catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 15 :: 2013.07.19 — 2013.09.05


Beware of book lust

So this guy in the crowd yells out, “Rabbi, make my brother share our father’s books with me.”  But he hollered back, “Friend, who made me an appraiser of libraries for you?”  And then he said — get this — “Beware of book lust; for your life is more than the sum of your bibliographies.”  Then he told a story: “An academic got a nice royalty check, with which he bought some books.  And he thought to himself, ‘What am I going to do?  My office is too small for all these books.’  Then he said, ‘I know what I’ll do: I’ll hide them in the drop ceiling.’  And he did so, and thought to himself, ‘Ah — enough research material until my next sabbatical.’  But he heard a voice saying, ‘You fool!  This very night they are demanding your life from you.  And when those books fall through the ceiling, what will you have?’”

I’ve been reflecting on Luke 12:13-21 in preparation for preaching on it in August.  As someone who would not be thought rich by most people (excepting 90% of the world), I can live easy with the Parable of the Rich Fool.  But then I think of the things I hold dear, the things that define me and my place in society, and I think of my books, my preciousss….  You see how bad I’ve got it?  I can’t even talk about my book lust without making a literary allusion. 

A fairly literal translation of Luke 12:20 reads like this: “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night they demand your life.’”  Most English translators disguise the fact that no one knows for sure who “they” are by putting the phrase in the passive: “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” But what if “they” are the things that the Rich Fool has acquired?  And what if they demand your life not by killing you, but by taking over your life?

How do my books demand my life?  They cost money, take time and attention, require space.  They weigh on my walls, perhaps on my conscience.  Even if I never read them, they shape my life by their presence.  Students say they like to study in libraries because being surrounded by books helps them be disciplined and feel scholarly.  Constant readers of romance novels and of detective stories often find comfort in them.  The plot regularities gird and grid a pattern and trust on reality that helps people get through the day. Historian Hayden White argues that historical writing does the same: imposes an order on unstable reality, so that we feel safe, in control of our future. It’s not so far from the Rich Fool seeing that he has enough for a long time ahead.

When I was in first grade, my teacher divided the class into reading groups based on testing: good, average, poor.  She installed a student at the top of each group.  I was at the top — of the second group.  I was outraged.  Even at age six I knew that so-and-so in the top group was an intellectual lightweight, who just happened to be a little quicker at decoding symbols than I.  I busted my eyeballs to get into that top group.  I never looked back.  In my house, being a good reader won me praise, and to this day my life is measured out in anecdotes and allusions, factual tidbits and trivia, pressed down and running over.  Most of those things come from (or should be in) books.   Books suck up my imagination and provide the materia bibliographica to show my cleverness.  Books are the tools of my trade; how could I imagine giving them up? 

If there were a cheap moral to this story, it might be: beware then what and how you read.  Books shape your imagination.  The evening may evermore remind you of an anesthetized patient.  Words are sticky, and their sugary trail draws the tip of your tongue.  My daughter says, “I swallowed the dictionary.”  Do I call for a stomach pump?  Books are the carriers (not always benign) of culture. 

Let the books shape you, but not so that you think you possess them.   Like everything else in God’s good creation, do not let them possess you.  Never lose sight of the Logos who gives all words and lives meaning. 

So then, how does one give away the stories, the imagination, the words?  Maybe one sells all, and gives bookish alms: true words whose source is hidden, so that the hand seeking applause does not know the other is sharing the text. 

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