Sunday, March 18, 2007

Books, Reading and the Spirit

Marcel Proust wrote, “Reading is at the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it; it does not constitute it.” (Quoted in The Seven Stairs, by Stuart Brent, p. 127)

The experience of reading is a spiritual exercise. This is true, I believe, of all reading, not just that which is explicitly religious or spiritual. The book is the talisman of that sacred act. Nothing else, in my experience, can compare to the magic and wonder of a book. To feed this wonder in my life, I have collected literally thousands of them, from old paperback westerns with pages yellowed by age to elegant hardcover reference books with pristine pages of acid-free paper.

This joyful addiction began in earnest when I was a teenager, even though I had amassed quite a stash of Little Golden Books much earlier. When I was a boy, one of my favorite playmates was my cousin Betsy Turner. One afternoon we were visiting her grandparents, Mr. Homer and Mrs. Anna Jordan, in Monticello. Betsy and I were playing in her grandparent’s room, and beside their bed was a table, and beneath that table in neat stacks were more books than I had ever seen in one place in my life. They all belonged to Mr. Homer, who was an avid reader of westerns and adventure novels. Several years later, Mr. Homer passed away, and one evening while I was getting ready to go to town to hang out at the Dairy Queen with most of the other bored teenagers in the county, Mrs. Anna called and asked me to stop by her house when I came to town, because she had something she wanted to give me. When I got there, Mrs. Anna had several boxes full of Mr. Homer’s books. “I know how much you admired them, so they’re yours.” Christmas morning had never been this exciting. The back of my ‘66 Buick Riviera was full of books!

I went to the Dairy Queen and spent a little while just hanging out, but the books kept luring me back to my car, where I’d sit and pick up a handful and thumb through them. That was one night on the town that I couldn’t wait to get home.

My daddy could never understand this affinity for books. He had purchased a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the 1970 edition, which I adored (and which I still have, by the way), and to his way of thinking, that was all the books anybody could or should ever want. My daddy never cared if I drank beer or liquor, it couldn’t have bothered him in the least, but I had to hide my book addiction from him.

While I was in the Marine Corps, the collection continued to build. When I was going to basic electricity & electronics and avionics schools at NAS (Naval Air Station) Memphis/Millington, Tennessee, I had a roommate who had the top of his wall locker literally packed full of fantasy and science fiction paperbacks, including just about every Edgar Rice Burroughs novel ever written. He graduated from his school and got orders to another duty station, and he decided he didn’t want to lug all those books with him, so he asked, “You want ‘em?” Well… yeah! When I went home on leave that Christmas, I filled one sea bag with those books and could barely get it clamped shut. They were waiting for me at home when I got out of the Marine Corps, and it was a grand reunion.

In the years since, one of my favorite pastimes has been hanging out at bookstores and used book sales. Several years ago, my brother, an avid gun enthusiast, invited me to go with him to a gun and knife show in Atlanta. He bought two .22 rifles, and I bought… yep, four books. He said I was the only person he knew who could go to a gun show and come away with books. One of those books happened to be a flight manual for the P-47D Thunderbolt (airplanes are another passion), one of my favorite WWII aircraft, so it wasn’t really a completely nerdy thing to do.

These days I keep myself surrounded by books, and whenever I visit a home where there are no books, I feel completely out of place. It makes me more nervous than if I’d just walked in on somebody naked. Usually if I’m going to anybody’s house for any length of time, I bring a book (or, more likely, books) anyway, so I’m not usually uncomfortable for long. Well, let me get back to my latest spiritual endeavor, A.G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life: It’s Spirit, Conditions, Methods, one of the two dozen or so books I’m reading at the moment. And I wish you…happy reading.


kg said...

Jim, an interesting read. Book by Elizabeth Gilbert titled "eat, pray, love." One woman's search for everything across Italy, India and Indonesia. Quote from GQ magazine :" not just for the ladies, fellas" It is a search of three different aspects of nature; pleasure, devotion and the balance between wordly enjoyment and divine transcendence.

Sheila said...

Jim, I so enjoyed reading about your passion for books. My Daddy shared your passion as do I. My home is filled with every kind of book you can imagine. The best money I ever spent on my children, and now my grandchildren, has been on books. One of my daughters is a true "bookie". I began reading to my babies before their birth and now enjoy reading to my grandchldren. I can remember going to the library and feeling sad because I knew I couldn't possibly read them all! So many books, so little time.