Thursday, February 2, 2012

Making friends with books

I had something of a rocky start with books.
Sometime in the spring of my second or third year of elementary school, my Mom informed me I could go to summer reading or be held back in the fall (nobody wanted to say the flunk word). I went with the summer reading.  This involved spending mornings in a classroom with floor to ceiling windows, hot summer sun, no air conditioning and eight or ten other similarly challenged kids.  I would read stories in cardboard folders held by a machine making a grinding, whirring sound while sliding a metal plate over the page, covering words, to set my pace. After I finished the story there would be a quiz, the outcome of which would determine what story to read next.  I am uncertain of my actual accomplishments, but thankfully I was promoted to the next grade with my class in the fall.
By fifth grade I hit another wall. I was in Miss Jacobs’ reading group. She was the young teacher who wore white go-go boots and short skirts. She should have been cool but she was determined to be in charge and she was STRICT. Our assignment was to read one library book a week. Being a mature ten year old, I decided to express my concerns to her. I told her I was a slow reader and didn’t think I could keep up with the assignment. I was hoping that through negotiation we could agree on more manageable number. She told me to do the assignment or get an F. I then made the mature decision to protest and read nothing. I got an F. My parents were not impressed with my story of negotiation and civil disobedience.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the books. I was a collector and books could be collected. I loved the idea of having books, owning them. I always got my Scholastic order in on time and intended to read all I purchased. On rare occasions, I did.  By high school I had learned that if I listened well in class I could fake my way through most tests and earn passing grades without reading the books. This was a skill I carried through most of my college years.
Sometime near the end of college, or soon thereafter, I started actually reading books. And things changed. Books began to shape my ideas. Books became my friends. I marked them, shared them, talked about them and treasured them.  I believe my wife was a guide opening the world of books for me.  She devours them. Reading books always seemed to be more about “wanting to” than “having to” for her.
In my twenties and thirties, I primarily read lay theology and it fueled my passion for faith and ministry. I was hooked on almost anything from InterVarsity Press. These books became a significant part of my shift (some might say drift) from fundamentalism to a more middle-ground, mainline place of faith connections. I often said that I loved a book because it confirmed my prejudices. Thankfully that was becoming more of a joke than an ongoing reality.
By my forties, I had branched out. My reading was no longer held in the world of Christian publishing, but included novels, action stuff, biographies, sports, history and more. Choosing to no longer focus my reading on books about faith and spirituality, I shifted to a broader range of books and found food for my soul.  Baseball stories and war histories were full of the stuff of life and leadership. Biographies and novels had some of the same draw. These stories of life and living were teaching me how to live. I continue to be fascinated by Negro League Baseball and the way that racial realities are central to the American story.  I love to look for a whisper of God in biographies and novels. I think most of us are either trying to find the Holy or get as far away as possible, and I think it is very difficult to tell a story that excludes a thread of grace, whether the author wants or intends such is irrelevant.
I think it is fair to say that most of my deep friendships include connections with and through books. There are those who share a love for certain authors or genres. There is the fire of discovery or the knowing that comes from a knowing a common story.  For some fifteen years I’ve had a weekly early morning gathering with a group of men. We are close in age and have employment or significant involvement in local ministries. One member’s wife dubbed us the RATS (Readers And ThinkerS). We joke about whether we deserve the name. But in reality we frequently talk about what we are reading and occasionally will read and discuss a book together. The group has been a safe place of strength and stability for each of us at crucial life moments.
I am still a slow reader, working not to say each word mentally. I read in spurts. A book hooks me and I’m obsessed. Summer camping trips, travelling and other times are my favorites. I need to be able to concentrate to read. It is difficult when I have projects hovering or schedule pressures. I find it interesting how many of the “supposed” to read books I’ve never touched. Don’t really care. I scrutinize book recommendations very carefully. You need to sell it or be someone I highly trust and respect before I’ll commit to your suggestion.
I’m not ready for an electronic reader yet. It may be my age, and I can accept that. I still like the individuality of books. Hardback, paperback, weight of paper, new, used, typestyle. I mean, how does an author sign a tablet?  I enjoy the library, borrowing and buying used books. There are some books I know from the start I want to own. With most others I prefer to keep them moving. At times I buy a keeper copy, one for me to own, after reading one borrowed. I also have books I treasure. While I would show them to many, I’d only cautiously lend them to any. Some have author’s signatures. I have been fortunate in my work life to meet many and make friendships with a few.  
Then there’s the question of writing a book. Many have encouraged me to give it a try. For a long time, it has vacillated between being a dream and a goal. I’ve started a few and outlined many on paper and more in my head.
Let’s face it. I’ll never read all the books I want to read. I certainly won’t read all the books others expect me to read. Schlock and trash will abound. But when I find a one of those just right books, at the just right time, the reading of it, no the very living into it makes all of life something more.
May God have mercy on us all (and help us to find a few more “perfect” books along the way).

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