Best book you’ve never heard of on … the daily grind

I can’t recall how I first heard of Kathleen Norris’s slim volume The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work. (And by “slim,” I mean slim: 88 pages, five dollars.) I can’t remember not being acquainted with its truths, both because Norris was the first to put my own inarticulate thoughts into words, and because I’ve so thoroughly adopted her concepts as my own.

“Quotidian” means “ordinary,” or “everyday,” and in this work Norris addresses the inherent worth of the mundane tasks that consume our everyday–the cooking, the cleaning, the dishes, the diapering.Β “What is it about repetitive acts that makes us feel that we are wasting our time?” Norris asks.

I don’t know what it is, but I feel it.

Best book you've never heard of on ... the daily grind

While I’m tempted to dismiss my daily routines as trivial, Norris insists they are anything but. Whatever we repeatedly do has the power to shape us, whether or not we mean for it to do so. She speaks of the power of embracing simple things like walking, baking bread, washing dishes.

These mundane activities suit the rhythms of our bodies and ground us physically in the everyday. (A favorite quote: “In dishwashing, I approach the moral realm; there are days when it seems a miracle to be able to make dirty things clean.” It reminds me of Anne of Green Gables.)

My life is full (though I hate to use the word “busy”). I’m focused on my productivity, and to enhance it, I outsource certain household tasks. But Norris articulates my vague unease about why I’m uncomfortable outsourcing all of it–the errands, the cleaning, the cookery. These tasks–though inarguably small–require human rhythms, invite contemplation, and ground us in our lives.

Norris isn’t advocating for the quotidian to replace my perceived “more important” tasks, but she does argue for the value of anything done in the service of those I love–or at least anything I do when my heart (and I don’t say this lightly) is in the right place.

Share your love for–or hatred of–the daily grind, Kathleen Norris, and all things quotidian in comments. (Is this a new book to you?)

Books mentioned in this post:


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  1. First, I love that you mentioned Anne of Green Gables. I had a similar thought.

    Norris’ argument that the everyday makes us who we are makes sense — in the way that of course it does even though I never thought about it like that before. We seek routine to ground us. When I am upset or confused about something I often clean my bathroom. The rhythm of it (your and her use of that word are perfect) allows me to feel accomplished, useful….and that grounds me in the moment even when my thoughts are anything but grounded.

    My dad has said that mowing the lawn has been where he thinks through things. It makes sense too.

    I’m now on the Norris bandwagon with you. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention!

  2. Carrie says:

    I had heard of this book, but hadn’t read it. I DID read another of her books, called Acedia & Me. She touches on this concept of the importance of mundane tasks (and what our dislike of them may mean) in that book too. It, along with keeping a time diary, changed my thoughts about housework. (I have a post that will be live on Laura Vanderkam’s website tomorrow that elaborates on this.)

    • Anne says:

      I can’t wait to read your post on Laura’s blog!

      Acedia and Me incorporates much of the text from The Quotidian Mysteries. TQM is the transcript of a talk Norris gave at Notre Dame, and Acedia and Me is a much longer volume that was written to be a book. (That seems like the silliest thing to say–I hope you get what I’m saying!) In Acedia and Me, Norris goes into a bit more depth, but basically if you’ve read Acedia and Me you definitely have the gist of The Quotidian Mysteries.

  3. Erica M. says:

    “Whatever we repeatedly do has the power to shape us, whether or not we mean for it to do so.” And in an even more literal way than I suspect the book itself intends. One of the coolest parts of my Psychology class I took last year was learning how the brain will mold itself to our repetitive activities. If a person starts driving a taxi, the part of the brain responsible for direction would actually grow. It’s a good visual representation of what’s happening on an even deeper level.

    I think I’ll have to find this book. I’ve already read another book discussing the merits of simply enjoying the mundane, everyday activities to their fullest (it’s called “Lessons from Madame Chic”). At the very least, taking on a cheerful attitude even when one wants to say “not more dishes!” can make the whole thing more bearable.

    Now…it appears I in fact have many dishes that I have not done, and I think I’ll go try to do them cheerfully…

  4. Corrie Anne says:

    I’m curious! I’d love to read it! I’m not crazy about the daily grind — in fact, I even dread the simple chore of making coffee. But according to the deliberate practice books, we can have some great creative moments when we’re doing something like housework! πŸ™‚

    Also, I was at my favorite bookstore yesterday and bought Eleanor & Park. I’m excited to read it this week!!

  5. I discovered this book years ago on the bookshelf while working at a most wonderful independent bookstore. I had just read Norris’ ‘Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith’, and I was intrigued by the title. I think its a wonderful book. I was so impressed with the richness and the density of truth and wisdom in such a little chap-book. I know it was the beginnings and impetus for her book ‘Acedia & Me’, which I own and need to read. Thanks for this post – I’ve been thinking about writing a series similar to this on my blog.

  6. Ana says:

    I haven’t read it but I relate to your unease with outsourcing all of the daily grind. As much as I don’t LOVE changing diapers, sweeping the kitchen, or folding laundry, there is a satisfaction (however fleeting) I get from completing these chores and a sense that I am taking care of my family and home. Yes, we outsourced scrubbing toilets for now, but we actually plan to resume some of that housework when the kids are old enough to pitch in (or at least, stay out of the way!). I just feel that these chores and tasks are an integral part of life—across the entire globe and since the beginning of time people have been cooking and cleaning—and I don’t want to completely divorce ourselves from those simple acts of living.

  7. Danielle says:

    I’ve never heard of this book but you have me intrigued!! As a new momma I’ve found myself wrestling with the mundane-ness of some of the necessary daily “chores” and have been yearning for ways/perspective to understand the impact they have the potential to have on my life! Thanks for the recommendation!

  8. Karlyne says:

    This is one of my favorite “little books with big impact”. I’ve always been of the mind-set that why, yes, you can brush your teeth to the glory of God, and this book puts our daily lives in that kind of valuable perspective.

  9. Faigie says:

    I remember when I first met my husband and we were talking about guys helping out in the house and he told me he does his best thinking when washing dishes…I was sold.

  10. Rebecca says:

    Another book on the list πŸ™‚ I believe a well run home nourishes the souls of those who live in it. I’m intrigued to see the flip side of the coin: the work of the home nourishing the soul of the one(s) performing the tasks.

  11. Karlyne says:

    This is so funny! When I read “The Quotidian Mysteries” on your blog, I thought, “Wow, I bet I’ll be one of just a few who’ve read it!” Wrong again!

  12. Anna says:

    I adore this book and I read it twice last year – no great accomplishment at 90 pages, but a wonderful use of my time. I have whole chunks of it underlined and I’ve e-mailed passages to friends. I would put it close to the top of my all-time favorite list.

  13. Katherine says:

    I love this book. A friend gave it to me years ago and it took me about a year to finally get around to reading it- and then I underlined and starred passage after passage. It was that feeling of “yes”! It resonated with me.

    Since then, I have given it to friends as a baby shower gift (usually along with some books for the baby). I think it is timely for those first couple of years of repetition, repetition…

  14. Amy says:

    This is the second time someone I admire has mentioned reading Kathleen Norris in two weeks. It’s a sign. I’ve got to move her books higher on the read on pile! Thanks Anne! I love your book recommendations and the inspiring way you make time for reading!

  15. RebeccaK says:

    I loved this as well. I struggle a lot in this area. It’s time for me to re-read it, actually. I picked up “Amazing Grace” right after I read it because I loved her thoughts and writing style so much.

  16. Wendy says:

    I love Kathleen Norris!! I’ve never read this one, though I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of it and also read everything else I can find (except some hard to find volumes of early poetry). Thanks for the review! I’m gonna go track down a copy of this now πŸ™‚

    • Anne says:

      If you really have read almost everything by her, most of this little book won’t be new to you–it’s largely excerpted from Acedia and Me. I just didn’t want you to be disappointed. Good luck tracking down the poetry!

  17. Molly says:

    I know I am late on this bandwagon (I just found the blog about a week ago.) I have been looking for a couple books I can use for Lenten reflection that would help me incorporate and/or recognize Christ in my daily life, hectic as it is. I am glad I found this blog post, because Norris’s book seems like it will be just the sort of thing I need. I hate house work in general. Hopefully this will help me change my perspective and find meaning in it beyond making sure we have clean dishes. The reviews I have read sound very positive. Thanks for bringing this book into the open. I doubt I would have found it otherwise.

    • Anne says:

      I’m so glad you said this, Molly, because it IS a wonderful book for Lent but that hadn’t actually occurred to me until you pointed it out! Thanks for bringing it back to the front of my mind. πŸ™‚

  18. Heather says:

    I’ve never heard of it. I struggle with this too. “Women’s work” seems soooo mundane, boring, and without true purpose. However, I know that it all has purpose. It’s just easy to look at my husband’s job and think he has so much more purpose. Ya know?

    • Karlyne says:

      This probably sounds trite, but work that’s worth doing does have a purpose. We all have preferences, of course, and we’re all better at some things than others, but if there’s no true value in the work we do, then why are we doing it?

      I think you’ll love The Quotidian Mysteries, by the way, because it answers some of those questions about work and purpose!

  19. Michael Ann says:

    Began reading this today. Wow! Lots to think about. I’m finding this a challenging read in a good way. Thanks for the recommendation.

  20. Glenda York says:

    I love Kathleen Norris. My introduction to her and her writing was “The Cloister Walk.” My favorite of hers that I’ve read so far, however, is “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.” I think Dakota is my favorite because it seems to embody so much of her poetic side and I adored its contemplative and prayerful power. Let me just say at this point too Anne how much I enjoy receiving your emails and listening to your podcasts. I’m a librarian in a small public library and a good portion of our staff are big fans of yours as well. Your recommendations are so thoughtful and appropos to the unique individuals you interview. Even when you’re wrong, you’re right. It’s amazing.

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