Bibliophiles: Reading poetry, meditating on religion

Jay Parini
Jay PariniOliver Parini

As a very young writer Jay Parini somehow managed to befriend some of the literary lions of the 20th century, Alistair Reid, Graham Greene, Gore Vidal, and Jorge Luis Borges. Parini recounts his unforgettable week with the Latin American genius in his new memoir, “Borges and Me.” A poet, biographer, critic, and novelist, Parini has written more than 25 books, including his bestseller “The Last Station,” which was made into a film starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. He lives in Vermont, where he teaches at Middlebury College.

BOOKS: How do you start your day as a reader?

PARINI: I have a cup of tea in bed and turn on my phone because I have a group of friends who read a page of Leo Tolstoy’s “A Calendar of Wisdom” each day and discuss it. It’s a brilliant collection of sayings by thinkers like Jesus, Muhammad, Emerson, Kant, and Thoreau. The second thing I read is Richard Rohr’s daily comments. He’s a Franciscan priest who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation. His writing is the most intensely, beautiful spiritual writing that I know of. Then I read poetry at breakfast because it gets me on the right path of reading and thinking. I’ve been reading Wallace Stevens again. This morning I was reading his “Transport to Summer.”

BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?


PARINI: Most of my reading is meditative stuff, religious stuff, or poetry, then I always have a book on my shelf that I’m mowing through. The three most important books I read in the past year, which I keep buying hardback copies of because I like them in each room, I even have one in my car, are the books by the priest Martin Laird. He’s written three books on Christian mediation, including his most recent, “Ocean of Light,” a brilliant book on silence.


BOOKS: What’s one of the last books you “mowed” through?

PARINI: I just finished Daniel Swift’s “The Bughouse,” an amazing book about the craziness of Ezra Pound when he was in St. Elizabeths mental hospital.

BOOKS: What else do you read?

PARINI: Through most of my life my reading table has been covered with biographies and memoirs because I’m interested in where people’s moral compass lie. I have read the five volumes of Leon Edel’s “The Life of Henry James” five times. I find it such a moving story, how James moved through crisis after crisis and how his writing was a countermeasure to them. I’ve read every biography there is of Charles Dickens. I love Peter Ackroyd’s massive one. Now I’m dying to read Francesca Wade’s “Square Haunting,” which is about five women writers, including Virginia Woolf, who lived on a square in London in the early 20th century.

BOOKS: Are you a fast reader?

PARINI: Depends. Poetry I read at one mile an hour. If I’m reading spiritual books, I’m reading very slowly, letting the words dig into the unconscious where they can do their work. I read novels in a whiff, including some junk. Last night I just started Agatha Christie’s “They Came to Baghdad.”

BOOKS: Whom do you read for fiction?

PARINI: I read mostly classics. George Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Woolf, over and over again. Same with poetry. Dickinson, Frost, Wordsworth, and Yeats. Then again, I did just read Ilya Kaminsky’s 2019 collection, “Deaf Republic,” and was blown away.


BOOKS: Have you always been a voracious reader?

PARINI: Not until college. Then I spent seven years in Scotland, which is where I truly became a deep reader. I come from a working class family in Scranton. My parents only went to ninth grade. My father read the Bible at breakfast. Those stories stuck in my brain.

BOOKS: Who influenced you most as a reader?

PARINI: The Scottish poet Alastair Reid, who I met at the University of St. Andrews, and Borges were unbelievable influences on my early thinking and reading. Reid was translating Borges. When Borges came to visit, Reid asked me to baby-sit him for a week. Borges insisted we drive to the Scottish Highlands in my rust bucket of a car. We talked about reading the whole time. He was blind. At night we laid in bed and I read to him. He was endlessly reciting things. When we were on Loch Ness he stood up in the boat and started declaiming from “Beowulf” in Anglo Saxon. It was like living inside his stories.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane’' and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.