Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In Praise of Books

Months ago my wife and I made a decision to move from Alabama to South Carolina. (Can a man be born again when he is say, 75?) We put our house up for sale...and weeks later it looks like it might just be sold very soon. So—we are going through the painful process of cleaning out and deciding what to keep and what to dispose of.

The biggest challenge I face are my books. When I retired I had to clear out a lot of books and bring the rest home from my office. Our house is filled with books cases and books.

But standing before my books shelves I found grief washing over me. I look at the shelves and shelves of books that have changed the course of my life. I think Kafka was right when he said that a book should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us. Many of these dust-covered friends have opened windows, stretched my horizons or just provided countless hours of sheer joy in reading.

I still have a Hardy boy book or two from my early years. There is the old Lincoln Library that gave me so much information back there. I cannot part with it. I found one of my first Bibles and my mother’s handwriting inscription that she left. I picked up a Psychology book that I read my first year in college that opened a door of understanding myself that continues to this day. I found my Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot that my friend introduced me one evening. “Remember the faith that took men at the call of a wandering preacher...Ours is an age of moderate virtue and moderate vice...” After all these year I can still feel the excitement I first felt when I heard those lines. As Martin Luther King marched in Montgomery I read Cry the Beloved Country and learned about an injustice I had been blind to all my young life. As a young preacher I read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and began to reckon on how this really was a hard and unending journey. I have a multitude of books of sermons by Fosdick and Speakman and Scherer and Luccock and Buttrick who stretched my understanding of what a sermon ought to be. While still in my first little church a friend from Yale sent me The Magnificent Defeat by someone called Frederick Buechner. Little did I know this new friend, Buechner would teach me much about writing and sermons and the wonders of life itself. I have about every book he ever wrote. There are Commentaries and Bible Dictionaries that helped me in sermons. And Reynolds Price, John Updike, Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry  Mary Oliver, Raymond Carver and that almost unknown Alden Nowlan, poet from Nova Scotia—all of these and more have stretched me and made me laugh and cry and just be glad that I am alive.

I don’t want to bore you. And I don’t write these lines to let you know “how smart I am.” I simply want to write a tribute to all these old friends I must box up and give away. Of course I will keep many until that day when my children will riffle through the volumes and never know how much some of these books changed my life. C.S. Lewis once said: “We read to know we are not alone.” And I think I have found this to be true. Not only have the books provided an axe to hack away at so much I did not know—but I have also discovered how many others have walked this same way that I now walk. I am surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Some of my history books and biographies have helped me know that this is not the first time this nation has gone crazy. Nor is this the first time when doomsayers have taken our feverish pulse and wondered if the nation would survive. Sometimes I tremble at where we are and then I will remember something that happened to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and U.S. Grant and dear Lincoln and the two Roosevelt’s. Books often have given me perspective to see the sky is not falling after all.

And so though I must box up many of these books—one cannot keep everything—even as I say goodbye I know that some of the wisdom from these books will be with me all the way to the finish line. Of course I will pack up many of these old friends and put them on the moving van and take them to our new house. I will not be able to get rid of as many as I probably should. But one day soon I shall dust off what is left and put them on the new shelves in my new home and stand back and smile.

1 comment:

  1. Had difficulty getting past the first paragraph - you and Gail will be missed!