By JIM NICHOLS
The email from an old friend and colleague presented an invitation I could not refuse. It was a hard invitation, but a challenging and interesting one.
He reported that he was in conversation with his adult daughter and she had asked him what books had been most important in building the character of his life. Momentarily stumped by such a large question, he began thinking about a response. He also took the opportunity to pass on the question to nearly 200 of us.
In his message to us, he noted how important reading had been in his life. He was pondering which specific books (other than the Bible) had been most significant in forming the person he is today. He asked us the same question and requested email responses that he would attempt to summarize. He suggested we consider three categories: (1) non-fiction (2) fiction (3) poetry. We were to consider not necessarily our favorite books, but which had brought the most important growth to us. After some months of seeing the responses (not everyone responded, but many did), he invited several of us to a discussion session. Also presenting were two in- person respondents to his query.
Since there were so many responses, there was a great variety of books and authors to consider. He had made some generalizations of relative frequencies of appearance of both titles and authors. A couple of my suggested authors made some lists, but not very close to the top. Without trying to summarize his summaries, I would simply turn the question over to you for your consideration. How would you respond to this question? What writings have helped make you who you are?
As a sample of suggested books, the following appeared: A Theory of Justice (John Rawls), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky), The Problem of Pain (C. S. Lewis). The variety was tremendous and, frankly to me, intimidating.
The whole group exercise did something else for me, however. It made me reconsider the importance of books and reading.
Two friends and colleagues were talking about what they were currently reading and one noted that he had mostly given up reading because it took so much of his time. It was time that he could better use in ministry (this was a pastor-type). He explained that he could remember hardly any of what he read and time-management basically ruled out that expenditure of his effort. This person was talking about something we all feel; who among us actually remembers very much detail of what we read?
The flaw with this thinking is that we are envisioning our brain as a computer into which we upload data onto a hard drive. Computers are wonderful in that they allow us to save and retrieve massive amounts of information. Our lives would be diminished without them. However, we give a different set of tasks to our brain. It is not just an information container, it is a decider, a champion for a cause, and a defender/debater/reconciler. It performs these activities based on what it hears from others, what music reaches us, and what words appear in our reading.
I was particularly interested in the participant comments as to how they were formed by books.
One person said that as a child reading Bambi he for the first time saw humans as villains.
Another said that his important books taught him that the world can be a good place and that friends can always be found.
“Richard Foster introduced me to the shaping concepts of spiritual disciplines.”
“Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys engaged my imagination; I did not have to have the experience myself but could be a part of it.”
“Steinbeck used words in magical ways that painted pictures of people, places, tragedies, and loves.”
It was clear from the comments that these respondents in their reading were not just looking for information; they were asking authors to help them see things that, until that time, they had missed. In fact, their souls, not just their computer brains, were on the lookout.
With a science background, I believe I was taught too much to read for information and detail. Perhaps I should be better at reading for revelation.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain
I love that your friend proposed this discussion idea. I absolutely love reading. It has changed my life in so many ways. I am saddened that some of the best books for teaching people about humanity (both its virtues and vices) are being targeted for censorship. What a tragedy if we ban those inspirational books from our children!