Book Glutton

bookshelf 7-23-2019

I am a glutton. Not with food—well, not usually—but with books. I look at the books on my shelves, many of which I still have not read, and I want to dive into all of them at once. When I pick up a hefty book like Kristen Lavransdatter, War and Peace, or Bleak House, I want to devour it in huge chunks. I want to fill myself to the brim with all the delicious words I just know are waiting for me between the covers. I recently made the plunge into George R. R. Martin’s massive Song of Ice and Fire (five volumes and counting). Proust’s complete In Search of Lost Time (4,211 pages according to Amazon), has been sitting by my bedside, waiting patiently for at least two years now. There are literally hundreds of classic books I have not read in the world, not to mention those old favorites that I want to re-read. Every year a new batch of great books is published, both fiction and non-fiction. I don’t want to read some of them; I want to read all of them! Right now I have four books going at once, which even by my standards is a bit much. Happily, they are all dissimilar enough that I am unlikely to confuse them.

In an effort to consume as many books as possible, I am tempted to read too quickly. Though I have never been and never intend to be a speed reader, I often gobble down more than I can comfortably digest. Just as I can be overwhelmed at a large buffet (remember, I said I’m not usually a glutton with food), the sheer quantity of great books tempts me to overfill my plate. I have to remind myself that I am not in a contest of quantity. I must remind myself to slow down. As author John Green says, “Being a slow reader can in some ways make you a better reader.” His brother Hank follows this advice up with, “An important part of reading is not reading.” Put the book down and contemplate what has just been read. Spend some time thinking, musing, and engaging the text through questions, thought experiments, and creative writing.

“Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.” – Lindsay Waters

So tonight after supper, when I pick up a book (I’m not sure which one it will be yet), I will endeavor to savor the experience. Instead of counting pages, I will swim in them. If I drown, I can’t think of a better way to go.

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Stumbling Blocks

I recently read the book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. As I did not know much about the author, I did a little online research on her. Among other things, I learned that Held Evans died tragically and unexpectedly at the young age of 37 from complications involving allergic reaction to medication. I also learned that I think I would have liked her, and am now curious to read more of her writing.

As is not surprising when looking up anything remotely involving religion online, I found widely polarized opinions about her. For example, an article from a conservative religious website claimed Held Evans was leading people to hell for daring to harbor and express doubt. (To put things into context: This same website condemned contemporary Christian singer Lauren Daigle for NOT condemning homosexuals.)

On Goodreads, reviews for Inspired tend to be raves or rants. In the latter category, one reviewer went on at length about what he or she considered Held Evans’s flawed theology, even putting the book on a “false teaching” shelf. (The possibility that this person’s own theology might be flawed is apparently out of the question.) Near the end of the scathing review, comes this line: “I advise readers to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care and in light of the scripture.” In other words, scripture itself is not to be questioned nor is this person’s interpretation of it. I would like to advise the reviewer “to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care,” INCLUDING scripture! (I opted not to engage in argument in the Goodreads comments.)

This highlights a very real problem for Christianity. How does a tolerant person deal with intolerance? How does someone willing to harbor doubts and ask questions confront someone who would never entertain the possibility of their own fallibility?

If you want to find ways to weaponize the Bible, it’s not hard. Want to keep women subjugated to men? Plenty of justification for it in scripture! Want to condemn homosexuality? Got it covered! Support for slavery? Too easy! Xenophobia, genocide, polygamy, incest? Check, check, check, check. Any pet prejudice can probably find support someone in the Bible, given the proper spin (sometimes requiring very little spin at all!)

For those of us who want to follow the Jesus we hear preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), this poses a stumbling block. It is hard to support the Christian church when so many of its loudest voices are those preaching intolerance, bigotry, and hate. It’s hard to admit to being a Christian when so often the church has come down on the wrong side of history. How does one stay inspired?

Reading Broadly

In my last post (Take Me Out to the Ball Game), I mentioned getting stuck in a reading rut. I read a lot, and enjoy many different genres of fiction, especially science fiction and classic literature. And yes, I also read a lot of juvenile and young adult books; adults who think they’re too old for J and YA books are missing out on some great reads! For non-fiction, I tend to turn toward history, theology, and philosophy.

This sounds like a nicely varied diet, but even so, I sometimes need a nudge to read books I might not otherwise pick up. To help find that nudge, this past year I joined John Green’s online book club, Life’s Library. I have also partnered with a friend to start a book club at our church, in which we explore books that challenge our thinking about religion, and deepen our understanding of faith and its place in society.

John Green, himself the author of several acclaimed young adult novels, urges his fans to read broadly, and to think about issues and other people complexly. We all like to read periodicals and blogs we know in advance we agree with. We find it comforting to turn again and again to favorite authors. There’s nothing wrong with doing either of these things, but doing so exclusively can result in a narrowing of the mind. When so much of our information comes from social media whose algorithms carefully filter out content with which we might disagree, it is vitally important to follow Green’s advice and actively seek out a wide variety of sources and opinions.

Here are a few ideas on how to do that:

  • Visit your local library. Wander some aisles you normally avoid.
  • Make friends with the people who work at an independent bookstore. Ask them for suggestions.
  • Join a book club.
  • Get involved in the conversation at Goodreads.
  • Browse some book review sites:
  • Little Libraries are popping up all over the place. Next time you pass one, look inside and pick up a book that piques your interest. And remember: While I don’t recommend giving up on books too quickly, it’s okay to abandon a book if it’s rubbing you the wrong way or just not striking your fancy. But again: Sometimes it’s good to at least give a fair hearing to an author with a point of view different from your own.

Happy reading!

 

Book Habits

When I read a book, I highlight passages that I think I might want to find quickly later on. I also jot down notes and cross-references in the margins, most of which would not make any sense to anyone other than myself. On top of that, if there are longer passages I want to remember, I note those along with appropriate page numbers on the first blank page. And yes, I slap a bookplate on my books as well, usually inside the front cover. (All of these practices drive my wife up the wall. She has sometimes resorted buying her own copy of books she wants to read so that she won’t have to see my vandalism.)

I do this more now than I used to. For most of my life, I read books as isolated experiences unless they happened to be for a class at school which required me to think of them in relation to one another. Over the past few years, as I have accumulated more memories and—I hope—a greater store of knowledge, my reading habits have subtly changed. The more I read, and the more I think about what I read, the more I notice connections between books, across genres, and in relation to life in general. Deliberately looking for ways to bring books out of their silos has made reading more meaningful to me.

Which brings us to the question of how many books to keep on hand. Some housekeeping experts say that once a book has been read, it should leave the house. (“Does it spark joy?”) Over the years, I have donated, sold, or given away dozens, if not hundreds, of books. I wish I had most of them back. I have bought, purged, then rebought the same book multiple times. I long for the day when I can afford a big enough place to have an organized home library. If I read a book that I know I’ll never read again, whether it’s because I didn’t like it or because it was just plain bad, I’m okay with letting that one go. Otherwise, I do return to books. They are friends I like to keep close.

 

Reading

I love reading. If I ever find out I have 24 hours to live, I know how I will spend it. I will buy the best bottle of Cognac I can afford, gather up a nice assortment of cheese, crackers, and olives, stack a few books of interest within reach, then drink, eat, and read myself into the next world. I’ve been sick all this past week, and there were a few nights when I was close to wanting to do exactly that.

As a kid, I was fortunate to have two great storytellers in my life: my dad and his mom, my grandma. It was a rare night that I didn’t get a bedtime story. First there was Dr. Seuss, of course, and other children’s books like Go, Dog Go!, The Mice Who Loved Words, Never Tease a Weasel, and dozens of Little Golden Books. When I got a little older, I became enraptured with the Mother West Wind books by Thornton Burgess, the Bobbsey Twins, and then (fanfare, please): The Hardy Boys!

The first book I read entirely by myself was What Spot? (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1369269.What_Spot_) At some point our grade school librarian introduced us to the Newbery Medal books, and I made it my quest to read them all…in chronological order. I remember my dad’s frustration when I had trouble finding a copy of Smoky the Cowhorse (1927 winner) at our local library. “Why don’t you just read the next one?” “No!” A series of frantic phone calls (on a rotary phone) located Smoky in a library at the opposite end of town; dad reluctantly drove me there so I could my project uninterrupted. (I like to think he was privately proud of my dedication.)

I never made it through all the Newbery Medal books on that first attempt. Many years later, though, this time as an adult, I decided to revisit that earlier goal. With the help of the librarians in the children’s room at the Cambridge Public Library and the miracle of interlibrary loan, this time I finished! The latest Newbery winner at the time was Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder (2001). With only two exceptions, I’ve kept up with the Newbery winners ever since, and frequently encourage other adults to check out the children’s section next time they’re in the library. Lots of good reading there. But no Cognac.