Huston Smith's Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine–A Review

If you want to spring out of bed tomorrow morning, saying, “Good!” I suggest you read this book the night before. And if you want a role model for how to age with zest and enthusiasm, even to the extent of looking forward to death as the last great adventure, Huston Smith is your man.

I loved this book. Because it covers the entire life of 90-year-old Smith, the label on the cover is autobiography rather than memoir. But that distinction is one that I am more than willing to overlook as I add it to the collection of 100 memoirs we are building here. As I see it, most autobiographies are memoirs even though not all memoirs are autobiographies. (If you want more precise definitions, you might appreciate this previous post.)

The Huston Smith story focuses on love. First, Smith is a beloved child of missionary parents in China whose memories of China and of life as a missionary kid are overwhelmingly positive. They also set the pattern for his lifelong curiousity about new cultures and new lands as well as the desire to practice whatever he studied.  As a child, he began the day with prayer and Bible reading–in Chinese. At age 86, he followed this morning ritual:

“And it is as a body, a mind, and a spirit that I begin each day. First upon waking I do physical exercise for my body. I favor India’s hatha yoga, a sequence of asanas, or postures, that culiminate in the headstand. . . .For my mind I slowly read a few pages from the Bible or a bible (the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Qur’an, the Sufi poems of Rumi, and so on). Now more mentally alert, I come to the spirit. For the spirit, I pray. I pray for those I know who are in trouble of one sort or another. Having prayed for others, I now pray for myself, which involves introspection–am I happy, sad, or anxious?–so I know what to pray for. Then I empty my mind of all thoughts and dwell in the luminous consciousness that underlies thinking. I conclude by repeating three times the Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodoxy for mercy: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The love of travel, religion, and culture began in childhood and sustained him all his life. He memorized Rudyard Kipling’s “The Explorer” at age 14 and then made that poem the theme of his life. Here are words he selected from the poem in the prologue of his memoir:

Something hidden, go and find it;

Go and look behind the ranges.

Something lost behind the ranges;

Lost and waiting for you–go!

He also fell in love with Kendra Weiman, daughter of his major professor at the University of Chicago. She is the muse, the partner, the major actor in his life, and one feels her presence on every page of the book. In fact, she gives him the title for his book and a poem on which to base it, a gift she may have given to more than one book in his long list of publications. Here’s the Robert Penn Warren poem from which the memoir’s title comes:

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,

Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,

But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

No matter what other subject Smith takes up in this story almost a century long, the subtext is delight. Does that mean that he denies or represses the shadows in his life?  No. In fact, this book may contain the best short marriage memoir ever written. In a chapter called “Family: The Operetta,” Smith describes four phases of his marriage. The third stage was the hardest. Here’s his honesty and pain in the raw: “only one time have I been both scared and afraid. It was the night that Kendra said, ‘You know, I am thinking of leaving you.’ I did know, but in order to keep going, I had had to suppress it. I sobbed myself to sleep that night.  It is painful, even now, to admit Kenra had reasons for leaving. I am a workaholic. I can hardly wait for breakfast to be over–eating, what a waste of time–that can be better spent getting down to work. And then, too, when I was unhappy at MIT, I traveled extensively, lecturing at other colleges. There are worse kinds of infidelities than the sexual. . . Fortunately, she did not leave; I attempted to make amends and began of all difficult challenges perhaps the most difficult–to actually change.”

The straightforward, humble, grateful voice of Huston Smith rings out from every page of this memoir. Go with him to every world religion–not through the mind only, but also with heart and body. He guides you like a docent through a gallery of pictures, not only of himself and his family at every stage of life but also of his mentors and guides.

What a hero. What a journey. Even in a nursing home, he reaches out–to share his tales of wonder.

Do you think it matters what age you are when you write a memoir? Do you have a bias for joy or for sorrow in writing?

Shirley Showalter


  1. jerrywaxler on January 31, 2010 at 3:22 am

    Shirley, Thanks for opening another door. On your recommendation I'm reading Karen Armstrong's Spiral Staircase, and loving every page. Now Huston Smith is going to keep me moving deeper into the “memoir of a spiritual life.” I've been working for more than a year on an essay about how to introduce spirituality in memoirs, and now I finally have some powerful raw material. I can use the memoirs of these two fascinating people as role models. By the way, it appears that publishers are occasionally throwing this word “autobiography” into the mix, as a synonym for memoir. I'm not sure why we need another word for the same thing, but the times I've seen “autobiography” recently, they are indistinguishable from the story-driven readability of what most of us call memoirs. JerryMemory Writers Network

  2. shirleyhs on January 31, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    So glad to be helpful, Jerry. I know you will approach this subject very carefully, as you do all the ones you cover in your great blog. To aid you and others, here's a tip for fast navigation to subjects in this blog. If you look under the category of “my reviews,” you will find “spiritual memoir” there. I checked and found 12 reviews of this type. There may be others I have not remembered to connect to the category, but I was pleased to find that many.Also, Ben Yagoda, in his Memoir: A History, reveiwed here… makes a very important point about the origins of the genre itself being a testimony to the spiritual search, starting with Saint Augustine.Modern literary memoir can also be spiritual in nature, even if it is not religious. Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, Scott Russell Sanders, Wendell Berry. . . .

  3. Chelsea on February 13, 2010 at 1:20 am

    Thanks–this sounds like a wonderful book! Maybe I can borrow it next time we see each other?

  4. shirleyhs on February 13, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Sure thing. How about I bring it on the March trip and pick it up again May 1? You will love it, I think. Makes you want to live to 100 and stand on your head every morning. Did I leave that part out of the review?? 🙂

  5. Hope Wester on March 10, 2010 at 3:47 am

    Excellent, excellent book! A highly recommend from this Librarian. What most impressed me about this man was his due diligence. Would that the rest of us approach any small part of our lives with this much devotion.

  6. shirleyhs on March 11, 2010 at 2:16 am

    Always great to hear from librarians, Hope. We can all hope to have a few ounces of Huston Smith's devotion. The world would be a better place.

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