I am a traveler.
So begins N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World.
Wilson unleashes a blizzard of swirling poetic imagery as he invites us to travel through a year with him, season by season, giving us the distinct impression that he is along for the ride as well.
In the preface he states:
For me, this book was an occurrence. It rolled over me. I worked to shape and control it, to pace it, to leash it and teach it to sit and roll over. I did my best. But at times my best was insufficient, and in some places you might notice this thing climbing on the furniture, licking my face, or dragging me down the street.
I enjoyed the ride, though it left me panting and clammy.
This romp through philosophy, science, nature, theology, and poetry is not for linear, just the facts, ma’am reader. It’s for the reader who is ready to experience an exhilarating and sometimes queasy joyride on the Tilt-A-Whirl. [Spoiler alert: you’re already riding it.]
Why has every culture “felt the overwhelming pressure of existence itself and the need to explain it”?
What is this place? Why is this place? Who approved it?… Was this cosmic behavior expected? Am I supposed to take it seriously? How can I? I’ve watched goldfish make babies, and ants execute earwigs. I’ve seen a fly deliver live young while having its head eaten by a mantis.
This is not a sober world. Bats really do exist. Caterpillars really turn into butterflies—it’s not just a lie for children. Coal squishes into diamonds. Apple trees turn flowers into apples using sunlight and air.
Nothing is too small or too large to escape Wilson’s notice, and he delights in the absurd.
The tour begins in winter while we are shoveling snow. We are introduced to Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Voltaire, and Kant. On to Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hume. Wilson is tough on them. He prefers priests.
They know this universe is brimming with magic, with life and riddles and ironies. They know that the world might eat them, and no encyclopedia could stop it.
So we move on to the question What is the world made of?
Illusion? Suffering? Thoughts? The ancient elements—earth, air, fire and water? Quarks and leptons?
What are quarks made of? Can quarks be made of something which is made of something else which is in turn made of yet another thing, ad infinitum? “Infinite regress isn’t possible.” Is the answer, at some point, “nothing”?
That olive [I held in my hand] had mass, it had savor and flavor, texture and temperature, and even a tiny fragment of pit that nicked my gum. It had a measurable amount of potential energy. I am comfortable saying that the olive was no illusion. That the material world exists in all of its toe-stubbing glory. (I see no reason to wander down the long, lonely road of self-sensory doubt. That way avoids no difficulties and only leads to chat rooms, meds, atonal music, and cosmic loathing. It is a slow and painful suicide. And, in my opinion, it’s tacky.)
Then he welcomes us to the world of faith. What is the world made of?
Words. Magic words. Words spoken by the Infinite, words so potent, spoken by One so potent that they have weight and mass and flavor. They are real. They have taken on flesh and dwelt among us. They are us. In the Christian story, the material world came into existence at the point of speech, and that speech was ex nihilo, from nothing. [God] sang a song, composed a poem, began a novel so enormous that even the Russians are dwarfed by its heaped up pages.
We look around us and realize that everything we see, feel, hear, taste, and touch is art that inhabits our story and we are the characters. What will your character do? Think? Say?
Listen to your dialogue. Look at your thoughts. Be horrified. Be grateful that God loves characters and loves characters on journeys, characters honestly striving to grow.
Living makes dying worth it.
That seems to be a theme with Wilson.
And then spring. Ah, “death and pain, injustice and grief. Evil, the problem of.”
I see a stage, a world where every scene is crafted. Where men act out their lives within a tapestry, where meaning and beauty exist, where right and wrong are more than imagined constructs.There is evil. There is darkness. There is the Winter of tragedy, every life ending, churned back in the soil. But the tragedy leads to Spring. The story does not end in frozen death. The fields are sown in grief. The harvest will be reaped in joy. I see a Master’s painting. I listen to a Master’s prose.
More philosophers. The Discovery Channel. Croesus, Agamemnon, Oedipus, Odysseus. Puddleglum.
Tell us what is, by all means. But without God, you cannot tell us what ought to be.
And quintessential Wilson humor.
The platypus is quite clearly the best currently living creature, but it is not the best of all possible creatures. In addition to its mammalian, egg-laying, duck-billed, web-footed, amphibious life, it also could have had bat wings, sonar, and the ability to fire explosions out of its rear like a bombardier beetle. To speak franky, I feel that a creative opportunity was missed.
But back to pain.
If we live in art, struggling in the boundary between the shadow and the light, unable to see the whole, how can we begin to judge? How can we presume to talk about a better painting, a better novel, when we see only a single line, a single page, and it brings us grief?
Our art is tiny in comparison to His… He is infinite… and the narratives of this universe, the song of this universe, the epic of this universe, the still-frames of this universe on every level—from quarks to galaxies—reflect His self, His character, His loves, His hates, His mercies, His judgments, His kindnesses, and His wraths.
Wilson explores the difference between cute and beautiful. We try to soften the terrible edges of beauty into a palatable and trivial cuteness. Something comfortable. “Safety scissors for all the saints!”
No safety scissors here.
Wilson continues through summer sandcastles and a fallish hell.
St. Augustine, Aquinas, Kvanvig, C.S Lewis, John Donne, Christ, Louis XV, William Blake, and Oscar Wilde.
He ends with Christ. A return to winter. Christmas.
The Lord came to clean the unclean. He brought the taint of Holiness, and it has been growing ever since. He was born in a barn and slept in a food trough.
Through it all, Wilson keeps his eyes wide open with wonder as he attempts “to find unity cacophany.”
Even though Notes asks big questions and confronts tough subjects, the book itself is a fairly brisk 200 pages. It’s engaging and never dull. It provides fodder for great discussions with teens, reading partners, or book clubs. It’s on my 15 year old son’s summer reading list, and I’m looking forward to the conversations the book elicits.
I’ll be reading Death by Living, his follow-up book, this summer.
N.D. Wilson is best known and loved, however, for his adventurous children’s novels. My boys have read and loved his 100 Cupboards series, Ashtown Burials series, Leepike Ridge, and Boys of Blur (a retelling of Beowulf set in the swamps of Florida—who can resist?).
We all (myself, my husband, and boys) read Outlaws of Time as soon as it was released last year, and the sequel was just released today. I absolutely loved the first book, and I’m glad he finished the sequel so quickly because it ended on a cliff-hanger. I’ll be reviewing them both soon, but my friend Sara at Plumfield and Paideia has great reviews of 100 Cupboards and Outlaws of Time to read in the meantime.
Here’s a teaser trailer for the first Outlaws of Time.
The following interview is a great representation of Wilson’s personality and approach to life and literature.