A Review of
Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure
Paperback: Kalos Press, 2015
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Reviewed by David Clark
Nancy Nordenson’s most recent book, Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure, contains a collection of elegant lyric essays. Nordenson’s brooding but engaging meditations explore the character of faithful work through an exposition of numerous disquieting questions, questions that fail to admit to easy answers. Author and critic John Berger once compared the successful essay to an outstanding drawing. “The artist attempts to render what is before him by imagining what is behind, drawing what can’t be seen.” Finding Livelihood seeks to understand what is “behind” the human task of earning one’s daily bread.
The ancient Celts often spoke of encountering God in the thin places. These thin places were most often conceived as physical spaces of grandeur where human beings came “closer” to God. Writers described such moments in contemplative, transcendental terms—rarely did a thin place occur within the banal context of daily labor.
However, it is in our daily work that Finding Livelihood seeks to find a thin place. If God is the God of all creation, then Nordenson wonders, “What is “good work?” and, “Should everyone expect work to physically, mentally, and spiritually satisfying?” Can we, the ex-inhabitants of the Garden and former recipients of constant communion with God, now only experience “God with us” in rare moments of leisure? Is the Triune God not on offer during long hours spent struggling in our messy, exhausting, and dehumanizing workspaces?
Michael Montagne, a French author and father of the essay form, famously wrote, “I write to know what it is I think.” One of the joys discovered reading Finding Livelihood is observing a thoughtful, and mature intellect wend its way through the thickets of a difficult, convoluted subject. The reader is invited to look over the writer’s shoulder as she closely observes the modern work experience—her own and those she encounters–and attempts to make sense of it all.
Nordenson’s style employs an essay/memoir form. That is, her prose looks through the lens of her life experience–all of it. Nordenson exposes the reader to her triumphs and struggles; life examples replete with mistakes, dead-ends, and moments that defy explanation. This book is an honest accounting and interrogation, but also a prose that invites the reader to enter into the journey as a companion.
Finding Livelihood does seek “thin places” within our daily work but also searches for “thicker truths.” By a thicker truth, I mean Nordenson seeks a knowing that looks through the shards of our life’s facts and rendered experience to locate a larger coherence. By investigating the brokenness inherent in our current work lives, the author imagines the contours and possibilities of “work that delights.” Nordenson eschews easy certainties, the bromides found in so much of current vocational advice.
Finding Livelihood is an example of a literary “form” that augments content. The author intentionally uses the “lyric” essay form.
The lyric essay format favors layers and the juxtaposition of ideas rather than formal proofs. The author’s choice might, at first glance, seem odd for so weighty a topic. However, Nordenson has crafted a collage of closely written chapters each of which is an individual essay. Like the multiple contour lines found in a master drawing, the author has used multiple essay forms to “see behind” a difficult subject. By offering the reader essays written in the style of Thomas Aquinas, Montagne, Joan Didion, and Pico Iyer, the author has provided a seldom-used “slant” method manner of learning. Like a visual collage, when the reader considers the corpus of essays comprising Finding Livelihood, the whole contains coherence and more meaning than the sum of the disparate parts.
Nordenson’s work will not satisfy everyone. The author’s investigation does not immediately announce connection and requires a suspension of judgment until all the chapters have been considered. The author offers neither bullet-point solutions nor tight Biblical exegesis. Rather, these are essays that invite the reader to use a “slant” approach, multiple viewpoints serving as a start for further contemplation rather than a destination.
Nordenson entices serious readers into a deeper consideration of what it means for humans to work with her close observation, thoughtful scholarship, and elegant prose. Finding Livelihood may be the best non-fiction book I have read this year. The combination of the author’s serious attention to language and the subject made it a book I gladly read twice and have recommended.