When we arrive in a new area, one of the first things we do is apply for local library cards. Before finding a family doctor, before changing our voter registration, before transferring our drivers’ licenses, we find a source of cheap, sustainable books (preferably that have a four week lending period). Because as problematic as it may be to be pulled over and have to explain why you’re driving with a Indiana license when you reside in Virginia, nothing compares to the panic that grips my soul at the thought of not having bedtime stories or a pile of books waiting patiently for me on my nightstand.
For me, this love affair with books (which I suppose also meets the clinical definition of certain addictions) began when I was young. My mother was (and is still) an insatiable reader who was rarely seen without a book in hand—everything from Dickens to Horace to Austen–this woman taught me that while it’s fine for a girl to be pretty, it’s essential that she read. And do so often. My husband, on the other hand, didn’t discover reading until his sophomore year of college when his American Lit professor captured his imagination with an excerpt from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Consider this a plug for required college English classes—you never know what they may ignite.)
And yet, I really don’t count myself among the literati. There are lots of books that I haven’t read, lots that I should have, and probably even more that I shouldn’t have. I always feel slightly inferior whenever I see my friends’ Goodreads’ lists or overhear them discussing the latest, most significant, most groundbreaking new release—the one that I didn’t even know existed. And to be perfectly honest, I find myself projecting these insecurities as I smugly pass the Amish fiction section in the local Christian bookstore--all the while secretly wondering what I’m missing.
Still, according to Karen Swallow Prior, Chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University, this isn’t a problem. In this interview spotlighting her recently released memoir, Booked! Literature in the Soul of Me, Prior suggests that it’s not so much what we read—although I’m sure she’d have a some recommendations—as it is that we read, that we allow the process to shape our souls as it has hers. In doing so she echoes the words of G.K. Chesterton who argues in “The Ethics of Elfland” that his faith began in the nursery where he acquired a “certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by mere facts.”
Simply put, what we acquire through literature is what we need to live in reality. When a story stretches our capacity to understand situations and characters, it is in effect teaching us how to “read” life. And through the process, we discover more about ourselves, our God, and others. Through His good gift of the book, our souls expand and we are given the opportunity to live beyond ourselves in order to gain perspective on ourselves. If only in those moments, if only through the slimmest of volumes, we are ushered into a “laboratory of life” in which we can experiment and dream, in which we can see the world as it should be or discover the tragic consequences when it is not.
It is no coincidence that Christians should be, not only people of “The Book,” but people of books. In His wisdom, our God has ordained that His words not simply be spoken by the prophets but that they also be written and preserved by the scribe. And perhaps more significantly, in His wisdom, our God has deigned to call His Son the incarnate Word—a living, breathing, walking… story. A Story within a story. The Story on which all others rest.
We should not be surprised then if our souls, the very souls that were formed after His, resonate and thrill at stories. We should not be surprised if despite ourselves we love what He loves. And we should not be surprised, that as much as we like to think that we own our books, we often find—thirty boxes and eight moving trucks later—that we are owned by them instead.