Book Review: The Eyes of the Heart by Frederick Buechner

Title: The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found
Author: Frederick Buechner
Genre: Memoir, non-fiction
Publisher: Harper San Francisco
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from Amy for Frederick Buechner Week
First line: I bring Naya into the Magic Kingdom.

Last year, I took part in a read-along of Godric by Frederick Buechner for a Faith and Fiction round table discussion. I didn’t like it. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the FnF commitment, I would not have finished it. I did finish it, however, and found one of the best passages on prayer that I’ve ever read. Ironic to find it in a book that I didn’t like very much.

I was sorely disappointed, as Buechner had been on my to-read list for a long time, as I’ve seen him mentioned on many lists of writers of faith-infused fiction and non-fiction. I had also read many quotes by Buechner that I thought were brilliant and profound – but all of these quotes had come from his non-fiction. And, there was that passage on prayer that had continued to stick with me. I wondered if maybe my experience with Buechner might be the same as my experience with Michael Chabon: I loved his non-fiction, but didn’t like the novel I attempted to read. (Curiously, this is the direct opposite of my experience with Zadie Smith’s work.)

So, when Amy asked for volunteers to read Buechner’s memoir, The Eyes of the Heart, for a Frederick Buechner Week she was hosting, I jumped. And I am so, so very glad I did. Buechner (I learned from a guest post on Amy’s blog this week that it is pronounced “Beekner”) is an intriguing man who sees the miracles in the daily events of our lives. He finds the holy in the love of a wife for her husband, in the experience of meeting his grandchild, in reminiscing about the books in his library, in his lifelong friendships. I am always profoundly humbled by authors who challenge me to experience each day, each moment, each breath as a gift from our Creator, authors like Wendell Berry, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis. Buechner has now earned a place on that list, and I will be seeking out the rest of his non-fiction. I may even give another one of his novels a try. (In fact, I’m sensing a Buechner Reading Challenge coming on – maybe for 2012?)

Some of my favorite parts of the book were passages in which he spoke of his library and his books. I copied down so many passages to share with you, and have narrowed it down to a few of my very favorites.

Speaking of his library, which he calls The Magic Kingdom:

There are such wonderful books in it that I expect people to tremble with excitement, as I would, on entering it for the first time, but few of them do so because they don’t know or care enough about books to have any idea what they are seeing. ~ p. 2

On the idea of heaven:

I said that if the victims and the victimizers, the wise and the foolish, the good-hearted and the heartless all end up alike in the grave and that is the end of it, then life would be a black comedy, and to me, even at its worst, life doesn’t feel like a black comedy. It feels like a mystery. It feels as though, at the innermost heart of it, there is Holiness, and that we experience all the horrors that go on both around us and within us as horrors rather than as just the way the cookie crumbles because, in our own innermost hearts, we belong to Holiness, which they are a tragic departure from. And lastly, I wrote her, I believe that what happens to us after we die is that we aren’t dead forever because Jesus said so. ~ p. 16

On the books in his library:

Shakespeare is not saying anything, and neither is L. Frank Baum. The Duc de Saint-Simon, the Buddha, Dostoyevski, and Paul Tillich are all holding their tongues. Not a peep out of Abraham Lincoln, Meister Eckhart, or Emily Dickinson. Even Walt Whitman and the prophet Jeremiah are for the moment speechless. The air of the Magic Kingdom is electric with the silence they are keeping. What would I have been if I had never heard them break it? What would I have failed to see if they had not pointed it out to me, and what would I have never heard without their ears to hear it through? What would I have missed loving without them to show me its loveliness? What marvelous jokes would have been lost on me? What tears would I have never found the heart to shed? And yet no less a gift is the mercy now of their keeping still with the sunlight lying in squares on the green carpet and the whole room holding its breath. They are there for when I need them, but in the meanwhile there is not a word out of any of them. Like wise parents, they are giving me room to be myself. They are giving me this room. ~ p. 50-51

On his grandson:

I thought of how, only a few months old, he was on his way down into the world and I, sixty-seven years old, on my way up out of it. I thought of how when I am out of it altogether, he will carry my genes into times and places beyond my power to imagine and how he was now one of the few for whom – such is the mystery of kinship – I would lay down my life in ten seconds flat if it took that to save his. ~ p. 100-101

On the title of this memoir:

That day on the staircase when I met my first grandchild for the first time, what I saw with the eyes of my head was a very small boy with silvery gold hair and eyes the color of blue denim coming down toward me in his mother’s arms. What I saw with the eyes of my heart was a life that without a moment’s hesitation I would have given my life for. To look through those eyes is to see every kingdom as magic. ~ p. 165-166

Be sure and check out these Buechner-related posts at Amy’s blog:

~ Why I Read Frederick Buechner by Stephen Lamb
~ Reading Buechner by Dale Brown

This entry was posted in faith and fiction, memes, non-fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Book Review: The Eyes of the Heart by Frederick Buechner

  1. Kim
    Twitter: BookstoreK

    This looks fabulous and the perfect addition to books I read for my spiritual direction practice.

  2. Rebecca Rasmussen

    Oh honey, I am so glad you picked out passages to highlight because I really get the sense of him here. I think his nonfiction sounds like the way to go 🙂

  3. Kathleen says:

    Sad to say, I have never heard of Buechner before. Thank you for bringing him to my attention. I’m glad you had better luck with this book than the other you read. I will have to add this one to my list to try in the future.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Kathleen – he is certainly an author who makes me think, which is a good thing!

  4. Sheila (Bookjourney)
    Twitter: bookjourney

    I really enjoyed the visual of his library as well. I like your idea of a Buechner reading challenge… if you do this, keep me in mind… I would like to read more of his books.

  5. Jen
    Twitter: jen_rose

    Lovely review! I got a copy from Amy too, but unfortunately, I still haven’t quite finished. Hoping that a little road trip tomorrow (where someone else is driving!) will be productive reading time so I can post a review soon… Buechner Week will just have to linger a little while. 🙂

    I’ve only read one other book by him, Secrets in the Dark. It’s a sermon anthology… you might like that. Still have yet to attempt one of his novels, but Godric is in my to-read pile.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Jen – I am definitely interested in reading one of his sermon collections – I love the way he expresses his thoughts on faith.