seeing how God calls us all in so many different ways.

    84 Charing Cross Road is a delightful read and a quick one as well. Written as a series of letters between two book lovers – loved it.

    I am about to start The Benedict Option and The Dictatorship of Noise is on my to-read pile as well.

    God bless you!

  8. I don’t often comment (I don’t know if I have ever…), but I read your posts a lot and since you asked about novels that have grown and shaped me, I thought I might as well chime in. Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien rocked my world with raw and aching truth. It is so beautiful and so true to life in painfully wonderful ways.

  9. Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg helped me to see myself afresh. This book paints a portrait of ordinary people and reveals the heroism hidden in their daily survival. Reading it made me proud of the strength and determination passed down to me by my blue collar, salt-of-the-earth forebears. This book is gritty and raw, but also exquisitely beautiful.

  10. Jane Eyre, Little Women, Les Miserables, the Anne series of course, Pride and Prejudice, and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall are some of the first that pop into my mind! Can’t wait to read your book when it comes out! ❤️😊

  11. The Summer Before the War and The Light Between Oceans are on my to-read list so I have no insight there.

    “The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel” is the only one on the list I’ve read. I will say I listened to it on audio and almost gave up on it. But I didn’t and in the end it brought tears to my eyes. If you read it and think it’s not for you at first, I will say it felt worth reading by the end.

    Anna Karenina was transformative for me. It is so timely still today about what family is and how to live in this world. You may have read it but it’s about two people who essentially have the same struggle, ultimately a fear of death, and make two different choices how to deal with this fear.

  12. Christy by Catherine Marshall,
    The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
    The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
    The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
    The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

    Also one that fits the description of vision-enlarging for me is Katherine Paterson’s “Jacob Have I Loved”, usually categorized as YA I guess, but conceivably a coming-of-age or cross-genre novel. I wanted to mention it since Anne of Green Gables and The Blue Castle could share such a classification. Also included in this category would be Madeline L’Engle’s Austin Family Chronicles, “A Ring of Endless Light,” “Troubling a Star”, etc. And of course, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I think women’s coming of age novels can and do still have a powerful place in an adult woman’s consciousness and a powerful formative effect on her perspective.

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