Have you ever noticed how some of the great libraries are not unlike the great cathedrals or other religious structures? The quest for knowledge and the quest for ultimate meaning are at least akin to each other, and I sense for some, are one and the same.
It may be a controversial idea, but in hanging out with many readers, I can’t help but wonder, if for some, reading is their religion. Oxford Languages includes this definition of religion: a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance. Consider these quotes for example:
- “We lose ourselves in books, we find ourselves there too.”
- “Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines–it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.” –Robin Sloan
- “I didn’t choose the book life, the book life chose me.”
- “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on.” -Nora Ephron
- “Reading was a way of trying to get control over a world that was out of control. I liked doing it. It’s your source of power.” -George Anders
- “Books wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
Certainly it is a risk to take these too seriously. They are memes and quotes that express the love of reading so many of us share. Yet the idea of losing oneself in books and finding ourselves there sounds much like Jesus’ words: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). “I didn’t choose the book life, the book life chose me” sounds eerily like Jesus statement: “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (John 15:16).
“Reading is everything…” sounds like an interest of supreme importance. Touching the spines of books and feeling the presence of sleeping spirits sounds like a religious experience. Books washing away dust from the soul sounds like baptism or other ritual ablutions in various religions.
These may be only figures of speech, or even hyperbole for the pleasure and enrichment we derive from books. I say “we” because I include myself in such experiences. It is part of why I am a reader and one who enjoys inviting others into the joy of reading. But can it become a religion? I think for some, it can be. I don’t want to pass any judgments here but simply invite some honesty among my reading friends.
If books and the reading life and the enrichment, insight, and joy this offers are indeed what we deem of supreme importance, to live that way is simply consistent with what one believes. I respectfully see things differently. I ascribe these joys of reading to the One who created in humans the love of story, the capacities of language to write and enjoy what is written, who in fact directed prophets to write down in books the stories and pronouncements that articulate how humans and the divine may engage each other. Books are one of the material artifacts, along with works of art, majestic buildings, music and song, and so much more that reflect the gifts of the Maker who made us to make. For me, the gifts point back to the Giver. To make reading everything is to shrink a much larger universe to something too small.
The question of whether reading is my religion is one I therefore need to ask of myself. It is possible to give it a place that is too large in my life, that de-centers not only God but human relationships and the enjoyment of other good things in life. My own conviction is that only when God is at the center do all these other things find their proper and good place for me. I think that is a too-tall order for reading. For me that actually saves reading from becoming an obsession or addiction to merely being a very good gift of enriching knowledge and delighting stories. Not a religion. Just a very good thing.
2 thoughts on “Reading and Religion”
Thanks for this good and thoughtful post, Bob. As a Christ-follower who loves reading, your comments remind me how reading – surely a great, wonderful, and pleasurable gift in itself – can easily become an idol and a (pseudo)therapy in my life if I don’t regularly remind myself of my priorities. And with such limited time at our disposal – all of us! – and so many reading possibilities available, our reading choices become all the more important. Yet another reason why I value your book reviews so highly!
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