Aug 122018
 

Evanston RoundTable, Aug. 9, 2018

Aug. 16 is International Apostrophe Day (right, who knew?) and to celebrate let us examine a short story, “Displaced,” in the current New Yorker by the estimable Richard Ford, winner of the Pulitzer, Pen/Faulkner and many other fiction awards.

In the piece he writes from the perspective of a 16-year-old who has lost his father: “And there is your mother and her loss to fill—at least, to step into—while you manage all your own sensations, and others.”

Let us examine that fine and not-so-fine sentence. It has elegance and intelligence. “…her loss to fill—at least to step into–…” acknowledges that from a boy’s perspective, attending to a parent’s mortal grief is unavoidable—and impossible. The loss is staggering.  He is too young to manage it, try as he must and try, in some fumbling, adolescent fashion, as he will.

But authors have a tendency to overwrite (certainly this one does—it’s so much fun!), and there’s this in Mr. Ford’s story that comes next: “…while you manage all your own sensations, and others.”

Hmm.

What others? If they are your own sensations there are no others. You cannot have sensations that are not your own. Does Mr. Ford mean others’ (note the all-critical apostrophe) indicating all other people whose emotions he needs to manage or at least deal with—his BFFs, his mother’s well-meaning friends, the school social worker, all the folks who will walk up to him at the funeral service (and for years after) and say: “I knew your dad, I worked with him, he was a fine man, you were lucky to have him for a father,” all while he’s thinking, who is this person they are talking about?

That would be an OK sentence, though one could quibble with trying to pack all that presumed meaning into one lowly grammatical mark.

But wait, there is none! Bells and whistles, klaxons and sirens are going off: no apostrophe!

So strike that reading from the record.

That leaves zero reasons to couple the caboose of “…, and others” to the rest of this train.

This isn’t a criticism of Richard Ford, or the editors and fact-checkers at the New Yorker. I’ve read many of Mr. Ford’s novels and their lean, sinewy prose and vivid characters are stunning. Even Homer nods, as they say.

My point is that the missing apostrophe is like a bulletin board upon which we can hang the sign: “Bad Sentence, Confusing Structure, Unclear Meaning.” OK, so it’s a big sign. But you see it around a lot.

I could adduce many famous examples of the confusion and despondency engendered by a missing or misplaced apostrophe. You can find them yourself at the hilariously named website “Apostrophe Catastrophes,” which is sub-titled “The Worlds’ Worst. Punctuation;”

It’s just that this story is hot off the New Yorker’s presses, just in time to celebrate apostrophe’s (or is that apostrophes’?) very own day.

Jul 272018
 

Evanston RoundTable, July 26, 2018

During these difficult and trying times, we find comfort in heroism and inspiration. That’s why the rescue of the 12 young soccer players and their 25-year-old assistant coach from the flooded Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand has been so satisfying: it reinforces the notion that global teamwork, individual courage and effective decision-making can still work.

These kinds of gargantuan emergency rescues have mesmerized the world before. In October 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure Morales tumbled into her aunt’s backyard well in Midland, Texas. She was safely evacuated after a tense 56 hours. And in August 2010 33 Chilean gold miners were trapped following a cave-in. It took 69 days to get them out.

But the Thai rescue was in some way more daunting. Spelunkers consider Tham Luang among the most dangerous and challenging caves in the world. Storm waters threatened to completely flood the cave network, and none of the 11- to 16-year-old boys could swim, let alone dive. Calling it a miracle is not too much of an exaggeration. “We have done something that no one expected we could complete,” said Narongsak Osottanakorn, the rescue operations chief. “It was an impossible mission.”

Sometimes, given the right combination of elements, the impossible becomes possible.

It took incredible luck just to locate the boys, who had wandered into the cave as sightseers and then retreated deep underground to avoid the rising floodwaters. Two British divers happened on the group 10 days later while laying guide ropes through the cave’s more remote regions.

In a reminder of the quick and creative thinking that saved the American astronauts in the famous Apollo 13 space flight, the Thai rescue mission was accomplished with such spit-and-baling-wire solutions as plastic cocoons, floating stretchers and a rope line to guide the way through sunken caverns of jagged rock.

In the end 10,000 people took part in the rescue operation, including 2,000 Thai soldiers, 100 volunteer cooks and 200 divers from around the world.

Quite aside from the innate drama, stories like this capture our imagination because they provide a lovely metaphor for a better world, in this case a large cast of international experts and helpers whose dedication and expertise helped pull off a most improbable success. And luck worked in their favor too, though luck always favors the prepared.

Fred Rogers’ oft-repeated saying bears on this story too. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” he said, “my mother would tell me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

To see the new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is to be reminded that we don’t need periodic emergency rescues to be inspired by goodness and civility. They surround us all the time. We just need to know where to look.

 

 

 

Jul 122018
 

Evanston Roundtable, July 12, 2018

Like everything else, relationships change over time. There’s a formula to them that is remarkably consistent.

Relationships start out full of passion and excitement. The object of our infatuation is a paragon of virtue or beauty or intellect (maybe all three!).

We can’t spend enough time together. Love blinds and blinkers us. Love, as Shakespeare put it, is “dearer than eyesight, space and liberty.”

This is the “pedestal stage,” you might say, and it’s highly unrealistic. No one can live up to the demands and expectations of “pedestal hood,” because no one exists inert and idealized like a statue. We’re all flesh-and-blood flawed. And when after some time in the newly developing relationship these flaws are revealed, as they always are, it can come as a shock. What—you’re not perfect? But of course: no one is.

Some relationships don’t survive the shock. And that’s too bad, because it’s based on the faulty premise of perfection. As they say, the perfect is the enemy of the good. And people generally get that.

If so, the relationship can move on to a second phase, characterized by the messy dimensions and exigencies of real life.

Couples date, fall in love, get engaged, get married, have careers, have kids, deal with aging parents and financial problems and the stress of work. Life is a hurly-burly of constant distraction and harried dissatisfaction. Sometimes partners are so busy they hardly see each other.

Almost half of all marriages don’t survive this stage.

Then things change again. Kids leave the nest. Aging parents move away or die. Careers peak and then end.

Now two people have the time and opportunity to contemplate life alone together. It can be scary, because it’s been so long since they’ve had the experience, and hard, because by this time their lives have been beset by losses: the loss of their earlier passion, energy and enthusiasm; the departure of kids and loss of parents; the end of jobs; a sense of marginalization in a society that worships youth.

So then what?

Then is the time for the couple to take stock, to discover a deeper and perhaps more meaningful intimacy, to let down their emotional guard and express vulnerability and tenderness, to revisit old and find new interests in common, to forge once again the emotional bonds that drew them together in the first place.

There’s an urgency to this mandate, because mortality looms. A good question to ask is: “Since today could be our last day together, how are we going to spend it?”

These are the long and strong chords of a lifetime relationship. And with time, effort and affection, with humor and honesty and understanding—and most important of all—appreciation for the miracle of still being together, the final stage can be the most rewarding of all.

Jun 302018
 

Evanston RoundTable, June 28, 2018

Everything comes easier with practice, from skeet shooting to horseback riding to piano playing. It takes 10,000 hours, experts say, to master a skill.

Dying is different. There are no scales or exercises, no practice runs, no warm-ups. It’s one and you’re done.

That is why it’s good to think about the unthinkable in advance, as unpleasant as that might seem, in order to come to grips with the pivotal final days and hours. What will they be like? How will we conduct ourselves? Most people assume dying entails extreme pain and suffering. But maybe not. According to a recent University of North Carolina study, dying is “less sad and terrifying—and happier—than you think.”

Hard to imagine. And yet, given the right circumstances, maybe it’s not so far fetched. Like anything else, dying can be done well or poorly. There are several facets of a “good death” that are worth pondering and planning for.

One of the best places to learn about death, not surprisngly, is at funerals. A funeral is a biography in an hour. Funerals are about looking back, recalling the essence of a person, sharing anecdotes, hearing from family and friends. That’s when the totality of a life—the laughter and tears, amazing facts and poignant stories—can be summed up and appreciated.

Funerals also remind us that life has a point, which may not be so apparent when we’re in the throes of living. And that point is to live the best way we can. This sounds banal, but it is no less true. Because living to our moral and physical capacity, full out, is the best way to live. And that is how we want to be remembered.

A good death suggests a good life. Just like at the end of every day we want to fall asleep knowing we tried our best, at the end of every life we want to slip away knowing that we tried our best, and have worked hard to help others.

Educator Horace Mann advised: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

Such victories don’t have to be epic. They can be as personal as helping a friend in need, or as fulfilling as mentoring a young person to find his or her life’s goal.

Martin Luther King said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. A good life also has an arc—toward helping and inspiring others.

There is such a thing as a good way to die, too. That is when someone dies with courage, grace and composure. Like a good life, such a death is an inspiration and a comfort to others.

Every day we should conduct ourselves such that when we come to the end, our last days and hours are made easier by the path we took to get there.

Note: This version corrects a typo in the published version.
Jun 142018
 

Evanston RoundTable, June 14, 2018

Food, why do you love me so? Sadly, you go right to my heart—and my waistline. It’s not because you taste so good or I’m so hungry for you. No, sad to say, it has more to do with our love-hate, approach-avoidance, feast-or-famine relationship.

Really, I’d rather we were just friends.

Don’t take it personally; it’s as much my fault as yours. I can’t help but love your gloppy cheese pizzas, 16-ounce sugary colas, salt-laden flavored chips and 16% butterfat-saturated ice cream.

I eat you and then lie there, in a stupor, like the boa that swallowed the pig.

It’s not just me, it’s a lot of us. Some 38% of U.S. adults are obese,and another 32% are overweight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worse yet, obesity affects almost one in five children and adolescents, triple the number a generation ago.

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests obesity accounts for 18% of deaths in the U.S. That’s almost half a million people a year.

It’s all because of you, Food. You got all processed, sugared over and junked up for us. And we just can’t resist, despite the risk of diabetes, heart disease, feelings of failure and anxiety and letting out our pants out every few months.

OK, so Houston, we have a problem. What to do? Most people have a one-word answer: diet! But that’s a problem too.

Everyone knows what a diet means: rationing calories. And it usually works, for a while, anyway, until the pounds that disappeared start to reappear. That’s because eating bad food is just too good to pass up. And the see-saw effect of losing and gaining weight is a habit too hard to break.

So, how to break up with bad food?

America, you know the answer! Instead of diet, think regimen or, in the current nutrition parlance, eating plan. Instead of temporary, think always or lifetime. Diet suggests one-and-done, but calories are forever.

So here’s today’s lesson. Strip the word diet from your vocabulary. Rethink eating. Good eating isn’t temporary, nor is daily exercise. They are as necessary and regular as breathing.

Stick with science author Michael Pollan’s entirely apt and wonderfully concise recommendation: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And wait until you’re hungry.

Plant food, not processed food, is what Homo sapiens grew up on. It is what our bodies know how to digest and metabolize admirably well. Throw in a daily course of fruit and nuts. Add some lean meats and fish with omega-3 fatty acids. Skinny down the portions and skip pasta, fried foods, bread, all-but-whole grains and anything with added sugar.

OK, that’s tough. But America, if you must splurge, confine it to once a week. Make Saturday your bad-food date night. Sunday morning you’ll hate yourself, but only for a few hours. Then you’re back to your regimen.

Take that, Food!

Jun 032018
 

Evanston RoundTable, May 31, 2018

Among the gregarious and hilarious regulars at the men’s locker room at the McGaw YMCA, where we regularly consider the wisdom and stupidity of the world, one recent conversation centered on an interesting question: what will life be like in 100 years?

A consensus emerged that things will, by and large, be better. Surely, people agreed, cancer will be at thing of the past. Commuting to the moon and Mars might be commonplace, and the average lifespan will exceed 120 years. Perhaps scientists will have figured out how people can stay sharp and refreshed on three or four hours of sleep a night. Imagine the boon to humanity if everyone could find an extra thousand hours a year for creating and inventing.

Of course, this all may seem naïve and fantastical, like the ruling world government H.G. Wells long ago predicted. But think of the progress that has been made in the last hundred years. A century ago, “Technology was meager, financial ruin was one downturn away…and the choices that Americans have come to expect—in their cars, clothes, food and homes—were [limited] by a monotonous consumer economy,” according to a fascinating article in the February 2016 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Manufacturing workers averaged 55 hours a week, and the fatality rate from workplace accidents was 30 times what it is today.

Women didn’t get the vote until 2020 and were confined mostly to teaching jobs. There was no Social Security; growing old was hazardous. Former Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neil, who died in 1994, described the America of his youth as “a desperate place.  Half the people live in poverty…Life for the elderly is filled with uncertainty, dependency and horror. When you get old, you are without income, without hope.”

Americans on average spent one-third of their income on food, double the percentage today. Owning a home was highly unusual, about one-third the rate of home ownership now. Infant mortality was tragically common. One in 10 infants died in their first year; now it is less than six in 1,000. In 1920 fewer than 30% of American teens were in high school; the rest were already in the workforce.

Horses for work and transportation were still ubiquitous. There were very few cars. Most people did not have telephones, a refrigerator or a radio.

The average lifespan in 1918 (when the flu pandemic was rampant) was 37 years for men and 42 for women, about half what it is today.

In most respects it was a different world, a different way of life.

Of course, the pace of change is never the same from century to century. The next hundred years might be far less dramatic and beneficial than the last one. Or it might be more. All we can do is look back and marvel at the differences between 1918 and today.

Hard to imagine, and yet imagine we must, because imagining a better future is the first step to achieving it.

Jun 032018
 

Evanston RoundTable, May 31, 2018

What may be an important initiative to reduce youth violence in Evanston is being launched this summer. The Kingian Nonviolence program, named after and inspired by the life, work and principles of Martin Luther King, will be held from June 19 through July 31. Some two dozen Evanston Township High School students will earn $8.50 an hour while learning and applying the principles of Dr. King’s life and career to community service projects. By the end of the program students will be certified to train others in nonviolence principles.

The brainchild of Kevin Brown, Manager of Community Services for the City’s Parks, Recreation & Community Services Department, the summer program is a partnership between the City of Evanston and the Addie Wyatt Center for Nonviolence Training.

 

Kevin Brown

Mr. Brown was first approached about Kingian Nonviolence in the summer of 2016 by Pam Smith and Gail Schechter, co-founders of the Addie Wyatt Center. Both women had trained at the University of Rhode Island’s International Nonviolence Summer Institute. One of Dr. King’s last wishes, which he proposed on the day he died, was to “institutionalize and internationalize” nonviolence training.

“I was intrigued with the program, because our team does a lot of work with conflict resolution,” Mr. Brown said. “Our job is to identify and work with at-risk young people, providing them with the proper resources and job assistance to help them become good citizens.”

A similar nonviolence program, introduced at North Lawndale College Prep in Chicago in 2010, is credited with reducing violence there by 90%.

Ms. Schechter and Ms. Smith are no strangers to ETHS. Ms. Smith grew up in Evanston and graduated from the school in 1976. In April 2016, after having presented their Kingian Nonviolence program at several Chicago high schools, they convened a meeting with the leadership board of ETHS’s Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) to discuss violence, racism and class differences at the school.

“The students wanted to get involved,” said ETHS history and sociology teacher Corey Winchester, who is the staff coordinator for SOAR. “They decided to adopt Kingian Nonviolence as one of their projects.

“What appealed to me,” he said, “was that this seemed to be a new way of thinking about a lot of issues in our society—a lens in how to resolve conflicts and bring about restorative practices to deal with what otherwise might lead to violence.” Mr. Winchester defined “violence” in broad terms: “Not just fighting but hateful speech, writing and conduct that result in racism, classism, homophobia, people feeling unsafe, all sorts of things that can lead to anger and anxiety.”

Keith Robinson, Assistant Principal at ETHS, felt the same way. “We at the high school were interested in exploring how we can align with and apply Dr. King’s practices of peace in a proactive way.”

The Kingian approach is based on the famed civil rights leader’s six principles of nonviolence, which are: nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people; the Beloved Community is the framework of the future; attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil; accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve the goal; avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence; and the universe is on the side of justice.

The summer program will be held at the Morton Civic Center, and include instruction from Mr. Brown’s staff, who have been certified as trainers in Kingian Nonviolence. Trainers also include Ms. Schechter and Ms. Smith as well as Addie Wyatt co-founders Sherri Bevel and Mary Lou Finley. As a young college graduate in the 1960s, Ms. Finley worked with Dr. King. Also scheduled to address the students are youth activists as well as civil rights leaders Timuel Black and Bernard Lafayette, who also worked with Dr. King. Dr. Lafayette is the founder of the University of Rhode Island Summer Institute and is the main author of the Kingian Nonviolence training curriculum.

Ms. Schechter, who helped put together the summer program, described the Addie Wyatt philosophy as “a process for adopting nonviolence as a way of life and addressing the underlying causes of unjust social conditions” through Dr. King’s “philosophy and methodology of nonviolent conflict reconciliation.”

According to the Addie Wyatt website, traineesstudy thelife, work and teachings of Dr. King and explore how this philosophy of nonviolence can be applied to confront injustice and build towards the Beloved Community… [A]ttendees become familiar with a viable, practical and historically effective map for how to create lasting social change through nonviolent direct action; and how to dig deep below conflicts to find true reconciliation.”

Students in the Evanston’s summer program will also participate in a number of field trips, including scheduled visits to the headquarters of Rainbow-PUSH and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, as well as New Friendship Baptist Church and North Lawndale, where it “helped change the culture of the school to promote a more peaceful, nonviolent community,” Ms. Schechter said. So-called Peace Warriors at North Lawndale, who are students trained in Kingian Nonviolence, helped establish a climate in which the school regularly celebrates violence-free periods with school-wide Peace Days and an annual year-end Peace Celebration, said Jude Laude, a District 202 Board member and guidance counselor at North Lawndale. In the 2017-18 academic year, the school was violence-free 158 out of 168 days. “Kingian Nonviolence has definitely helped transform the school,” he said.

Since the SOAR focus group in 2016, Ms. Bevel, Ms. Schechter and Ms. Smith have co-led joint two-day student workshops with students from ETHS, Wendell Phillips and Perspectives High School students in Chicago. The most recent workshop was held at ETHS in February and March of 2018, funded by a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation. At this point, Ms. Smith estimates, some 50 ETHS students have been trained in or exposed to Kingian principles, including senior Kai Gerberick. At the February-March workshop, he said the training helps “to convey and imbue” Dr. King’s principles. “It encourages an internal spiritual reckoning,” he said.

“Our goal is to address issues the students see as important, such as intolerance, racism, micro-aggression and the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Ms. Smith. “We want to train enough students to become effective ambassadors of peace in the school and, over the long term, have a ripple effect in the community.”

Students participating in the Evanston summer program have been selected from a list of high-school age youth who signed up for summer jobs through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, said Mr. Brown. Staffers have worked to put together a group of young people who can benefit the most from the program and “empower other students to peacefully resolve conflicts that occur in the school and in the community” through such techniques as peace circles, mediation and Dr. King’s six principles, he said.

“We’re excited by the prospect,” he added. “We see ETHS becoming a place of peace, which contributes to the goal of education: to help young people grow, develop and reach their full potential. That’s what Dr. King wanted for every human being.”

May 182018
 

Evanston RoundTable, May 17, 2018

May 7 through 11 was Teacher Appreciation Week. Schoolteachers in Kentucky, West Virginia, Colorado and elsewhere may have been too busy to celebrate, however, demonstrating as they were for better pay and conditions.

Teacher pay calls to mind—baseball, specifically Yu Darvish. The 31-year-old Cubs pitcher was signed last winter to a six-year, $126 million contract. For the math-impaired, that comes to a stupefying $21 million for an eight-month season. All for the privilege of hurling a 5-ounce sphere 60½ feet past opposing batters.

Admittedly not many people can do that. And because here in Evanston we bleed Cubby blue, we’re rooting for Mr. Darvish to succeed. But still, is this a good deal—good for the Cubs and good for America?

Maybe not. As of this writing Mr. Darvish is winless in six starts and coming off 10 days on the disabled list. Surely as the season progresses he will wind up with a bunch of Ws. But that doesn’t change the basic problem: the huge disparity in pay and wealth between a privileged few and the teeming masses, which seems only to get worse.

Outlandishly overpaid athletes, CEOs and celebrities are a fact of life in America. We tend to shrug it off because there doesn’t seem to be an easy fix.

And yet we know it’s not right. There are a lot of underpaid people who do work that is vital to society. Police, paramedics, nurses and firefighters rank high in that category. But at the very top are teachers.

After parents, teachers are the single most important influence on a young person’s life. A good teacher can inspire a lifelong love of learning, guide a person to right behavior and the right career and help instill self-respect and confidence.

“Teachers,” said author and activist Helen Caldicott, “are the most responsible and important members of society because their professional efforts affect the fate of the earth.”

But for all the lip-service paid to their influence and importance, including their very own national week of appreciation, teachers are paid a fraction of their worth. Mr. Darvish, if he stays healthy, will throw roughly 3,300 pitches this season. That comes to more than $6,000 a pitch. In one school year a starting teacher in District 65 might earn nine or 10 of Mr. Darvish’s pitches. It will take him a minute or two; it will take her nine months.

The inequity seems cruel, irrational and perverse.

The enormous disparities in salaries and wealth that we see in America are complex and discouraging issues. We genuflect at the altar of free markets, and yet we would prefer a far more just and equitable system that rewards great schooling, not great strikeouts.

Maybe someone will figure out how to make that happen. That would be real appreciation.

 

 

May 032018
 

Evanston RoundTable, May 3, 2018

Good news: my nine-year-old grandson Ben sleeps over most Tuesday nights. His dog Juney sleeps over too. We all sleep together, in one bed, for a hilarious, deeply sleep-impaired night.

More good news. I take boy and dog to his bus stop Wednesday mornings. Since that entails a 25-minute ride, we get plenty of quality talk time.

Bad news: he recently got a “device.” Since then there is no more talk time; he has turned into a screen zombie.

Now, this is not going to be one of those screeds in which the writer inveighs against the evils of screen time. When I was a kid I loved watching Howdy Doody and Captain Video before “graduating” to The Mickey Mouse Club, the Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke, and later still to Saturday Night Live and SCTV. From the sublime to the ridiculous.

Doubtless too much screen time is harmful. I heard recently of twin two-year-olds who each had their own iPad. I mean, really. But despite the hand-wringing, I don’t think anything terrible is going to happen to kids’ brains. They’ll pick their heads up enough to meet for play dates, have sleepovers, go out, get married and produce babies of their own, who will have mid-21st century issues, perhaps an addiction to jet-bikes.

Researchers claim the screen habit is the result of subtle, nefarious psychological rewards embedded in the games themselves. Maybe so. But I think it has as much or more to do with conformity. Kids are like adults: they want to do what their friends are doing. Remember fidget spinners?

So here is the conversation I am having with Ben:

Me: Ben, don’t be a follower. It’s so boring. Be a leader. Be the first kid to give up your device.

Ben: What? I don’t want to be a leader.

Me: I mean it. No more screen time at our house or car.

Ben: But Pops!

Me: Absolutely.  It’s a waste of your eyeballs. Step away from the screen, there’s nothing to see there.

Ben: So now what are we going to do?

Me: We can read. There’s a Harry Potter book we can start, and another Roald Dahl I want to try.

Ben: OK, but not in the car.

Me: Right, but we can talk. There’s so much I want to know about you, and I want you to know about me.

Ben: Like what?

Me: Tell you what. We’ll play a game. Call it “Three Questions.” I’ll ask you three and you ask me three. Only one rule: “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. You can make something up, as long as it’s close to the truth.

Ben: Fine. First question. Do we have to do this?

We started last week, and so far, it’s working. Only nine more years till college; we should know each other quite well by then.

 

Apr 222018
 

Evanston RoundTable, April 19, 2018

Maybe the luckiest thing that ever happened to me happened right at the start, in the genetic lottery at conception. That’s when I inherited the “reading gene.”

OK, there probably is no such thing, but I remain convinced of it. I have met people who rarely or never read, for whom reading is a chore or worse yet, an ordeal. At the other end of the spectrum there’s the cohort I belong to, people who read obsessively and voluminously, devouring books and magazines as naturally and inescapably as breathing.

In a lifetime of reading, a few dozen authors have become inspiring and dependable companions: Tolstoy, Nabokov, Graham Greene, Philip Roth, John Updike, George Saunders, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Wallace Stegner, David McCullough, Ann Patchett, August Wilson, David Malouf, John McPhee, the Bards of Avon and Asbury Park, and more.

What is it about their books that is so compelling? The best writing helps us understand history and better appreciate people. Beyond that, reading is a blessing in at least two respects: it allows readers to roam the world in time and place learning from others, and it is a great balm and solace in periods of loneliness.

This is the subtext for a classic novel I only recently discovered, “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005. The book’s narrator, the aging and ailing John Ames, is writing a letter to his 7-year-old son, a kind of summing up of his life, which he expects will end soon, before the boy ever gets to know him.

Ames lives in the small Iowa town of the title, and is a preacher who is the son and grandson of preachers. His first wife and child died at childbirth, and he has since experienced profound loneliness. He has lived alone for decades, cared for by sympathetic parishioners, until meeting and marrying a much younger woman, with whom – a surprise to them both – he has a child.

Ames and his best friend Boughton, also a local preacher, discuss religion, the great political and social issues of mid-20th century America as well as their personal lives. What bedevils Ames most is Boughton’s troubled middle-aged son, who has come back to Gilead.

Death too is never far away from Ames’ mind. He writes: “Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing.”

The story is simple and timeless: the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next, the deep love of a man for his wife and child, his regrets and weaknesses, and his constant and beautiful humanity. John Ames is one of the finest creations of 20th century literature. And “Gilead,” the first book of a trilogy about these characters, is one of our finest achievements in literature.

 Note: This version adds seven few words to the list of writers, to reflect two I missed, “the Bards of Avon and Asbury Park.”