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.
Kenosis is the Greek word used in Philippians 2:7 to describe the “self-emptying” movement of Christ in his Incarnation:
[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?
About the author:
The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.
“Dynamics of the Spiritual Life” by Richard Lovelace. This broken and brilliant man welded mind and Spirit togther for many of us in the Jesus Movement of the ’70s. I’ve read it a number of times, annually for the first six years or so of my ministry. I don’t kiss it but in heaven, I might plant a holy one on Lovelace’s cheek.
I love this question. I think I do love books this way, at least some of them – I mean, I don’t kiss them or pour honey on them, but I love them. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Augustine’s Confessions, Homer’s Odyssey, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Grahame’s Wind in the Willows – these are books that genuinely move me to awe. I’m not a particularly heroic person, but I like to think I would risk my life to rescue the last copy of any of them, should things ever come to that terrible pass. 🙂
Micheal Hickerson says
Great books! I just started re-reading LOTR, and I’m already noticing how much of my memory of the book has been affected (corrupted? 🙂 by the movies. Also, for my money, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” in The Wind in the Willows is one of the finest chapters in any book I’ve ever read.
Let's book says
I love my books to distraction. It’s not the same way as I love a person, but it’s love. I go through stages loving different ones more, but once I’ve loved them, they always have a special place on the shelf. Like Secret Garden, from when I was a kid. I don’t really reread– too many books to do that–but the books I treasure are the ones I can imagine rereading if I ever ran out of new ones…
Chris Smith says
The first two that come to mind are the work of Wendell Berry (hard to pick a single book) and John Howard Yoder’s BODY POLITICS… They are the ones I keep returning to year after year.
Thomas B. Grosh IV says
Since I’ve been asking others to contribute, I thought that it was about time that I shared some of my own 🙂
Wondering about my own bias, I asked one of my daughters for her opinion. She thought that “The Lord of the Rings” edged out “The Chronicles of Narnia,” part of that being the superiority of the LoTR films 😉 And that the books by speakers I’ve invited as part of the Christian Scholar Series at our local congregation, http://www.etownbic.org/christianscholar/, and the Elizabethtown Public Library are high on the list. In addition to LoTR and Narnia, my wife pointed out Packer’s “Knowing God” and Sire’s “The Universe Next Door” date back to IVMF-Grove City College with Kraybill’s “Amish Grace” joining the team. As the conversation took off, one of my other children drew attention to Hollinger’s “Head, Heart, and Hands.”
Giving it some more thought, LoTR (totally w/you Hannah — and then w/Mike regarding the corruption!) is still on the list slightly above “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but “The Space Trilogy” may be above “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Below’s a list of additional books that I’ve returned to multiple times with intensity in order to remind myself of who I am in Christ as I prayerfully seek direction on specific topics, teaching others, and in daily life.* Some span across a number of life stages, some have only more recently joined the list but appear to be “keepers.”
-Book of Psalms (with Bonhoeffer, Goldingay, Kidner, Longman, Peterson, Sire), The Gospel of John (with Newbigin, Whitacre), Job, Ecclesiastes, Colossians, Song of Songs, Revelation . . .
-Augustine’s “Confessions” (totally w/you Hannah!)
-“The Rule of St. Benedict”
-Blocher’s “Evil and the Cross”
-Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” with “Cost of Discipleship” not far behind
-Brother Lawrence’s “The Practice of the Presence of God”
-Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”
-Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”
-Foster and Smith’s “Devotional Classics”
-Hollinger’s “Head, Heart, and Hands”
-Lewis’ “The Great Divorce,” “Mere Christianity,” “Screwtape Letters”
-Lovelace’s “Dynamics of the Spiritual Life” (totally w/you geezeronthequad!)
-Newbigin’s “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society”
-Packer’s “Knowing God”
-Pohl’s “Making Room”
-Poplin’s “Finding Calcutta”
-Sanders’ “Spiritual Leadership”
-Sire’s “The Universe Next Door,” “Naming the Elephant”
-Stott’s “Basic Christianity”
-Wright’s “Evil and the Justice of God,” “The Return of the King,” “The Challenge of Jesus”
Sometimes I check back about specifics or skim, other times I’ll set aside a retreat. Most often these times lead not only to prayerful reflection and journaling with a hot cup of tea in hand, but also blog posts and/or papers for a class of some form (taken or offered).
*I’ve probably missed some, but it’s time to cap the list.
Mike, I absolutely agree on “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” – one of the many reasons I love that book! Tom, and everyone thanks for the thoughtful suggestions. Always good to know what books other people have found so compelling.
I should add C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. I like pretty much all of Lewis, but I honestly think this is hands down his best fiction, considered as fiction. I find it deeply compelling – he wrestles with the numinous in a way I think Christians need to.
Andy Walsh says
I’d be hard pressed to say I love books as much as Tom, a noted bibliophile, or even my son, who will pore over his favorites (Harry Potter & 39 Clues at the moment) endlessly and has been known to get to the end of a book and go right back to page 1. That said, a few titles come to mind as having resonated significantly with me.
The popular science writings of Michio Kaku (esp “Hyperspace”), Roger Penrose, and Kip Thorne (“Black Holes and Time Warps”) were staples of my adolescence, fueling my fascination with science and the nature of reality. I have an increasing desire to share with my brethren in Christ a passion for God’s creation in the same way that these authors imparted their enthusiasm to me.
I love science fiction, particularly science fiction that intersects with other genres and styles. For example, Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series may be the seminal work of science fiction comedy, which nicely blends fantastic space adventures with keen observations of the human species delivered via the driest of humor.
Similarly, I’m interested in how science fiction can be used for exploring theology, and CS Lewis’ “Space Trilogy” is never far from my thoughts on that topic.
Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon” has some nearly rapturous passages on mathematics and computer science interwoven with an exciting narrative of historical fiction. What he achieves almost feels like a magic trick to which I would desperately love to know the secret.
A recent discovery was Alister McGrath’s “The Open Secret”. It clearly articulates a number of ideas about natural theology that previously were nagging at the edges of my mind. I suspect I will be returning to it or other writings by McGrath regularly.
Peter David’s “X-Factor”, an ongoing comic series, is something I can never get too far away from. Its unique blend of science fiction, characters I strongly identify with, and some challenging ideas about how religion in general and Christianity in particular are perceived by my fellow nerds has gotten hooks deep into my mind.
Finally, I would add Ecclesiastes, Judges and the Gospel according to John as the books of scripture that I find most personally gripping.
Tony Blair says
Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.”
Craig Gartland says
What struck me as I reflected on the question is how some books have become foundational or core texts for me on particular subjects. In this way they have become like deeply beloved friends. Three quickly come to mind:
On community: Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
On apologetics/unbelief to belief: Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
On prayer: Prayer, by Ole Halesby
It also occurred to me that books come into our lives at certain times and the joy of remembering them is also to call up the joy(s) of that particular time in one’s life.
Thanks for this entry, Mike.
Ron Zajac says
Strangely, I sort of acquired a “high water mark” sensitivity to clean, direct technical texts from the 1st edition of Kernighan & Ritchie’s “The C Programming Language”. I sat down and read it in 8 hours, slept on it, and the next day started writing C code. The 2nd edition muddied the purity of the original.