In my continued reading of Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading, I’ve come to his chapter “Kenosis.” He addresses the question of whether someone can love a text in the same self-giving way that one can — even ought to — love another person.
[Jesus], being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:6–8, NIV)
The Love for Books
Jacobs quotes several Jewish sources which speak of intense love for the Torah, including this description of a medieval ceremony on the Feast of Shavuot:
The teacher sat the boy on his lap and showed him a slate on which were written the Hebrew alphabet, a passage from the Scriptures and the words “May the Torah be your occupation.” Then the slate was covered with honey and the child licked it, thereby bodily assimilating the holy words. (Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, 71, as quoted by Jacobs)
This degree of adoration seems possible, maybe even appropriate, for a sacred text, yet Jacobs goes on to cite several writers who speak of secular texts in similar ways.
Petrarch devoutly kissed his copy of Virgil before opening it; Erasmus did the same for his Cicero, and in the evening, when he had finished his day’s work, Machievelli put on his best clothes to read his favorite authors. (Henri-Jean Martin, The History and Power of Writing, 363, as quoted by Jacobs)
Testing Yourself Against the Classics
Jacobs notes that Petrarch explained his love for quoting classical authors by saying there was “no better way [of testing one’s mind]…than by comparing one’s mind with those it would most like to resemble.” More recently, Jacobs drew attention to a comment made by the novelist Philip Roth about his decision to retire from writing fiction:
Roth told [the French magazine] Les inRocks that when he turned seventy-four he reread his favorite authors—Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Turgenev, Hemingway. Then, he said, “When I finished, I decided to reread all of my books beginning with the last, ‘Nemesis.’
“I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And I thought it was more or less a success.”
Are there books that you have loved like this? Either because of devotion to them or because of aspiring to the same level of thinking?
Books I Have Loved
I’ve tried to think of any books that I’ve loved to this degree. There certainly have not been any that I covered in honey or kissed before reading, but a few have been constant companions to me for many years. I wish that I could have the same level of taste as Roth or Petrarch. For a long period of time, if you asked me for my favorite book, I would have named Moses May Have Been an Apache and Other Actual Facts by Cully Abrell and John Thompason. This parody of Ripley’s Believe It or Not contained no actual facts. Instead, it was an entire book of fake trivia like:
- Recent archeological evidence suggests that Moses may have an Apache.
- The word ‘automobilist’ originally meant ‘one who goes around by himself.’
- The trumpet was invented as a funnel for stewed tomatoes.
I was heavily committed to quiz bowl competitions for many years, and there was something about the absurdity of “facts” removed from any context (or truth) that appealed to me.
More seriously, the books I have loved the most include:
- With One Voice, the international edition of the Australian Hymn Book, which was the hymnal used at St. Johns Shaughnessy when I attended there and which I used as I wrote the hymns for my masters thesis.
- Fred Chappell’s I Am One of You Forever. Elizabeth bought me a signed copy of this novel for my birthday several years ago.
- The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, which introduced me to so many of my favorite poets.
- Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, which I think I read a half-dozen times over a two- or three-year span.
As I’ve gotten older, though, there have been fewer and fewer books to capture my attention and love in the same way. Even these listed above have a much smaller role in my life than they did earlier. Perhaps it has something to do with my stage in life, or the simple fact that I’ve now read more books and each new one makes less of an impact on me.
What about you?
- Are there any books you revere?
- Do you have any personal rituals before reading one of your favorite authors?
- Are there authors that you use to test your own thinking and writing?