Have you ever been chased by a book? Maybe it is a book that has been sitting on your shelves for a long time that you have always been meaning to get around to read. Or perhaps it is one of those books you never heard about until a week ago, and suddenly three unrelated people told you about the book and insisted that you needed to read it.
I was reminded of this experience while reading The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, which I recently reviewed. His bookseller, Roger Mifflin is talking to his young protege’, Titania Chapman, when he asks:
“Did you ever notice how books track you down and hunt you out? They follow you like the hound in Francis Thompson’s poem. They know their quarry! Look at that book The Education of Henry Adams! Just watch the way it’s hounding out people this winter. . . . That’s why I call this place the Haunted Bookshop. Haunted by the ghosts of the books I haven’t read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There’s only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.”
I did read The Education of Henry Adams but never felt hounded by it. Nor do I feel haunted by ghosts of books I haven’t read. But hounded? Chased? Yes. For example, I never got beyond the first 50 pages or so of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship until a few years ago when I read it with a book group. Yet I quoted Bonhoeffer’s statement in the book, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” I could talk about “cheap grace.” But it bothered me that I had never read the whole book, a profound exposition of the sermon on the mount. Later in life, several different friends mentioned Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace until I finally sat down and read this profound account of the “other” and how we might encounter those very different from us.
There are some books that continue to hound me. The Chronicles of Narnia are begging for another reading. Just to my right I see the old, second hand copy of the Modern Library’s edition of Capital by Karl Marx. No, I’m not going to become a communist, but I’ve always been interested in work and workers, and often come across references to this book. Haven’t cracked the book as yet. That equally applies to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, one of the first attempts to define what is distinctive about the American experiment and The Federalist Papers, and their arguments for the Constitution.
One of the books that has hounded me was Boccaccio’s Decameron. I inherited an old edition of the book from my mother, one of the works she loved. A book group I’m in has just started reading this Italian classic from the fourteenth century in modern translation. Witty, ironic, perceptive of human foibles and more than a little bawdy at times, but not boring. I finding myself wondering what stories mom liked most. That goes for the set of Balzac novels she loved as a girl. Other than Pere Goriot, they are still hounding me.
Have you been hounded by a book? What was it like to finally sit down and make friends with the hound and read the book? Did the book become a friend, or did you find yourself wonder, “what do people see in this?” What books have hounded you?