Sometimes sweet, sometimes not a bit, life is ever a mystery. We negotiate its dim and winding paths equipped only with the flickering candles of our senses, unwinding the string of our experiences, making choices out of instinct or wish or fear but never knowing with any certainty where the next step may lead.
To allay the terror of this profound unknowing, most of us--if we don't attempt to close our minds to it altogether--opt for ways to share the burden of our confusion. We take solace in the promise of religious faith or in the predictabilities of Western science. We count on such ephemeral helpers as luck and magic, guardian angels and enigmatically encouraging prophesy. We turn to books like the ones on this page for guidance and inspiration. We put ourselves in the care of others that we insist are wiser, clearer visioned, more profound, and then we go about our everyday routines with slightly deferred anxiety.
Until we crash hard against an event that shatters that illusion of safety. A death. A loss. A devastating disease.
Suddenly we're thrown back to the very depths of our resources, scrambling for meaning, solace, inspiration. We seek to penetrate familiar archetypes, to remind ourselves of essential givens that have long fueled the engine of our culture or society. It's as though we collapse into the embrace of tradition to participate in a perspective wider than our individual gaze, to achieve once more a simple, childlike acceptance--an informed innocence that absorbs strength directly through our roots.
Sometimes, of course, this yearning for primal inspiration is super-organic. During times of rapid change or instability--war, famine, economic decline, the apparent breakdown of cherished (if idealized) values--whole populations turn inward in their quest for some small island of spiritual surety on which to stand.
We go back to whatever version of the Word is fundamental to our belief system, be it this season's unusual proliferation of books and television programs about the Book of Genesis or the more extreme examples of zealotry that every great world religion seems, unfortunately, capable of producing in response to enormous stress. We dial the 900 numbers of psychic networks so that perfect strangers with "extraordinary powers" can validate facts about us that we already know. We pursue enlightenment via the close, credulous scrutiny of ancient symbols, mystic oracles or exotic methods of divination. We struggle toward a transcendence of immediate confusion by submerging ourselves in the teachings of ascetics who famously renounced the world to achieve serenity.
And, more often than not, we are uplifted. Not for nothing have great and encompassing ideas endured over centuries. The very issues of justice, morality and mortality that confront us today, individually and as a people, have engaged human beings in every previous civilization.
History, in its ongoing process of intellectual distillation, has preserved those insights and methodologies for coping that have proven to be most helpful. Some are contained in the books chosen here from this season's far-flung gift books. They are our hard-won lexicon, the prayer books to our species' ultimate perpetual and periodic questions, the hands we reach out to hold when, all alone, the darkness is too impenetrable to be ignored.
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Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY
GODDESS OF THE AMERICAS
Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe
Edited by Ana Castillo
(Riverhead Books: $23.95, 256 pp.)
AMAZING GRACE IN AMERICA
By Mary Rourke and Emily Gwathmey
(Angel City Press: $26.95, 128 pp.)
A SONG TO THE CREATOR
Traditional Arts of Native American Women of the Plateau
Edited by Lillian A. Ackerman
(University of Oklahoma Press: $29.95, 174 pp.)
THE VENETIAN'S WIFE
A Strangely Sensual Tale of a Renaissance Explorer, a Computer and a Metamorphosis
By Nick Bantock
(Chronicle: $22.95, 131 pp.)
History of a Civilization that Ruled the World
(Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $60, 292 pp.)
And Bear in Mind:
LIVING WITH GHOSTS: 11 Extraordinary Tales by Prince Michael of Greece, translated by Anthony Roberts. (Norton: $25, 192 pp.)
BEAUTIFUL DEATH: Art of the Cemetery by David Robinson with a text by Dean Koontz. (Penguin Studio: $24.95.)
JOURNEY TO ENLIGHTENMENT: The Life and World of Khyentse Rinpoche, Spiritual Teacher From Tibet With a Remembrance by His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Matthieu Ricard. (Aperture: $45, 151 pp.)
WHERE EVERY BREATH IS A PRAYER: A Photographic Pilgrimage Into the Spiritual Heart of Asia by Jon Ortner. (Stewart Tabori Chang: $50, 248 pp.)
HUBBLE'S UNIVERSE: A Portrait of Our Cosmos by Simon Goodwin, preface by John Gribbin. (Penguin Studio: $29.95, 127 pp.)
SISTER WENDY'S GRAND TOUR: Discovering Europe's Great Art by Sister Wendy Beckett. (Stewart Tabori & Chang: $29.95, 166 pp.)