No, I don’t read for a living. But I can’t think of a time when reading hasn’t been an integral part of my life. That idea, how reading weaves into one’s life and makes everything else richer, is something I want to reflect on for the next few minutes.
Learning to read. It began with the wonder of being able to decode words and sentences that made up stories. I ploughed through the Dick and Jane readers at school, because as my vocabulary and reading skill improved, so did the length and complexity of the stories. No longer did I need to plead, “tell me a story” (though I’ve never stopped loving good storytelling). Now I could get books from the library and read both the classic fairy tales and the ones I’d not read before.
Libraries. Book temples, really. That’s what I thought when my dad took me to the Reuben McMillan Library in Youngstown the first time. Even the children’s area had miles of shelves, and the stacks upstairs beckoned, saying, “there is plenty more where these came from–enough to last your life.” Later, as a college student, it was both a place of discovery as I did research for a class and my favorite place to study. Again, the stacks seemed to say, “when you master what is in the textbook, we have more for you.” In later years, I would stand in wonder in the atrium of Thompson Library at Ohio State where you can see floors and floors of stacks. I found amazing the vast accumulation of human knowledge as well as the awareness of how much yet we do not, and the tiny fraction that I would ever grasp. It is profoundly humbling.
Talking about books. My earliest memories was reading over lunch with my mom, and pausing at points to talk about what we were reading. Later, it was so fun to find fellow LOTR fans and lose ourselves in discussing the finer points of Middle Earth. We might read in solitude, but talking books with others is a great way to while away a few hours. I remember meeting a group of friends to try and figure out Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. We saw far more together than I ever did in my own reading.
The joys of bookstores. I still remember a wonderful old bookstore outside of Toledo in a storage building with shelves and stacks of books throughout. Or the wondrous delight of discovering the Harvard Co-op and the used bookstores around Cambridge Square next to Harvard. Then there was a used bookstore between Ashland and Wooster operated by a former faculty member at Wooster. I can look over my right shoulder at the church history I picked up there for a song. He also sent the most marvelous newsletters! This brings to mind the delight of stumbling across a bookstore on a driving trip. Bookstores are one of the places where we encounter serendipity. We never know when we will find a treasure we’ve been looking for or find a new author we come to love. And when they started selling good coffee…
Family outings. We used to visit Twice Loved Books, a delightful used bookstore in a house on visits back to our hometown in Youngstown to give a break from visits to family. Or Saturday trips to our local Half Price Books, sharing our finds in the car on the way home.
The leisure of reading. There are moments when our setting, our seat, our beverage and the book at hand combine together in quiet pleasure. Sometimes it even includes dozing off on a porch by a lake, listening to the lapping of water on the shore. That’s quite OK! Sometimes it is the quiet morning in the house before anyone else is stirring, where I can almost hear the voice of the writer as I read.
Reading and faith. Every faith, even atheism, has sacred texts or foundational readings. For me as a Christianity, literacy and faith walk hand in hand. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word.” Over 40 writers under God’s inspiration wrote 66 books over a thousand year period, compiling a veritable library that I try to visit every day of my life. The reviews on this blog got started as my attempt to reflect on the books I am reading, to remember what I’ve read. I’m glad when someone else finds them helpful. Yesterday, in an interview with a church historian, he made the suggestion of reading the early church fathers and shared his own practice of reading the Philokalia. He thought their situation most like our own at the present time. Reading allows me the chance to learn from great saints and thinkers across 1500 plus years. They might help me see my time more clearly than some contemporary writers immersed in that time.
Reading as sense making. Reading helps me make sense of the world. Sometimes it does so by inviting me to look at what I thought I knew and see it from a different perspective. Reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass made me look at the world around me differently and recognize the wisdom of indigenous peoples. Somehow, reading offers the critical distance that our visual media does not, to calmly assess the arguments and ideas someone is advancing, which come off differently in print that on screens, big or small.
I suspect every reader is nodding their heads as they read this. Reading carries this kind of lived experience for you as well. I’m not sure how many non-readers are reading, let alone have made it to this point. If you have, I hope it gives you some sense of what it is like to walk around in the skin of a reader. All in all, it’s not a bad life!