“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Cicero
Relationships between persons depend upon the art of listening. Listening to music, poetry, and even works of art is deeply personal. The same is true for books. The act of reading is listening.
Listening is a long art. My friend Shawn mentioned the other day that it takes 5 years of reading to genuinely enter into a relationship with an author. I agree. It’s not that I will read someone for 5 years and then move on, leaving them behind. Rather, after 5 years of steady reading I finally begin to understand an author as another presence accompanying me on the journey. Upon reflection, it’s true to say that I have read for at least 5 years all the writers who now mean the most to me.
Devoted reading of C.S. Lewis occupied me from when I first tackled Mere Christianity in 7th grade to the Space Trilogy by 9th grade and later the Narnia Chronicles in high school. As an undergraduate I was blown away by Till We Have Faces (still one of my five favorite books), and as a graduate student I gratefully drank in the insights of The Discarded Image, An Experiment in Criticism and his other scholarly works. Similarly, after finally reading The Hobbit as a freshman undergraduate (thanks, Lee!), I devoured everything of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s I could find for at least a decade. I re-read The Lord of The Rings every year for five (or was it six?) years in a row, before I could move on with a sense of his lingering presence. Even then, my wife Candace and I began reading The Lord of the Rings aloud on our honeymoon, and we later read it aloud several times with our daughters.
Lewis and Tolkien thus became eternal companions, friends who have shaped my way of being forevermore. I cannot imagine who I would be were it not for their books. My identity as a person is thoroughly intertwined with their writings. I could say the same about Francis Schaeffer.
I suspect that Shawn is right, that it takes about 5 years of acquaintance with an author before the relationship achieves this kind of kinship of the soul. What a real presence I feel from the other writers with whom I have traveled that far along the road: Luci Shaw, G.K. Chesterton, W.B. Yeats, Flannery O’Connor, Hans Rookmaaker, Dorothy Sayers, Aristotle, Augustine, Pascal, Charles Williams, Herman Melville, Calvin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Os Guinness, Loren Eiseley, T.S. Eliot and a few others.
There are many other writers, of whose works I have tasted enough to hope to know them well before I pass on from this world and meet them in the next – Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Walker Percy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dante, Oliver Sacks, Dickens, Coleridge, and more. These are writers whose words have pierced my heart, and caused my soul to open out upon the world, but toward whom I have not yet extended the requisite commitment to enable them to shape my life as profoundly as they might.
Strictly speaking, the 5-year threshold breaks down with the Bible. Although meeting God in the words of scripture is the paramount soul-shaping experience, it is of a wholly other sort. It does not take 5 years, nor does the living Word become assimilated within one’s soul in 40 years. No other reading experience is direct, immediate and profound in an absolute sense, while ever new and startlingly fresh. To say that in scripture I have known God as a soul-shaper is outrageously tame. Nevertheless, with respect to the human authors of scripture, through decades of long listening, I have come to sense a kind of companionship with Luke, Paul, and the writers of Isaiah, Ecclesiastes and the Psalms. They have shaped my soul in a truly personal communion.
So what about the future? What does all this mean for listening to books? To which writers shall I devote myself for indwelling next? The consequences of this choice are momentous precisely because they are so profound. Cicero was right; the bookshelves in my home are windows into my soul.
Here’s where I stand right now. I am in the second year of a five-year reading commitment that I hope will enable me to come to know three more writers on the next level. These writers are George MacDonald, Thomas F. Torrance, and Karl Barth. The first two were already at my soul-kinship level, and I can tell that all three are rising to the soul-shaping level of Lewis, Schaeffer and Tolkien. I am excited about walking the road with them for a number of reasons, which perhaps will emerge in future posts. All three were theologians of one stripe or another, but MacDonald made his living as a novelist and Torrance also described himself as a philosopher of science. All three grasped the vibrant love of the God of grace revealed in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. All three shared a number of emphases that entice me to “listen long”:
a sense of “the humanity of God, …the essence of God being sovereign love, not will or power, the full personal revelation of the Father by the Son, the conjoining of act and being in God and humanity, the self-enactment of persons as a reflection of the freedom of God, the deceitful emptiness and impotence of evil, the priority of grace even in God’s wrath, the personal and eternal communion of the Triune God.”
Source: Gary W. Deddo and Catherine A. Deddo, George MacDonald: A Devotional Guide to his Writings (Edinburgh: Saint Andrews Press, 1996), p. 31. In this comment the Deddos were identifying some similarities between MacDonald and Barth, although these themes are equally characteristic of Torrance, who drank deeply from them both.
Knowing them well will take time.
I’m excited about the road rising up to meet me. Where are you headed? To which authors are you listening? Are we traveling together?