Except for the Bible, I don’t know that I have ever wept in response to a book. But I did yesterday as I finished Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter. This little book is a rare pleasure not just for its literary quality, but for the vision of life that it casts before the reader. Seeing the world through the eyes of the main character Hannah Coulter has caused me to rethink my own vision of things, and she has done so in ways that evoke the very themes of scripture. Here are some of the things this book helped me to see:
1. Hannah Coulter will teach you to number your days. As the old hymn says, “Time like an everflowing stream bears all its sons away.” Our busyness often keeps us from feeling how transitory we really are and from focusing on important things. Yet wisdom—indeed biblical wisdom—would urge us otherwise. Hannah Coulter brings clarity to the bleary-eyed who will not see what they ought to see—that life is a “vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away… So teach us to number our days, That we may present to Thee a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:10, 12.)
2. Hannah Coulter will urge you to live your life in the present. You do not have the past or the future. All you have is now. What are you doing with your life now? Hannah exhorts us along with the apostle Paul to “make the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16).
3. Hannah Coulter encourages you to think of your life as embodied life—life in the real world with real pleasures and real pain. We do not live in a Gnostic world but in a physical one. The world to come is just the same, though we will all live in resurrected glory then. The resurrection and new creation are pervasive themes in this book.
4. Hannah Coulter has a marvelous depiction of forgiveness. The character Hannah describes an encounter that she had as an adult with a woman named Ivy who had mistreated her for many years when Hannah was a child. Read it in Hannah’s own words (pp. 103-104).
If I were to try to enumerate all the reasons you should read this book, the list would be as long as my arm. So I won’t do that. If you need more encouragement, take a look at the reasons Russell Moore gives for reading this book. In any case, you really should read this book. It is available right now as a free download from ChristianAudio.com or you can order the print version here.
I downloaded it at Russell Moore’s suggestion, and listened to the whole thing. Beautiful. I couldn’t believe I was so taken with a book that is really just a recounting and reflecting on a woman’s life.
One thing that surprised me was the vivid description of war in the last chapters. It actually gave me a far stronger sense of hell than I have ever had! (Don’t know if that’s a selling point or not).
The MAIN thing I learned from this book is the importance of community. As in delving into life with those around you. This was massively helpful for me in deciding where to live and what church to attend.
J. Gary Ellison
Believe it or not, the Kindle version is not available for Vanuatu where I live! I offered it as a gift by my wife, but when she tried to download it, she was told that it was not available for Vanuatu and that she should apply for a gift certificate. How disappointing! I have contacted both Amazon and the publisher. I hope that something can be worked out.
I fully identify with the first sentence of your post. I’ve read most of Mr. Berry’s essays and much of his poetry, but this was the first novel of his that I’ve read. I finished it late at night several weeks ago and then was overcome with a flush of emotion that I hadn’t experienced in some time. I had a “good”, soul satisfying cry at that point. Partly because of the novel itself, but partly because of the novel directing my thoughts to my Grandfather and Grandmother. Great read. I highly recommend it.