What Makes A Great Series?

The books I’ve read so far in Louise Penny’s “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache” series

Many readers love a good series, no matter what genre. I think of Orson Scott Card’s “Enders” series in science fiction, Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” in fantasy, Sharon Kay Penman’s historical fiction, Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” books, and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, just to name of few. Louise Penny’s “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache” has provided a welcome diversion during the months of the pandemic–I’ve gotten through eleven of the seventeen books currently in the series.

What makes a great series? I think there are a number of factors. Here are some that are important to me.

Characters. I think this is foremost to me. Overall, I need to like the characters, especially the lead character or characters. In a series, I’m going to spend a lot of time with them. Would I enjoy having them to dinner or driving across country with them? I might not like all of them, but the chemistry of the ensemble is important. The one thing that is hard is when an author kills off a character we’ve come to care for.

Relationships. It is not only that we like individuals, but we like the relationships, such as between swashbuckling Jack Aubrey and the intelligent and somewhat mysterious Maturin. Of course, there is the classic relationship of Holmes and Watson. In Elizabeth Peabody’s Amelia Peabody series, you just have to love the relationship between Amelia and Emerson. In the Gamache series, there are multiple relationships–Armand and Gamache, Beauvoir and Ruth, Olivier and Gabri, and of course, Ruth and Rosa.

Setting: From the world-making of fantasy to the physical setting of a mystery series, setting matters. Louise Penny has created a fictional village many of us wish really existed. Good thing it doesn’t because we’d all move there and ruin it. Rivendell, and much of Middle Earth seems like the ideal place to live.

Development. I think of characters and plot. Do the characters grow? It doesn’t have to be linear. It can be fun when they surprise us. Part of what makes a good series as opposed to simply a collection of books with the same characters is a developing plot line, or even several plotlines. The corruption in the Surete in the Gamache stories and the development of Clara’s art, and the implications for Peter and others. This often means layered writing, where several plots are developing, with at least one coming to some kind of closure.

Stand-alone stories. I’ve read books in series that really felt like they were just serving as bridges to a subsequent book. While series work best when read in order, that doesn’t happen. I read #11 in the Gamache series because that is the one I first acquired. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was persuaded to go back to Still Life and read the series in order. I’m now up to #11, The Nature of the Beast, which I will re-read to see how it reads a second time.

Writing. Most series writers are not literary giants. What is helpful is prose that doesn’t get in the way. Some do this by page-turning action. Others are more “mental” and draw us into the psychology of characters. Some achieve a gradual build-up of tension that keep you reading.

They know when to end. For one thing, writers are mortal. Sometimes they write when they are past the peak of their powers. Sometimes they die before they finish, notably Robert Jordan in his “Wheel of Time” series. I thought Elizabeth Peters’ last books weren’t up to the standard of her earlier ones. Perhaps it is a human thing for one’s reach to exceed one’s grasp. And we don’t always know when death is coming. Sometimes the series itself needs to end, and it is best to go out strong rather than write one more subpar book.

I think a series appeals to the longing of every reader to know there are more good books to read than just the one in your hand. When I started over on Gamache, it was delightful to think that there were fourteen more (then fifteen and now sixteen) to go, hopefully each better than the last, or at least revealing new aspects of one’s favorite character’s persona.

The Wonder of a Library

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The Reuben McMillan Free Library near downtown Youngstown is a beautiful old building erected in 1910 (and currently undergoing renovations). It was partially funded by a grant from Andrew Carnegie, as were many libraries around the country. The first time my father took me there as a boy, I was somewhat in awe of its Classical Revival architecture as I approached the big doors of its front entrance. I had been so excited to learn how to read, but most of the books around our house were too advanced for this young reader.

The real joy came when we went downstairs and I saw the children’s library. We went to the librarian’s desk and I was signed up for a library card. I think at the time you were allowed to check out up to six books at a time. It was wonderful to go shelf by shelf, run my fingers along the spines as I read the titles, and looked for books that I wanted to read.

I loved adventure stories. I remember reading the Adventures of Robin Hood. I also loved science books, and loved reading about space and rockets. Then there were baseball stories. I read about my heroes. Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, and about great baseball teams of the past.

We went every couple weeks. Dad would go upstairs where the adult books were while I turned in my books and selected new ones and checked them out and then showed my dad what I had selected. It was not only exciting to anticipate the joys between the covers of the books. It was a special shared moment between my father and me. This, along with observing my mother’s love of reading, cultivated a love of books that has endured six decades later.

How grateful I am for Reuben McMillan, Andrew Carnegie, and all those librarians who recognized and encouraged my love of books. How grateful I am for the public funds that have made possible all the libraries I’ve used over the years in every town where I’ve lived. I still find myself delighted to read the titles of newly arrived books at our local library. How grateful I am for all that libraries have done to expand e-book lending during the pandemic and other safe options for borrowing books.

I realize I’ve written only about books, but I am amazed at the array of services our local libraries offer, including COVID tests! Even when our libraries were closed, local residents could park nearby and use the wi-fi, an important benefit if the family budget doesn’t permit broadband connections. There are reference librarians to help with any information request, homework help, language classes, computer and printer access, and so much more. Children’s librarians not only offer creative programs but work with children to help them find books they will love.

I have a hard time thinking of another organization which does so much for my community and does it with excellence. My library wins “Five Star” awards yearly and awards for financial reporting excellence. It’s the one part of my property taxes I have no problem paying, or increasing when it is needed. I also realize state and federal funding is an important part of library funding. If you believe encouraging lifelong learners is a worthy investment, I think this is one of the best ways to use public funds that will bring a great return on investment.

One can talk about programs and benefits of libraries. But perhaps the image to remember is that wide-eyed child getting his or her first library card and getting to borrow an armload of books. I was once that child. Were you?

When a Book Ends Differently Than I’d Like

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Have you had this happen? You wanted a story to end a certain way, or you hoped it would. And it didn’t. Maybe it was something you didn’t want. Or maybe it was a surprise, like “I never saw that coming…”

How did you react? Did you throw the book across the room? Vow never to read another book by that author?

This happened to me recently. I just didn’t see the ending coming, and let’s just say, it was not what I was hoping for. I found myself going back and reading the key ending passage again, just to be sure I hadn’t misread it. And I just stopped.

And I realized afresh the reality of the reader’s relationship with the author (except in children’s “choose your own adventure” stories). The author gets to tell the story their way–or however they find the story writing itself–as is sometimes the case.

I sat with the ending for a while. Turned it over in my mind. I realized that there was something truer and richer that occurred than if it would have ended as I hoped. It was also more real to the broken conditions of human life and the arc of the story.

I found myself admiring the mastery of the author who pulled together strands of the plot and characters in ways that surprised me, disturbed me, and made me think afresh about the human condition at its worst and best. I found myself glad that the author didn’t just make me happy.

And I found myself thinking about our stories. We want them to turn out happy. We pray our lives go “smoothly”–a favorite word I find people (and myself) using in our prayers. Yet life doesn’t always go this way. Sometimes, things go badly sideways in an instant. And sometimes a choice “against the grain” plays itself out over years in pain and heartbreak–a nursed grudge or jealousy, a habit over which we lose control.

Perhaps in the end, what is better is not a happy end but a good one. How is that possible? All I have figured out is trusting the Author of our lives at whatever point we find ourselves. Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache teaches all his officers four statements that actually make a lot of sense in this regard:

“I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know. I need help.”

I don’t think this will result in a “smooth” life, but rather one lived “with the grain” of how our life’s Author would write our story.

The Joys of Reading in the Fall

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With the approach of Labor Day weekend, the days are shorter. The heat and humidity of August has given way to cooler, drier days and crisp evenings and the bluest of skies.

I love reading in the fall. Actually, I love reading every time of the year but fall has its own pleasures. Here are a few of them that come to mind:

Being able to sit outside and read without becoming a sweaty mess.

Comfortably gathering outdoors with your book group.

Resting your eyes from reading on fall colors.

Walking in the woods, stopping at a bench or lookout and pulling Walden out of your pocket.

Pumpkin spice drinks to go with your books.

Pressing leaves in your books to remember the season when you re-read that book ten years later.

Those gentle, rainy days when we can sit by the window and nestle into a novel as the rain streaks the window.

Reading scary stories to kids or grandkids as Halloween approaches.

Evenings cool enough to light a fire in the fireplace, while reading in your favorite chair, a warm drink at your hand.

Reading in bed snuggled under the covers that you once again need for those cool nights.

Every season has its joys for the reader. I think part of the joy of reading are the pleasurable contexts within which we read. There is something about the physical surroundings that complements the mental attention of reading–the coolness of the air, the rustle of blowing leaves, the smells of fallen leaves, the beauty of colors, the taste of a drink, the coziness of a comfortable chair, a warm fire, or a snug blanket. Happy autumn reading!

Reading as We Age

My reading glasses and e-reader with larger font size

For many of us, it starts in our forties. We start noticing that our arms aren’t long enough to hold books where we can properly focus on them.

Sometimes it seems harder to focus on the small print. E-readers are a blessing for being able to enlarge the font size.

Drug store reading glasses work for some and suddenly these glasses spring up everywhere in the house where we read–the easy chair, the bedside, the kitchen.

Then you start noticing that the light you used to read by somehow seems dimmer. You change the bulb but it is still dim. It’s not the light. It is your eyes, as cataracts start to form and reduce the amount of light that can get through the lens of your eye.

The irony is that by the time we have more time for reading, we do not read as easily. Does that sound familiar? First we saw it with our parents. Now it is us. We do not read as effortlessly, and sometimes, it seems we have to work harder at attending to what we are reading.

One of the things I’ve discovered is that as we age, a reader’s best friend is his or her eye doctor! Sometimes it is as simple as telling you what power of those readers are right for your eyes. At one time, I had a single prescription for my near-sightedness. Then I adjusted to progressive lenses for different distances. You read through the bottom part of the lens.

At my last visit, I happened to mention my book blog and how many books I read a year. My doctor recommended a separate reader. It was a good move. The whole lens is a reading prescription, which means I don’t have to look only through the lower part of the lens, raising and lowering either the book or my head as I read down the page. I’ve noticed that I read more easily as a result.

I likely have cataract surgery in my future as do many older readers. Everyone I know who has had it talks about how things seem brighter, and sometimes, their visual acuity is improved.

Eye doctors watch for other problems that rob us of vision. My mother had macular degeneration, as does one of my siblings. It is a result of a deterioration of the center of our field of vision through changes in the retina. My doctor recommended taking an AREDS formula that prevents progression of macular degeneration. Whether it prevents or delays onset is an open question, but with my family history, I’m willing to try it. Glaucoma, a build up of pressures in the eye fluids can also damage our sight. Catching these things early can prevent or limit vision loss. The yearly eye check up is more important than ever.

My mother was a reader (probably where I get it from). She adjusted to vision loss, but as it progressed, she gave up reading. She never liked audio books. I think of the losses of vision loss, reading would be one of the greatest for me. The saying, “so many books; so little time” is especially significant given my family’s history. It both makes me selective, and contributes to a “read while you can” mentality.

Hopefully my eye doctor’s ministrations will avert or delay vision loss. At very least, his prescriptions and better lighting make reading easier. It is a risk to rush through books, a kind of FOMO (fear of missing out), abetted by reviewing. Perhaps a better approach is to take a breath and allow myself to engage a book at its own pace–some pondered, some studied, some drunk up quickly with satisfaction while others savored. I have to remember that you don’t want to finish a great book too quickly or finish books not worth one’s time.

Perhaps my engagement with books will end as it began with having books read to me, either from a recording or a person. And maybe I will remember the power of words, of fitly written sentences and gripping stories, the very things that taught me to love books and reading as a child. And maybe that won’t be so bad.

Discovering New Authors

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One of the joys of reading is the discovery of new authors. Not only do you enjoy the book in front of you, but also the anticipation of more to come.

Right now I am reading a first-time novel by Damian Dressick, an Appalachian writer. It is titled 40 Patchtown and is about coal mining during Prohibition. Growing up in eastern Ohio, the novel reminds me of the stories about strikes, ethnic communities, scabs, and bootlegging that my wife and I heard from relatives with roots stretching between Johnstown, Pennsylvania and Youngstown, Ohio. It captures the desperate struggles of people to eke out a living in this era.

Goshen Road was a similarly delightful discovery. Set in the hollows of West Virginia, it centers around two sisters and the multi-generational struggle their families faced making a living. Bonnie Proudfoot is an Athens, Ohio-based author who I look forward to hearing more from.

Another recent find was poet Kenneth Steven whose book of poetry is titled Iona. It is exquisite writing about the “thin place” of the island of Iona. Poets have this capability in a few words to gesture toward larger realities, or at least open our eyes to the world we see but do not observe. Only since Mary Oliver died in 2019 have I learned of her capacity to open our eyes to the world, to ourselves, and to the transcendent. Devotions is a rich retrospective of her work that gave me weeks of delight.

Ngaio Marsh was a mystery writer once classed with other “Queens of Crime” like Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. A friend of mine put me on to her work and her Inspector Roderick Alleyn. A number of her books have recently been released as inexpensive e-books and I’ve found her books great diversions. Likewise, just as the pandemic began, I discovered the writing of Louise Penny and her Chief Inspector Gamache. Through many of those quiet evenings, last fall and winter, I curled up with her books and have read the first eight. She has created a fictional village in Canada everyone wants to visit, despite all the murders, and a Chief Inspector of great depth who makes the books worth reading just to keep company with him.

Amor Towles A Gentleman in Moscow was a find. I did not think you could make thirty years confinement in a Moscow hotel interesting. The subtle humor, insight, and humanity that runs through this story drew me in. I’ve just ordered a copy of Rules of Civility, an earlier novel. Erik Larson spins fantastic non-fiction tales. I recently read Thunderstruck, which brings together Marconi the inventor and an unprepossessing homeopathic doctor fleeing a particularly grisly murder. His Devil in the White City and The Splendid and the Vile are on my TBR list.

I had the rare privilege not only to read Compassion (&) Conviction by Justin Giboney and Michael Wear, but also to interview Justin. They helped launch the AND Campaign working to overcome our polarized conversation and both the book and the interview brought me needed encouragement during the dark time of the U.S. elections last fall. Herman Bavinck was another theologian who sometimes engaged in politics, working alongside his more famous friend, Abraham Kuyper. James Eglinton’s Bavinck is a penetrating study of the life and theology of this Dutch Calvinist who wrestled with maintaining Calvinist orthodoxy while engaging modernity.

I read a number of theological works, but two writers new to me have stood out over the last few years. One is John Webster, whose Holiness introduced me to this theologian. It is a readable and deep study of the subject with trenchant remarks about the proper work of theologians. Fleming Rutledge wrote one of the best theological works of the past ten years with her The Crucifixion, which I read during Lent of 2019, subsequently picking up several of her other works.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “so he just found out about such and such.” While some of those I’ve mentioned are genuinely new authors, most are just new to me. I learned about them from others who have already loved their work and I hope this post does the same for you. I’ll leave you with two things I’d genuinely love to hear about in the comments:

  1. What new authors have you discovered that you think the world needs to know about (no self-promotion please!)?
  2. What new writers about baseball have you found, for that niche of readers like me who like America’s pastime? I’m still looking for my baseball book of the summer!

Summertime and the Reading Is Easy

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There are peculiar delights of reading during the summer and as I think back, I have memories of a number of delightful places where I enjoyed a good book.

They begin with mornings at our old picnic table with a cup of coffee. I enjoy the quiet needed to read a good devotional work while gazing at my garden and listening to the song of creation.

I remember afternoons on my porch swing reading sports biographies as a boy.

Or trips to the local library, and how delicious the air conditioning and the unhurried opportunities to select a new stack of books to read on that porch.

When I still lived in Youngstown, I’d grab a paperback, hop on my bike and ride to one of the myriad shady overlooks in the park, maybe on the rock formations overlooking the Silver Bridge, or a bench with a view of Lanterman Falls, or even under a copse of trees on Lake Glacier opposite the Parapet Bridge.

There is a conference center in northern Michigan that probably had a half dozen or more spots, from screen porches in several of the cabins, the deck outside the meeting building, or the porch by one of the lodges overlooking the sparkling bay. The summer evenings would get brisk enough that a fire in one’s cabin became an inviting spot to settle into a good mystery. Sometimes a secluded spot along the water with a breeze to keep the insects away was all you needed.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much. The cushiony turf under a shady tree overlooking a Lake Michigan beach is another favorite memory.

Our first apartment in Toledo had a second floor screened back porch that looked out toward the Maumee River. A cold ice tea, and a good book made for a perfect evening, turning to conversation when it was too dark to read.

Perhaps the most exotic place I found to read was a courtyard at a conference center I stayed at a few years ago on Catalina Island off the California coast. Under palms with lush flowering plants on cool morning with sea breezes off the harbor, it was a most pleasant place to read with my morning coffee.

During the heat of the day, a frappucino at a coffee shop and a good book is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, if I can find a quiet nook.

I miss front porches. Our “front porch” is a couple of lounge chairs, a table for drinks that we pull out of the garage. But it is shady, cool, we can browse books and magazines and talk, and visit one of our many neighbors walking their dogs. You don’t always get a lot of reading done, but books are part of the mix of a pleasant evening.

7One thing. That girl on the tree limb really doesn’t look comfortable. I’d be constantly apprehensive of tumbling into the water. After all, it is summertime, and the reading should be easy.

Bookselling Heroes

Jeff Garrett, who helped his wife Nina Barrett launch Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, Illinois. Photo by Robert C. Trube, all rights reserved.

They don’t look like our idea of heroes. They are not frontline healthcare workers. The aren’t military service men and women or public safety officers who put their lives at risk for a higher cause. But they also contribute to preserving the fabric of society, the richness of our communities, and the intellectual and emotional health of our citizens. They are booksellers.

If they are independent booksellers, this means they are small business owners who have assumed both the risks and benefits of owning a business, having to pay rent, vendors, and employees. It means long hours and lots of unglamorous work. Everything from cleaning the sidewalks and toilets, lifting and unpacking boxes of books and getting them onto shelves.

One bookseller I know has not been able to open his business during COVID, nor sell books at conferences where he makes a good deal of his profit. He works hard to publicize good books through his online reviews and special offers. His books are meticulously packed, and often order acknowledgements are accompanied by personal notes. In other seasons, I’ve seen pictures of him unloading a truckload of books and then arranging them all meticulously by topics on tables, spending hours over several days interacting with buyers to help them find the right book, and then re-packing and unloading them back at his store. I first met him at a conference and it was a joy to watch him in action, recommending books I’d never heard of, or some which I couldn’t call to mind. It was like watching a virtuoso musician performing. My bookselling friend didn’t just sell books–he knew and loved books and cared deeply about connecting the right book and each of his customers.

And he and his wife work very hard at this, day after day.

While booksellers are all unique individuals, I would say they all have this in common–the work and the love. So, is it right to be considered a hero for doing work one loves? I think so. Having models of people who work hard with excellence to serve others, usually at minimal financial benefit, are worth noting. Beyond this, many of these people see their work as part of the civic fabric of their “main street” or whatever other street on which they work. They participate in community events. They host events from author appearances to readings for children. They highlight the voices of distinctive parts of their communities, whether of women, of people of color, of LGBTQ persons, or those of different religions.

Living in a bigger city, I love visiting small towns. I especially love the ones with a rich mix of shops and restaurants that my wife can spend an afternoon browsing–antique shops, boutiques, hardware stores, and bookstores. It’s the mix that makes it fun. What we don’t often appreciate his how hard all these business owners work to create this magic. But when we visit one of the forgettable small towns that are little more than civic buildings, a convenience store and a gas station, we begin to appreciate the value booksellers and others offer.

Sometimes these heroes have to give up their businesses. Maybe the finances just don’t work out, despite pouring time, energy, and in many instances, personal resources into the venture. More often, the challenge is just time, and the lack of another hero to pick up the mantle. I’ve seen more than one bookseller whose stores I really enjoyed visiting and who did great work for many years come to the realization that they no longer had the energy for that work, or that they wanted to use what remained to see and do things they had denied themselves for many years.

Sometimes, the community is blessed when someone younger comes along who shares the passion of the bookseller and takes over the business, often breathing new life into that business while preserving what brought a reliable clientele through the door. I’ve watched that happen with a store in a small town about 30 miles from us, and how that store is a community gathering place.

I hope these heroes survive the challenges of the pandemic. The books they’ve sent me have tided me and many of my friends through this time. I don’t think these heroes are looking for any acclaim. What would mean the most, particularly if you live in their town is that you would give them your trade, come to a few of their events and buy books, and tell your friends what a grand place their store is.

Why I Read

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Last week I wrote about reading and religion, which I could also have titled “reading as religion,” which I believe it to be for some people. Some may think that is so for me. While I would maintain that is not so, I’ll leave that judgment up to God and others. I’m too close to the subject. Quite simply, I do love reading.

In searching through the nearly eight years of posts on this blog, I’ve never directly talked about why I read. I’ve certainly touched on it or talked around it, but never directly spoken of why I read. Maybe it is like trying to answer why we love a person. We can give reasons, but then we realize we love someone apart from all those reasons. At our best, we love just because….

If you pressed me though, I could express some of the reasons why I read. I suspect there is more to it than what I write, as other bibliophiles will probably agree.

I love stories. I suspect for most of us, reading started with a love for stories, and that reading was a way to take in a story when there was no one to whom we could say, “tell me a story.” As we grow older, we think of our lives as a story, and perhaps a part of a larger story. Sometimes, reading serves to help me understand the story within which I live, and maybe how I might live within that story. I find that when I read the Bible, but also when I read fiction like Lord of the Rings or All the Light We Cannot See.

I read to understand the world. I love science writing that helps me understand the wonderful world I live in. Even gardening or home repair books can be interesting when I am trying to figure out how best to grow something or fix something. History helps me understand how we got here. Sometimes it is more indirect. It could be the history that led to a particular part of the world being the way it is today. History helps me understand the news–to set it in a bigger context.

Reading stretches and changes the way I view the world. I have a certain way of seeing things. All of us do. And because we are limited, so is my way of seeing the world. I will never be omniscient. The most I can hope for is to cultivate the mental flexibility and empathy to grasp how another might see the world differently, or even imagine a world unlike our own.

Reading also makes sense of my inner world. Perhaps it is a spiritual work that gives words to longings or perplexities. Sometimes a biography reveals a character of courage or grace I want to be more like. Sometimes a work of psychological insight reveals why I can be my own worst enemy.

I read to keep company with great thinkers, some who I’ll never have a chance to meet because they were dead before I was ever born. What a wonder that before recording technology, people wrote down their ideas, sometimes refining them in the process, and preserving them in books. Then there are some I’ve met or heard speak and was so intrigued by their ideas that I want to take a deep dive into them, deeper than a lecture or casual discussion.

When I read, I can travel the world without leaving home, a great advantage during a pandemic! If nothing else, I can appreciate how many different ways people approach this thing of making a life.

Then there are the times when I simply want to lose myself in a book. The detective fiction of Louise Penny has gotten me through the pandemic. Instead of all the fears a pandemic could summon, I could imagine for a few hours what it would be like to live in Three Pines. Or in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. Or Lothlorien.

Ever since I learned to read, I’ve loved to read. If nothing else, it is a habit. At this point asking me why I read is like asking why I breathe or eat or sleep. It is that much a part of life. There are a number of other associated delightful habits–reading reviews, browsing book sites, wandering around bookstores and book sales, visiting libraries, or even just organizing my TBR pile.

I love that reading is both solitary and social. There are the quiet moments along with a great story or a new insight. Then there are book discussions with others who love the same things, and sometimes help me understand what still perplexes me.

Books and reading are a cultural good worth preserving (one of the objects of this blog!). Like other readers, the one thing that most baffles me is, why people don’t read. But why do I read? It’s all of the above, and yet there’s something beyond that I can’t fully explain. I guess I read just because…

Reading and Religion

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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.