I have always loved books and learned early that a sure way to secure long lasting friendship lies in feeding a lifelong addiction to the written word. It’s why I smiled when I peeked around the corner and saw a small stack of books in tucked on the bottom shelf of my middle school locker. I turned around searching for the face of the childhood friend whom I knew had placed them there. He ducked his head shyly.
“You need to read them,” he said softly, unable to hide his excitement.
We must have been only 12. We’ve been trading books ever since.
Since I was a small girl, the way that I have seen the world and my place in it has been shaped by words on a page. I have a vivid memory of being perched on the edge of a rickety radiator in our small townhouse, listening as my mom explained Middlemarch while peeling potatoes.
“George Elliot is showing us different ways in which marriage was approached. Some people marry for money. Others are drawn to intellect. Others still marry for love. That was more of a luxury in those days,” she said.
Seven-year-old me sat at rapt attention, the lucky recipient of literary analysis delivered by a mother who didn’t believe in talking down to children.
Words opened up the world of history, the wonder of science, and the beauty of the story as I learned to read in the earliest years of my education. So, too, did words on the pages of my childhood Bible begin to set forth the precepts for the kind of person I would strive to be, the framework through which I would begin to see the world, the stories I would carry with me.
It was with some degree of concern therefore that I read a recent column by Philip Yancey for the Washington Post entitled, “The death of reading is threatening the soul.” It was with an even greater concern that I began to examine ways in which my commitment to reading had slipped in recent months. I identified with Yancey’s tendency to skim a page, or trade evening hours of quiet reading for the latest television show being discussed in the news, and for the rabbit hole of the Internet.
I began to examine my own commitment to the written word. Why is reading so important to me? Why do I feel a sense of absence within myself when there is no book on the go? Why, when I feel unsure of someone, do I inevitably ask what they are reading?
Reading has been the blueprint through which I have, in many ways, navigated the world. Be it through the analysis of an academic work, the joyful return to a book from childhood, or a morning of quiet spent in the pages of my Bible, reading helps me answer the insatiable questions that have propelled me forward since birth: “How shall I now live? What does it mean to be fully human?”
The Littles, the Borrowers, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Anne of Green Gables, and the Pevensie children were the dear companions of my childhood. Over the years, the work of authors such as Hannah Arendt, Walter Bruggeman, Charles Taylor, Elie Wiesel, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stretched and challenged me to engage in questions of faith, belonging, justice, and identity. The voices of Romeo Dallaire and Linsey Addario brought me to the frontlines of war. Chris Hedges made me question where the intersection between person, theology, and conflict began and ended. N.T. Wright and John Goldingay gave me a robust framework within which to pursue theological inquiry. Marilynne Robinson reminded me of the need for quiet and grace.
I am, in many ways, the product of a digitized, globalized age. Yet, far from dissuading me from reading, the digital and global age have reminded me that my future is bound up in that of those around me. We are better together than apart. To begin the process of togetherness requires a standing to attention, a curiosity, a desire to educate oneself about the world and those in it. Who better to begin that process with than my beloved books? Where the Internet provides me quick answers, books provide me with a sober, second thought. Where the Internet invites unfettered commentary, books provide a space to stop and consider a measured dialogue or system of thought.
As a history major, I have been trained to understand that those who have come before us have not left us to face the future alone. Their voices, wisdom, and direction are to be found within the pages of the books they left behind. In 2013, author Neil Gaiman delivered the Reading Agency’s annual lecture. He spoke of the importance of fiction, imagination, and libraries for the construction of a bright, beautiful, and informed future. I’ve carried his words with me since.
“Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.”
I read because I lack understanding. I read because I am a woman of insatiable curiosity. I read when bewildered in the hope of garnering wisdom from those that have gone before. I read the voices of those still living to know that somewhere out there, somebody like me looks up at the sky and wonders how the journey of life will unfold. I recite poetry or Scripture in times when I am at loss for words. I read because I am privileged enough to live in an age of information.
I am careful not to just read for information though, lest the utilitarian bent within me overtake the discipline of enlarging the space about me for words to communicate spiritual truths of what is good, true, and beautiful. The words of Hafiz, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and Naomi Shihab Nye open the space about me as my breathing slows, shoulders descending into a prayer-like posture as I remember again what it is to meditate and consider my tiny space in the world. Poetry reminds me that the reality of mystery and the human propensity to wonder are as old as time.
“And I’m guessing this is your room,” a friend laughed last week.
“Why? How do you know?” I asked.
She gave me a knowing look and gestured at the tiny stacks of books that gave shape to the room. We laughed.
“Still reading,” she shook her head with a knowing smile.
“Still reading,” I confirmed.
Still reaching. Still wondering. Still hungry for a future built on the words of those that have come before and the thoughts of those yet to come.
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