Praise for Spirit Book Word

…from Eric Mader-Lin (Eric Mader), an American in Taiwan, September 26, 2009

“Fast-moving and deep”

“[Porter’s] sentences tend to be short, pugilistic even, but there is a concrete depth of reference, at times a great lyricism, at others pathos, at others a learned shortland. Spirit Book Word reads quickly, in a conversational manner, and yet it reaches great depths…Porter has the odd persuasive power of a man speaking directly to you, willing to tell you straight out what matters most to him…”

Eric Mader-Lin teaches English in Taipei and is the author of A Taipei Mutt. The novel is {available from]( Read more of his review at Clay Testament

…from Julie Mason in The Ottawa Citizen, March 24, 2002

“Porter, who teaches literature in Hamilton, is enraptured by words and wordsmiths and his book is a lover’s paean to both. Spirit Book Word comes disguised as a collection of essays, but it’s really an eclectic and enthralling conversation between Porter and any reader willingly to follow as he joyously leap-frogs from Raymond Carver to Thomas Merton to Marshall McLuhan to George Grant to Bob Dylan to Picasso.”

…from Keith Garebian in The Globe and Mail, February 23, 2002

“Intimacy in J.S. Porter’s essays on literature and spirituality is of a different sort. The author treats books as if they were living, breathing worlds…”

“Porter’s fine critical mind is clearly felt in his elegant inquiry into the subtle places where word and spirit meet…”

“Whether he is exploring the smalll but vital writing of Kristjana Gunnars, the meditative strains in Clarice Lispector or the complex metaphysics of Martin Heidegger, Porter is unfailingly sensitive to the spirit behind and within words. Where many intellectuals preoccupy themselves with the geography or landscape of text, its contours, textures, structure, peaks, valleys, curves and edges. Porter tries to find the inscape. He produces a meditation on writing rather than a detailed explication, but his ardent affection for the life of language and the human spirit results in an unusual, quirky, wise odyssey into the very soul of writing.”

…from Michael Higgins in The Toronto Star, April 27, 2002

“With this book of essays, he [Porter] conducts a mystical, exhilarating probe into the very nature of language, its horizons and its connections with the spirit. He explores the immense possibilities inherent in the very power and creativity of the word.”

“Porter is fascinated by the word-signatures or spirit-marks that can be discovered in every writer or imaginative artist. For the author himself, the signature is ‘Spiritbookword’ or ‘the breath of the word in the book.’”

“This is an eloquent manifesto, heroic and countercultural, one that celebrates the spirit and its relationship with the word. It is a declaration of faith in the redemptive qualities of the imagination.”

…from a letter by Alan Yoshioka to The Hamilton Spectator, December 15, 2001

“RE: ‘The search for my word,’ By J.S. Porter, The Magazine, Dec. 1

Thanks so much for publishing the excerpt from J.S. Porter’s new book, Spirit Book Word. I told my colleagues on the listserv of the Editors’ Association of Canada that I’d come across this story in your paper when I visited Hamilton that weekend such a lovely meditation on words that speak truth, writers who have to get the voice just right.

I posted the opening paragraphs, which had been enough to get me hooked. One member of the listserv ordered the book from the publisher and posted the how-to for the rest of us.

And two others wrote me privately with notes of interest and appreciation. Clearly the piece struck a chord!”

…from the poet John B. Lee’s December 6/05 letter

Dear John

I’ve finally cleared the decks and am reading your wonderful, thought provoking, love letter to the written word, book, Spirit Book Word.

If one agrees with Susan Sontag’s belief that in writing “all the work is in the style”, this is a masterful achievement.

“I want a quiet voice, a little voice, a whisper, for I’m telling you a secret I’m not quite sure of myself. A secret I can spoil by a wrongful telling. Will you listen? I have a story to tell — a story of my relationship with ten words and the writers who bring them to flesh, a story of my stutter to pronounce my own lifeword.”

This is wonderful writing, John. I was reading it in the hottub, a place where I float my belly and call myself, “a hottub Buddha”. I lingered. Read. Re-read. Savoured. Thought. Read again. Read by slow exhales and taking in of breaths. Wished I’d written such words. Had such thoughts. Said such things.

I’m brought to remember James Reaney’s talk at the Visionary conference in Guelph, where he unashamedly and enthusiastically said this simple thing, “I love stories.” He said it deep. We were in a church sitting in pews gathered together for a conference on the visionary tradition in Canadian literature. Poets, novelists, essayist, professors, people who believe in the transformative power of story and poetry. How the best words in the best order might change a person’s inner life.

I also think of Stan Dragland’s books, Journey Through Bookland, and The Bees of Invisibility the title based on Rilke’s line.

You’ve got me thinking about my own ‘spirit words.’ I confess, I love too many words to settle upon a single one. And I’m not certain I’m far enough along on the journey to the soul to know what my spirit word might be. Perhaps it might be “home.”

Beth Robinson, Greensville

…Letter to the Editor, Hamilton Spectator, (August 1999)

“Re: ‘In praise of prepositions’ (July 30) and ‘Newspapers: A Human Cosmos’ (Aug. 18).

Wow! Two articles on The Spectator’s Forum page by J.S. Porter in as many weeks. Thank you.

Porter’s essays are so strikingly unusual… It is part of my job as librarian at the Hamilton Public Library to keep track of local authors who publish creative pieces. With J.S. Porter, it’s not easy. He has published many essays in literary magazines in Canada and abroad for at least the last 10 years…With some of Porter’s essays, I read them over and over: Letter to Brodsky, Farewell to a Monk, and two on Emily Dickinson: Melody for Bone and Terrible Simplicity.

While Porter’s essays on literary criticism are so very personal in their insight into the writers who obviously mean so much to him, his essays on language and reading are at least as engaging as those by Alberto Manguel. Take his essay from last month, In Praise of Prepositions: quirky, clever entertainment from prepositions of all things. His essay on newspapers is another gem…”

Helen Walsh

…co-publisher of Literary Review of Canada, March 29, 2004

dear john

just a quick note to say thank you for writing such a beautiful book…[i] have been so very moved. your presence in these pages is not small. it seeps through the typography, the intimacy, the communion of thought. it compels (in a quiet way) a honesty in reaction. reading this book has reminded me of the utter astonishment i felt when i found lawrence in university (i studied english literature at university of toronto) although i never understood why. but it is exactly the quick. the utter life in it. i am amazed at how intuitively right your thoughts feel, even in relation to those writers i have yet to encounter, but certainly for those, like lawrence or raymond carver or dennis lee or george grant, whose works i have read…yesterday i recommended this book to my friend bobbi. she is the kind of reader you want for this. she has been breakfasting with proust for about a year now and we’ve talked in the past about which authors one shares which meals with. i said you definitely were not someone to linger with over breakfast; it was impossible to do anything else with one’s day except think, read and write after reading spirit book word. the mind is in too thoughtful a place. so thank you for stealing away time for me from life’s practicalities over the past few days…

John Robert Colombo

from a letter by John Robert Colombo, July 04/04

You talk interestingly and knowledgeably and movingly about words. The word for your book is … sweet.

You are obviously an inspired and inspiring teacher, and I feel your dedication and devotion writ large on every page of your work. Also, I feel that there is love here, love of these authors, love of their writings, love of literature, love of culture…

You have found a neat and sweet way to link some writers and to express your reactions and enthusiasms. I cannot image anyone opening your book and not finding his or her horizons broadened, his or her understanding deepened. You show that literature is another word for life…

Marilyn Gear Pilling on Spirit Book Word

January 31/99.

Dear John,

Some thoughts that came to me as I finished Spirtbookword:

In the first place, I love the idea - that every writer has a word.

And then to look at these seven writers from that vantage point, a vantage point from which they’ve never been looked at before - there is an immediate quickening of interest on my part. Also to see which word you’ve chosen for each writer.

I think that the “I” of this book is as much a narrative persona as the “I” of fiction, or poetry. There is a relationship between the “I” and JSP, there are some things they have in common, but the “I” does not = JSP.

The “I” is a character in this story. We get to know him. It is his story, as well as the story of his relationship with these seven words and the writers who, as he puts it, bring them to flesh. We have the I and the seven other writers, interacting.

Actually, this book is a kind of novel, that’s what it is. It is the I’s love affair with words and with each of the seven writers, a love affair that is enacted before our eyes, in all its tortuous turnings. As in any novel, we do not have to know the seven characters before we open the book. The I will tell us everything we need to know about them. “There is a certain response to the ideas or the analysis, but there is a deeper response to the revelation of personality.” So says Robert Olen Butler, of fiction, and so say I, of Spiritbookword.

There are relationships among the seven writers, too. The narrator is always weaving, always connecting. And he does not rip out by night what he has woven by day. But the seven are not wholly dependent on the narrator; they “have secret intercourse with each other,” and we, the reader, can sense this.

To read this novel, we must understand the complexity of the I. We must not take him at face value. He begins humbly, quietly, inviting intimacy. He presents himself as uncertain - “a little voice, a whisper… a secret I’m not quite sure of myself.” He presents himself in this way, but his verbs signal otherwise - “violate,” “transgress.” And that first sentence - “forgive me.” He who is without sin does not need to ask forgiveness.

He fails at obedience, he tells us, right off. Ah, but this is the unreliable narrator of fiction speaking, for again, we will discover that this is not so. He does not fail at obedience. It is just that his masters are not those the world most often bows down to. “I’m not sure which god I serve. Maybe the god of no-name,” ventures the narrator near the end. I don’t think so! The narrator is obedient to the demands of words, the exigencies of literature, the hard taskmaster of creating top notch prose. You will not find a cliche coming out of this narrator’s mouth.

The I displays a mastery of words that is equal to that of his seven characters. His prose has muscle and guts and rhythm. It can thump as well as soar. It can surprise you. There are no tired, worn out phrases. No flab. And the I plays. He plays with words as a cat plays with an elastic. Some of his moves are brilliant, some are infused with a kittenish exuberance. Sometimes the narrator’s play ends with an eating-alive. Don’t be fooled by that opening persona. This I can be as ruthless in the service of literature as any of his seven.

The narrator tells us he’s uncertain about his voice, but his voice is not uncertain about itself. The voice of the I never falters. It is as sure of tongue as a mountain goat is sure of foot (except in “David”). The voice is original, inimitable. It has the authority to lead us anywhere and make us follow. It demonstrates that it knows. “Merton walks alongside you, talking as he walks.” So does this “I”, in one of his many guises. He charms, he seduces. At other times, he thumps, or surprises, or casts you up on shore barely alive.

“Fiction is the art form of human yearning,” says Robert Olen Butler. Despite the narrator’s insistence on his blessings, there is such a tone of yearning in Spiritbookword. Yearning for a listener who will hear what is being said, yearning for connection, yearning for a world in which the spirit, the book, the word, is primary. By the end of the book, we wonder if the seven writers are aspects of this complex “I,” who yearns even as he breathes, and writes. Aspects that don’t always sit cozily together. The I himself suspects this: “Maybe with these seven enfleshed words, I’ve inadvertently drawn my own face, the geography of my own body and spirit.” Each one of those words held an electric charge for the I - small; strange; quick; zero; tremendum; obedience; mercy. That is why he chose to follow them, to enter them deeply?


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