I believe that favorite books, like favorite anythings, find us, rather than the other way around. We need them, and they find a way into our hands. You can spend a lot of time searching, and there’s certainly a lot of fun in that, but finding the one is sort of like finding your future spouse. You bump into her for the first time when you least expect it—like when you are buying hemorrhoid cream at Walgreens or when you break your ankle and you meet the prettiest nurse you’ve ever seen.
My first favorite book found me later in life—when I was thirty-two, which, I have to say, gives me hope that I’ll still actually find a wife. That's not to say I didn't have other favorite books before that, but none that spoke to me on such a deep level as the one I'm about to tell you about.
I was at my first writers’ conference in 1998, taking the fiction writing track by novelist Nancy Moser, when she recommended a series of novels by Jan Karon called The Mitford Series. She said it was the perfect escape. I jotted down the series title and picked up the first book, At Home in Mitford, when I returned home. She was right, but it was more than an escape for me. It was a lifeline.
Most people know what they want to do by the age of thirty-two and they are well on their way. I didn’t have a clue. I was working in a bank, and that was a fine job, but it wasn’t really a career. People my age didn’t really think about finding a career, though. We needed a job, so we looked for one and once we found one, we stayed there until the next job opportunity came along. When I took a couple of days off to attend the writers’ conference, I had no way of knowing the writing bug would bite me, thanks largely to Moser’s class, and partially to her Mitford Series recommendation.
The tagline on the first book is “Enter the world of Mitford, and you won’t want to leave.” Three pages into the book, you’ll find that it’s true.
By then, Father Tim, a bachelor rector, leaves the coffee-scented warmth of the Main Street Grill and heads for work at his church, Lord’s Chapel, hoping for an ordinary day. He ambles down the street in a way that sounds like a scaled-down version of John Travolta’s walk in Staying Alive. Father Tim surrenders “himself to the stolen joy of it, as some might eat half a box of chocolates at one sitting, without remorse.”
As he arrives at the office, he whispers the same short prayer he has been praying for twelve years: “Father, make me a blessing to someone today, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” Just as he inserts the key, a mud-caked dog (he’ll eventually name Barnabas) the size of a Buick licks him on the hand and his face, tempting the pastor to swear. Father Tim combats that by citing Ephesians 4:29 in a loud voice: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but which is good to the use of edifying …” Before he can finish, Barnabas sits down. We later learn that Barnabas always responds to scripture when it is read out loud.
Emma Garrett, Father’s Tim’s secretary, arrives and chases Barnabas away, temporarily. Once they both get inside, Father Tim realizes the formerly gray-haired woman, “full of the promise of spring” has dyed her hair red. This is not going to be any ordinary day. His life gets even more interesting when his attractive new neighbor, Cynthia Coppersmith, moves in and catches his eye, and when an unloved boy named Dooley Barlowe shows up one day and touches his heart.
C.S. Lewis once said, “We read to know we are not alone.” When I lose myself in the fictional town of Mitford, I realize I’m just a younger version of Father Tim. I don’t live in a small town. I’m not in my sixties. I’m not Episcopalian. I’m certainly not a priest, but yet, I identify with him, and identifying with him makes me feel less alone. I know that Father Tim doesn’t exist, but he is as real to me as my next-door neighbors.
This is an excerpt from my essay book, Sacred Grounds: First Loves, First Experiences, and First Favorites. I'd love to hear how your first favorite book found you.