Bookriot asked an intriguing question in one of its articles today: “What Do Your Favorite Books Say About You?” To make it more interesting, the author suggests that we look for the “threads” that run through our books and not simply individual books. Originally, I thought I might comment on the individual books but the author suggests making the list as quickly as possible and then looking for the threads. So here’s the list:
John Calvin, The Institutes
Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country
Louise Penny, Armand Gamache Novels
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
George Knepper, Ohio and Its People
James Michener, Kent State
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion
A few things right off. I am drawn to place, beginning with my own. If you follow this blog, you know that I write weekly about my home town of Youngstown. I believe places shape us and growing up in Youngstown and living my life in Ohio has shaped who I am. Both can be alternately fascinating and infuriating, and I think I’ve spent my life trying to understand that. Knepper’s book is the best overall history of Ohio for me.
Wednesday was the 52nd anniversary of the Kent State shootings. It was a shattering event for me as a high school sophomore. A government killing its own citizens shattered my illusions for good. Years later, I read Michener’s book while working as a campus minister at Kent. I walked the place where the shootings occurred and was stunned at how far away the students who died were from the National Guard troops–more than a football field distant–hardly a threat. I saw places where bullets had left their mark. The only other time I felt anything like it was walking the battlefields of Gettysburg, and particularly Cemetery Ridge.
Place. Alan Paton, John Steinbeck, Anthony Doerr, Louise Penny, and even Tolkien evoke a sense of place. They also tell good stories, grand stories with large themes–the love of the land, membership in communities, the alienation of two brothers, friendship and betrayal, a lovely mythical village in eastern Canada that is the stage for mayhem both local and international, and a wonderful place, Middle earth with a fellowship of nine on an earnest quest.
I’ve increasingly come to the place of understanding that life is made sense of by understanding the story we inhabit, the adventure we are a part of. Maybe even John Calvin comes in here. I bought the Institutes when I won a small academic prize upon my seminary graduation. I’d never read more than excerpts but I spent that summer reading through the whole. I’ve never thought of my Christian faith as just an experience. Again, I wanted to understand the story of God’s ways with human beings. No one, with the exception perhaps of Karl Barth and maybe Thomas Aquinas, has thought so deeply about these things.
Then there is Life Together. I grew up, and still am, something of a loner. There is part of me that thinks I have always been longing for Rivendell–a place of feasting and conversation, story and song, quiet conversation and great councils. Certainly, I long for something of the life together Bonhoeffer describes and that I have experienced at various seasons of life, rich moments that lasted only for a time. I long for the time when there are no more good byes, no more partings, or moving ons. The feeling of a loner and the love of community is an unresolved tension I wonder if I will always live with this side of the grave.
I think Wendell Berry captures something of what we have lost in his “Port William membership.” It grieves me to see the ways people are alienated from each other. I long to see reconciliations like that in Cry the Beloved Country. It’s probably the middle child in me. Ultimately, I long as well to see people reconciled to God, to know that peace with God I found in my last years of high school and that has never parted from me.
I think I’ll stop writing for now–it really was an interesting question and one you might think about. It may just confirm what you know or may surprise you. There was a bit of both for me. When I have the chance, I love scanning the shelves of others, not only for interesting books but for what they reveal of my host. It is perhaps a good thing to turn that scan on oneself. You just might find someone very interesting on that shelf of your favorite books!