Vol 8, Num 6 :: 2009.03.13 — 2009.03.27
I buy some books because I know the author – like Barbara Kingsolver. After putting it off for a long time because of the title, the first of Kingsolver’s books I read was The Poisonwood Bible. Somehow, connecting “poisonwood” and “Bible” seemed almost sacrilegious. But one day, I overcame my prejudice, bought it, read it in nearly one sitting and recommended it to my children first, then to all of my reading friends. I loved the book because Kingsolver captured the unfortunate prejudice, the ignorance, the resulting frustration that could drive one to madness, and the cruelty of the tragic reality lived by some missionaries in the Africa I knew personally as a missionary. She captured the bush landscape and the culture so well that I felt almost at home in much of her work – and I must say “almost” because our relationship with the Africans was very different than that of the family in The Poisonwood Bible. However, I began to trust her and would pickup a Kingsolver book solely based on her name, as I would something by C. S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Amy Carmichael or Chaim Potok or Annie Dilllard or – well, you know what I’m saying.
I buy some books because I have met or heard the writer speak; that’s why I read Davis Bunn and Brian Doyle and Scott Cairn and Paul Willis and Bret Lott and Barbara Brown Taylor. Taylor spoke at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith & Writing. I tried to take notes as she spoke, but it was like trying to take notes while Yo-yo Ma plays the cello: impossible. The music laid in the air by the way she used words captured me; I put down my pen and determined I would not only buy the tape of her session, but buy her books. Brian Doyle had me both laughing hysterically and weeping in the space of a few seconds, and invited me into his story; I couldn’t get to The Wet Engine quickly enough. Davis Bunn, looking like a lawyer or businessman, addressed us neophyte writers with a kind thoroughness, discussing his research; I wrote down The Hours and others of his work as must-reads. I own them and loan them, but only to those I can trust to return them.
I also buy books because they are keepers. Written fifty or seventy-five or a hundred years ago, or even four hundred years ago, they continue in print because the message still resonates, and I find myself in need of the same message readers have devoured for generations. I can’t remember exactly when I first read In His Steps by Charles Sheldon, a simple book written at the end of the nineteenth century. My paperback copy already had yellowed pages when I first read it, but the message of living and making choices as Christ would pierced my heart, convicting me as it had generations before me. Some call this book the beginning of the social gospel and like to dismiss it as a fad or worse, much as they do the WWJD bracelets it generated years later. But the discriminating reader is able to read and discard or choose to embrace, and I embraced the idea that a consideration of how Christ might choose to live in this current world might be helpful to me. I suppose it should have been a “no-brainer,” but it wasn’t until Sheldon laid it out in fiction that the idea took root. I still have that book on a shelf in my office, and each time I teach contemporary Christian writers of the twentieth century, I establish their foundation in the nineteenth century with my old friend Charles Sheldon.
A similar piece of literature that bears rereading is The Practice of the Presence of God, which contains this passage:
The first time I saw Brother Lawrence was on the 3rd of August, 1666. He told me that God had done him a singular favor in his conversion at the age of eighteen. During that winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that, within a little time, the leaves would be renewed and, after that, the flowers and fruit appear; Brother Lawrence received a high view of the providence and power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul.
How can you not cherish a book that has these words? I love the beauty of the timeless language and the idea that believers, for over four hundred years, have been so simply instructed by his life rather than his words on how to live in the presence of God. I am moved by the line of men and women whose eyes have passed over these same words and whose hearts sought that same intimacy available to you, my reader, and me as we follow the simplicity to which he invites us.
So I buy books and they pile up on my shelves, sometimes two deep, and beside my desk and beside my bed and in my car. I find comfort in reading the spines, like looking at the photos of old and trusted friends. I take them in my hands and recall the relationships we once had and can renew as I linger again over the dog-eared and ink- and coffee-stained pages. And I loan my books because my friends deserve the same joy and challenges and rest I found in these pages. And I don’t think I have ever regretted passing up a Starbucks so I could have just a few more real bucks to buy another book.