In my 50-plus years on this earth, I’ve lived in small towns, big cities and foreign countries.
I’ve raced an iceboat down a frozen river, served my country as a spy during the Cold War and run a coffee plantation in Africa. I have also renovated an old stone inn on an island in the English Channel, lived as a nun in a Portuguese monastery and witnessed the suffering of African-American slaves. Once, I drifted in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a teen-aged boy whose only companion is a Bengal tiger who may eat him at any moment.
People read, it is said, for two main reasons: for information or entertainment. But there are other, more compelling reasons for keeping one’s nose buried in a book.
It has to do with the yearning of one’s heart. For knowledge, yes, that’s part of it. But what is the knowledge for?
“When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes,” wrote the 15th century Christian humanist, Erasmus.
My bookcases overflow with books. In some places, they’re two deep. I have books stored in closets, piled in stacks on the floor and stashed in more than a few cardboard boxes. What am I looking for?
In his article, “The Risk Of Reading,” Mark Edmundson contends that the socialization process doesn’t always work. For some people, the values of their culture don’t fit them.
“And it is these people who often become obsessed readers,” writes Edmundson in the Aug. 1, 2004, New York Times Magazine. “They don’t read for information, and they don’t read for beautiful escape. No, they read to remake themselves. They read to be socialized again, not into the ways of their city or village this time but into another world with different values. Such people want to revise, or even to displace, the influence their parents have had on them. They want to adopt values they perceive to be higher or perhaps just better suited to their natures.”
Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver spent most of her childhood out in the woods – sometimes missing school – or in her room, reading poetry and prose.
“I, too, live in this ordinary world,” writes Oliver in “Blue Pastures.” “I was born into it. Indeed, most of my education was made to make me feel comfortable within it. Why that enterprise failed is another story. Such failures happen, and then, like all things, are turned to the world’s benefit, for the world has a need of dreamers as well as shoemakers.”
I am not at home in this culture of highways, subdivisions, shopping plazas, celebrities, divorce, abortion, abuse, consumerism, Hollywood, Nashville; in this culture where egomaniac celebrities are exalted as role models; in a culture where people attain relevance only by appearing on TV and where money is the bottom line for every civic and private decision. Neither was I at home in my parents’ house.
C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”
As an introvert, I connect with people through books in a much deeper way than is generally possible in daily life. Some of my friends are Madeleine L’Engle, Isak Dinesen, William Gibson, Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Goudge, Arundhati Roy, Margaret Atwood, Mary Oliver.
I’ve visited L’Engle’s home in Connecticut, hunted with Dinesen in central Africa, cyber-traveled with Gibson, sat with Dillard on the bank of Tinker Creek, traipsed through a magical woods with Goudge, felt the heartbreak of sexual double standards with Roy, seen into the future with Atwood and crawled through marshes with Oliver.
By seeing through their eyes, I’ve learned something from each of these authors: something about myself, something about other people, something about the world, something about the nature of God.
When I want to see life through God’s eyes, I read the Bible. In those pages, I am with God in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve in their pure joy and with them in their fall. I go with God to Palestine, walk with the Israelites across the Red Sea and trudge with them in the wilderness.
With the Jews in their suffering, I look for the Messiah, the coming of God, who will redeem all things. With the disciples, I find him.
In the pages of the Bible – inspired by the Creator – I find the most accurate mirror of my self.
“You it was who fashioned my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. … You know me through and through … my life was fashioned before it had come into being,” writes David in the Psalms.
In those pages, I find all that I long for, all that I search for in my travels through all the thousands of pages in all those other books.
In those pages, I am home.