What Do My Favorite Books Say About Me?

Some of my books…

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!

Gift Articles

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I’d like to give you a gift. It is an article I just read that I liked and think you will like. About the only way I can do that these days is to cut out the article and send it to you. But I can only do that with one person.

Why? Paywalls on digital content. These often prevent non-subscribers from reading content, or only a very small number in a month. Often, you have to register at the website, subjecting you to emails from that site. For many, it is not worth it, and that article I want to share with you may end up unread.

I was so happy when the New York Times instituted a policy for its digital subscribers of permitting them to “gift” ten articles each month. I often find good things to share that I like to post on one of the social media pages I curate. Being able to do this is and not hear back, I couldn’t open it because of the paywall makes me feel better about my subscription to the NY Times.

I curate social media accounts related to books and to higher education. For each, I tend to post 3-5 articles a day selected from different media. Sometimes I can’t access a good article because of a paywall and other times, I can access an article because I subscribe to the publication but if I share it with non-subscribers, they are subject to the paywall. Result: I limit the number of paywalled articles I share.

But I don’t like it as a subscriber and I’d like (and have written) publications to which I subscribe to adopt a policy like that of the NY Times. Here’s what I think they ought to consider:

  • It is an extra subscriber benefit that gives me one more reason to keep subscribing.
  • Subscription prices are rising rapidly. If I have to cut my subscriptions, I will retain the ones that offer me the most perceived benefit.
  • The fear, I realize, is that “gift” content will discourage subscriptions. What is not considered is that gift content will help retain subscribers. From the development world, it is far easier to retain a subscriber than to get a new one.
  • Shared content that people can actually read demonstrates the worth of the publication. For example, I subscribed to The Atlantic because of online articles I read before they instituted their paywall policy.
  • Allowing “gift” articles also expands traffic to a publication’s website–as important a metric as subscribers for advertisers. When I share an article on my Facebook page, I potentially share that article with nearly 59,000 followers, a significant “reach.” In turn, they appreciate the gift and increase their engagement–and some may subscribe.
  • Magazines often allow you to give a year “gift subscription” to expand their subscriber base. Why not use gift articles to expand subscriber base?

I suspect at worst, this idea wouldn’t cost publications anything, and may have the upsides I’ve proposed. But I suspect, this may be a quixotic quest unless there was a mass subscriber movement. The publications I’ve written just tell me what I already know, which feels condescending. None made me feel they actually valued me as a subscriber and were interested in building the relationship between us. The only time most really seem to care is when I drop a subscription. Then they’ll often offer a new one for less than half what I was paying, usually via a computer generated mailing. Maybe some day they will recognize the power of a gift and the multiplier effect it can have with subscribers.

Bob on Books 2022 Reading Challenge

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This is the time of the year when reading challenges come from Goodreads and other bookish sources–libraries, bookstores, and a variety of articles. There seem to be a lot of these focused around reading harder, faster, smarter, and setting numerical goals and tracking them. I do a Goodreads challenge, but deliberately set it below what I likely will read. Interesting, even that low number is higher than what I once read.

I like goals that focus on both growth and enjoyment. I’m interested in deepening my appreciation of good books and learning more about my world and my place within it. Challenges can be good when they lead to the ends of our growth and enjoyment. Here are some ways I want to challenge myself that may be helpful as you think of your reading in 2022.

Good Writing. I not only read a good deal, but I write, and edit the good writing of others. Most of this is instinctive for me, or reflective of whatever ingrained grammar and writing instruction I received. I want to read a book on good writing, to not only better appreciate it when I see it but to do it better myself. My book____________________.

Deep Dive. It is interesting to dig deeper on a subject that is of personal interest, and perhaps read several books on different aspects or perspectives on a topic. Just don’t become “that” person who “did their own research.” To give you perspective (and ideas for further reading), read the notes or bibliographies of the books you read to grasp how much research those who write the books do! My deep dive topic______________________.

Different genre. I will probably suggest this every year to get out of my ruts. My book of a different genre_____________________.

A Work in Translation. It could be one of those great Russian novels, or a contemporary novel written by someone whose first language is other than yours. Look for reviews of works in translation. My book_____________________.

A Children’s Book. I miss read-aloud times with my son, not only as a time of closeness, but also because I loved the stories and the writing. The best children’s books are also great reading for adults. I reviewed a couple recently that whet my appetite for more. My book_____________________.

An Old Friend. Some of the best books I’ve read become richer each time I read them. Just like our best friendships go deeper with time, so can our relationships with books. My renewal of an old book friendship will be______________________.

Food. The necessity of nourishing ourselves is pretty basic. I have to admit to being fairly clueless about the elements of good nutrition. I’ve enjoyed the artistry of others who care about good food and gathering friends to eat it. I’d like to learn more about how to do that. My food book is_____________________

Finish a series. True confessions! I’ve started a number of series that I’ve enjoyed but haven’t finished any of them! This year I want to finish at least one! The series I will finish is____________________.

An Inherited or Gifted Book. I have books that have been passed down in the family. Maybe you have friends who have given you a book. I want to read one of those this year. My book is______________________.

A Long Book. Because I review books, I tend to choose books of 200-300 pages to read, to have books I’ve finished 3-4 times a week. That’s hard to do with those long 700-1000 page or more books that may take a month or longer to finish. But some of the best books are long. I want to read one. My long book is_______________________.

A Play. From the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to contemporary Broadway, plays have been part of our cultural life. They are not a part of my reading. This year, I want to read a play, perhaps one I will see (hopefully) performed live. The play I will read________________________.

A book I will discuss with others. One of the things that has gotten me through the pandemic is talking with some friends about a book we are reading together. It’s pretty easy if you are in a book club, but you can do this with just one other person. I always see more in a book when I discuss it with others, especially if it is a challenging book to read. The book I will discuss with others is_____________________.

There are twelve challenges here. You could do one a month, or just pick a few that really fit you. This is my reading challenge after all. But if it suggests some reading challenges that you will enjoy, go for it. I’d love to hear how it goes.

Some Writers I Just Can’t Ignore

James T. Keane, in a current America article titled “Wendell Berry: the cranky farmer, poet, and essayist you just can’t ignore,” asks this question:

“My reaction was a simple one: Did Wendell Berry just leap off the page and hit me over the head with a fencepost?”

Wendell Berry is one of those writers I can’t ignore. I recently read and reviewed his The Hidden Wound, is a profound essay on racism, written, not in 2018 but 50 years earlier in 1968. Berry seems to speak from somewhere else with a voice unlike other voices, and it got me to thinking who some of the other writers are who have spoken from somewhere else with a voice I cannot ignore. Here are some I came up with:

Marilynne Robinson. Her essays and novels, steeped in, of all things, Calvinism, challenge both modern scientism and our easy moral equivocation and dismissal of the relevance of God. I’m reading her lectures at Yale in 2010 right now, Absence of Mind.

C.S. Lewis. He brought his love and encyclopedic knowledge of old books and Christian theology to the questions of the day as well as in children’s literature in a way both timely and timeless.

Kristin Hannah. This is an author who keeps me awake at night, after I put her books down, with her strong female characters confronting personal and systemic inhumanity, often at the hands of men. They make me as a man want to fight against the wrongs done to subjugate women.

Eugene Peterson. I heard Peterson speak to the staff of the organization I work for after a hugely successful conference, warning of the dangers of believing too much in our success. He wrote trenchantly during his life on the calling of pastors, and how he saw many exchanging noble for ignoble work. He ought to be assigned reading for all our celebrity pastors.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I may not believe all he would say theologically, but I cannot ignore words that come out of resistance to totalitarianism and his experience of leading a Christian community of resistance.

Mary Oliver. I’ve only come to discover her poetry in the last few years, but her perception of the transcendent in the ordinary, the large issues of life in small incidents nudge me to be aware of the same.

Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff is a philosopher who teaches at Yale. Whether writing about the death of a son, justice in South Africa, philosophy of education, or his defense of religious ideas in scholarly discussion, he brings head and heart, reason and passion together. Read his memoir In This World of Wonders and his “Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading his sermons and speeches is like a trumpet call. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a powerful response to the moderate white pastors who counselled patience.

Fleming Rutledge. Anyone who would argue that women cannot preach or teach theology should read her work. Her The Crucifixion is the most significant theological work I have read in the past ten years. Three Hours is preached reflections on the seven last words of Christ. Advent is also quite good.

I don’t know about you, but in a world of amusement, distraction, and obliviousness, I need to be “hit over the head with a fencepost.” This is part of the company of writers who serve that function for me. These are writers who do not so much answer my questions, as question my answers. Who does that for you?

The Unexamined Reading Life

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Socrates was recorded to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We could probably have a long discussion about that statement and some would argue that life is worth living, examined or not. And probably we might think of our reading life in the same way. Reading is worth it, whether examined or not. But might it be that some examination of our reading life might enrich that life and make it worth more?

That seems to be the premise of a post on Book Riot yesterday titled, “How to Audit Your Reading Life” by Kelly Jensen. She contends that “reading audits” free her from reading goals, feeling bad about what she is reading or not reading, and to make good choices about the roughly 2500 books she will be able to read in her life.

She follows five steps in her reading auditing process:

  1. Collect all your reading logs, tools, and notes.
  2. Assess your reading.
  3. Determine your reading life values.
  4. Set some goals.
  5. Determine future audit timeframes.

Her process is very detailed, making me wonder if she is a real auditor or accountant. At very least, I got the sense that she could be. She admits that not everyone might want to go as granular as she does. I suspect that is most of us, but her article has a number of helpful tips and ideas for your own reading audit, however informal or analytical you may choose.

There were a number of valuable takeaways that rang true for me. First is the realization that not only can’t I read everything, I can only read a very small portion of all the books that are out there. The question is whether I’m reading the ones that reflect what is important to me, and the answer to that is unique as each individual.

Looking at what I’ve been reading via Goodreads or my blog posts is valuable (steps 1 and 2). It’s why I started using these tools in the first place–to remember what I’ve read and what I thought about it. But it also reveals my reading patterns–the types of books I read, the publication books, etc. My Goodreads shelves are actually pretty revealing. Lots of biographies and theology and mysteries and history. Not many thrillers or popular fiction or health. Given my age, a few more books on health might be helpful!

I don’t think I’ve ever consciously determined my “reading life values” distinguished from interests. I think my values in the rest of life continue to shape what I read. Jensen suggests identifying in various ways what has brought you joy. Perhaps my version of that is that the pursuit of what I care about in life brings me joy–whether it is the knowledge of God, understanding better how to care for this world, or to learn lessons in life and leadership from others who have led well (or sometimes not so well!). Place matters to me, both where I grew up and where I live. A growing value for me is to read and commend some of Ohio’s great authors from James Thurber to Wil Haygood to Hanif Abdurraqib. I also like stories–whether good fiction or historical narratives, and when I find someone whose writing gives me joy, like Louise Penny, I want to read more of what they have written.

My “Bob on Books 2021 Reading Challenge” was actually a personal attempt to set some reading goals reflecting what I value. I’ve actually met every goal except–you guessed it–the health one! I have a month left–at very least, I ought to check my book stacks and see if there is something on health just waiting in my TBR pile or Kindle. This article sparked my thinking about other kinds of goals. I want to be more intentional about supporting some indie bookstores I care about and our local library, which does great work. I may put something along these lines into my 2022 Reading Challenge.

As to “future audit timeframes,” setting reading goals at the beginning of the year and revisiting them midyear seems to makes sense for me and again at year end seems like a good rhythm, with the year end serving to spark thoughts about directions for the coming year–something writing this post is helping me to do! Like the author, I’m not compulsive about number goals. I set a Goodreads challenge, but always below what I actually read in a year.

I liked the positive framing of this article. The purpose of this kind of audit, however loose or granular your approach, is not to beat yourself up! The focus is not failure but what is working and what you value. As we approach the last month of the year it is a good time to look back on this year’s reading, what worked and what didn’t and start thinking about what some of what you’d like to read for next year (I always leave room for serendipity!). If you are like most readers, you may already have some of these books on your TBR pile–after all, there was some reason you bought them!

I like to think of life as a seamless whole, in which my reading life is congruent with the rest of my life. Sometimes my reading life shapes the rest of my life. And the rest of my life shapes what I read. I don’t know about Socrates, but I can say that an examined reading life certainly makes life richer, and that is of considerable worth.

Website Review: Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America

Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America website screen capture (top of page) 10/21/2021

One of the questions I receive on both my blog and Facebook page runs like this: “I have a copy of_____. Would you have any idea of its value or how I would find out?” I haven’t a clue regarding the first part of that question. I love reading and talking about books, but have never focused on collecting books, particularly old books apart from a treasured Balzac series that passed down from my grandfather. I always direct people to antiquarian booksellers and to this website representing the association of these booksellers in the U.S. (there are similar associations in other countries).

Spurred by reading about the founding of this organization in Book Row which I recently reviewed, I spent some time nosing around on their website. Here’s some of what I found.

The top menu bar can take you nearly anywhere on the site. “Browse and shop” takes you to a page where you can browse antiquarian books in a variety of categories, see recently listings or search for a particular author or title (you can do this from the home page as well). “About the ABAA” is exactly that including the mission statement, their Guarantee and Code of Ethics, how antiquarian booksellers can join (they must be vetted and sponsored by a current member–they cannot just sign up and they must subscribe to the Code of Ethics), their board members and more. “About Antiquarian Books” is a great place to start to learn about antiquarian books, collecting them, and even the vocabulary that is used. “ABAA Booksellers” describes what it takes to become an ABAA Bookseller and provides a search function for finding ABAA Booksellers by area, region or name. Finally, “Events” publicizes upcoming book events, especially book fairs. There is even an article on virtual book fairs in the age of COVID.

Below this is a scrolling banner with recent postings from “The New Antiquarian,” the blog of the association, and other announcements. The blog may also be accessed from a clickable teal colored box in the upper right corner of the page. The below the “creeping” listing of book categories, one can see recent arrivals of books for sale via member booksellers.

Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America website screen capture (bottom of page) October 21, 2021

The bottom of the page is redundant in many respects, with regard to some of the non-bookselling content on the page. The “About” information is offered again with this statement that ought encourage those wishing to buy, sell, or evaluate their books”

The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America was founded in 1949 to promote interest in rare and antiquarian books and book collecting, and to foster collegial relations. We strive to maintain the highest standards in the trade. All members agree to abide by the ABAA’s Code of Ethics. While our members sell, buy, and appraise books and printed matter, our staff can assist you with finding a bookseller and with other trade-related matters.

Several things stand out. This is a 72 year-old organization–not an internet-come-lately. They work collegially, helping each other serve customers. They have a code of ethics. They are dedicated to serving customers in every aspect of the antiquarian book business.

Also, “below the fold” are a selection of the posts from their blog, other organizational links and a place to sign up for their newsletter. That’s really about it.

One other feature you should note in the scrolling banner is the “catalogues” feature. Catalogues are the lifeblood of antiquarian bookselling. Sellers assemble sales lists of a selection of their books. Glancing through can help you learn about which sellers cater to your interests and give you an idea of the worth of various books and considerations in value. This is a great way to get an education about antiquarian books and you might find something to your liking that could be a nucleus to your collection.

All in all, this is an easily navigable and great place to learn, find books and booksellers, and book events and more, dealing with booksellers who still consider their work an honorable trade worthy of high standards. If you are concerned about such things as you look to buy, sell, or appraise old books, look for booksellers who meet these requirements and display the ABAA logo.

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!