I’ve been reading through a trove of small treasures for the past month, by which I mean, of course, small books, which may sound peculiar, but has me thinking about how much can be expressed in an economy of words—and images.
This all happened by accident. A while ago, I was browsing the Literary Hub update that’s dropped into my email Inbox every day, and stumbled upon a piece titled “Revisiting the “Long Take” Genius of the Two-Day Novel—Paul Yoon on 5 Novels That Take Place Over 48 Hours”: a challenge that intrigued me. I ordered three of the books listed, and as they began to arrive through the mail, days apart, I couldn’t help noticing how small and concise they were (there’s no obvious reason why they should be short; they just are).
And then I began to wonder whether, in fact, there was some unforeseen, perhaps subliminal pattern in my reading habits, because after tackling a whole list of big books last fall (we’ll get to those eventually here at the Online Book Club), many other short/small books have graced my bedside table since January, and all were worthwhile, often moving and beautiful reads.
I’ve decided to begin with a perfect little book that wasn’t on any list that I remember. In fact, I still can’t recall how I found it, except that it was recently. It’s Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. I think that it first began with my glimpsing a watercolor image from the book. It must be so because the images Mackesy creates are arresting and so lovely that each one gives me pause. They are timeless and tender and beautiful.
And then there is the story. Although certainly presented as a children’s book (though the hand-painted text would be difficult for most children to read alone), The Boy, the Mole… is for everyone. On the back cover of the book, Elizabeth Gilbert comments: “The world that I am required to inhabit is this one. But the world that I long to inhabit is the one that Charlie Mackesy has created.”
I looked up the artist-author online and found a shy, very gentle human being whose spiritual quest has taken him from atheism to…a destination that is still taking form, but is informed by the very deepest, most basic questions, such as: what really matters in life?
And so Mackesy created the four characters of his story, first introduced online, where they caused a sensation, and only later given life in this book. Speaking of his choices for the book, Mackesy explains:
“All four characters represent different parts of the same person, […] the inquisitive boy, the mole who’s enthusiastic but a bit greedy, the fox who’s been hurt so is withdrawn from life, slow to trust but wants to be part of things, and the horse who’s the wisest bit, the deepest part of your soul.”
When my copy first arrived, I still wasn’t sure what to expect, but within seconds, I felt that I was holding a precious object: made of paper and cardboard, it had the power to inspire, to elevate the spirit and even to move a person to tears. In this case, me, because the first page I opened, well into the story, contained the following words:
“Sometimes,’ said the horse.
“Sometimes what?” asked the boy.
“Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is brave and magnificent.
And I did get all teary-eyed, because its message brought immediately to mind a dear friend who is going through something terrible, and it felt as though those were written specifically for her. And immediately, I sent them to her in a Facebook message.
My two other favourite pages are these. First:
“Sometimes I feel lost,” said the boy.
“Me too,” said the mole, “but we love you, and love brings you home.”
“Nothing beats kindness,” said the horse. “It sits quietly beyond all things.”
I sat quietly after reading that line, happy to have a life in which these words are truth. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is a simple story that speaks to everyone, evoking feelings of joy and empathy and gratitude and of belonging. Its author is becoming a religious man–or perhaps he is well on the way to mysticsm–because his only desire is to touch upon a message that is universal. In a video interview in which he speaks about the book, Mackesy says: “The things I’ve learned in life, I’m trying to distill.”
Which, I think, is the very essence of mysticism.