A Room Full of Books

by Jeff Johnson


A few years back, while traveling through the middle island of Fyn on our way to visit the Hans Christian Andersen museum in Odense, my family stopped at a small farm to see a Viking relic. It was March. No one travels in Denmark in March. A surprised woman handed us a key and said the vessel was just down the footpath in the adjacent field. Suspicious, we walked about a quarter of a mile to a large mound covered with grass, on one side of which were two large glass doors. The key unlocked the door, which opened into complete darkness. I reached for some switches I hoped would turn on the lights. My four-year-old daughter was not enjoying the experience, and, I must admit, my wife and I were a bit spooked ourselves. Suddenly, a low mechanical sound echoed through the chamber, and the lights, dimly at first, flickered up to reveal a huge Viking funeral ship completely housed within a glass chamber. The sound was the ventilation system turning on, but it could have been the wind and sea echoing back from ages past.

In my travels someone is always handing me keys to hidden treasure. In Wales, again in the off-season, my brother and I were handed keys; one, to the doors of a castle ruin that was not yet open for the tourist season; the other, to a 5,000-year-old burial chamber on Anglesey Island. And there was another set of keys–on the Isle of Iona in Scotland, the birthplace of Celtic Christianity. I was given a key to a small antiquarian bookshop by the owner who was not going to be on the island that evening, but who had offered none the less to let me browse in his shop. (He didn’t have to worry about me stealing anything; no cars are allowed on Iona, and the only way on or off the island is by ferry.)

The shop was a small hobbit-like place where one sitting at the desk was surrounded by books, very old and some not so old, on history, philosophy, theology, science, and the books in which I was most interested: illustrated children’s books. I dare say I felt a bit like C.S. Lewis sitting in his cherished place within the Old Bodelian Library in Oxford, a place he said would have been the most wonderful place in the entire world if only one were allowed to smoke his pipe and drink port. A room full of books. Cicero once said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

Books themselves quite often yield keys to hidden treasure. Dr. Francis Schaeffer’s books profoundly impacted my whole generation with the idea that a reasoned and rational faith could survive in a modern world. His analysis of thought and culture inspired many of us to become better readers. In The God Who Is There, he wrote: “True spirituality cannot be abstracted from truth at one end nor from the whole man and the whole culture at the other. If there is a true spirituality, it must encompass all. The Bible insists that truth is one–and it is almost the sole surviving system in our generation that does.”

Christians are people who should be, by the very nature of faith, searchers of the truth. The careful reader will always discover something true in a book. But truth can be illusive. John Milton once described truth as a huge mirror shattered at the Fall whose splinters were scattered throughout the world. He argued that one must be careful about censorship since one runs the risk of covering a fragment of the truth we seek.

The habit of reading is much enhanced when begun at an early age. Reading books to our children is certainly one of the greatest gifts we can ever give them. In our house, Alice’s wonderland and Mr. MacGregor’s garden are much more interesting places than Sesame Street. Not that we don’t enjoy Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers or Lamb Chop or, heaven forbid, Barney! Yet stories about Jack the Giant killer cutting off giants’ heads while surviving giants tromp around chanting, “Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman . . .” are much more enthralling. Besides, they’d never let you see these kind of things on a kids’ television show–nor should they! This is imagination. And that’s what reading is often about. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” He elaborates more succinctly in his essay “The Weight Of Glory”:

In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more–something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves–that, though we cannot, yet these projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

The older I get the more I discover that the reading of books is a cyclical affair. Do you remember studying the process by which water moves from rivers, lakes, and oceans to become vapor in the form of clouds, and then returns again as rain or snow to begin the cycle anew? Consider that our world’s water has been cycling around since the beginning of creation. The stories and ideas in literature maintain a similar cycle. In his novel Magnus, George MacKay Brown writes:

. . . history both repeats itself and does not repeat itself. One event; one group of characters that move in and through and out of the event, and both make the event and are changed by it, collectively and individually–that event bears resemblances to another event that occurred a hundred years before, so that a man listening to a saga is moved to say, “This is the same performance all over again.”. . . Events are never the same, but they have enough similarity for one to say tentatively that there are constants in human nature, and constants in the human situation, and that men in similar circumstances will behave roughly in the same fashion.

Poetry, art, music thrive on these constants. They gather into themselves a huge scattered diversity of experience and reduce them to patterns; so that, for example, in a poem all voyages–past, present, and future–become The Voyage, and all battles The Battle, and all feasts The Feast. This is to look at those events of time which resemble one another yet are never quite the same, in a symbolical way. The symbol becomes a jewel enduring and flaming throughout history. Therefore all our little journeys and fights and suppers that seem so futile once they are over, are drenched with the symbol, and retain a richness they never had while they were being experienced. Men handle the jewel and know themselves enriched.

Good reading is critical reading. One must pay attention when one reads. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a whole book on the art of reading: How To Read A Book. Of many fine points in their book, one of the most important is in their introduction. They compare a reader to a catcher in baseball:

Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it. The pitcher or batter is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball. The catcher or fielder is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it. Both are active, though the activities are different. If any thing is passive, it is the ball. It is the inert thing that is put in motion or stopped, whereas the players are active, moving to pitch, hit, or catch. The analogy with writing and reading is almost perfect. The thing that is written and read, like the ball, is the passive object common to the two activities that begin and terminate the process.

We can take this analogy a step further. The art of catching is the skill of catching every kind of pitch–fast balls and curves, change-ups and knucklers. Similarly, the art of reading is the skill of catching every sort of communication as well as possible.

It is noteworthy that the pitcher and catcher are successful only to the extent that they cooperate. The relation of writer and reader is similar. The writer isn’t trying not to be caught, although it sometimes seems so. Successful communication occurs in any case where what the writer wanted to have received finds its way into the reader’s possession. The writer’s skill and the reader’s skill converge upon a common end.

Thus, reading a book allows one to have a discussion, so to speak, with the one who has written the book. We can read a book by someone whom we would never dream of meeting, nor perhaps desire to meet, in real life. (I have a friend who recommends we deliberately read books by people who take much different positions on issues than the ones we take.) Active reading nurtures an ability to think critically. It fertilizes a process which involves thinking about and deciding whether or not to agree with the themes, issues, concepts, and so forth about which a writer writes.

In the end, however, the acquisition of books is futile–as is the desire to read merely to say we read a book. Yet I would argue that reading is one of the more worthwhile activities we can do “under heaven.” And it’s quite obvious to say that one need not read a lot to benefit from reading. It’s what we read and how we read that’s important. What one gains when one reads a good book is a better view of our true condition as fallen creatures made in the image of God, creatures in desperate need of something to save us from the futility and death that surround us. Consider a favorite passage of mine from Malcolm Muggeridge’s A Third Testament:

Standing on the Berlin Wall I tried to imagine what would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s feelings if, instead of being martyred, he had lived on into post-war divided Germany. Eastwards, I could see the familiar scene of desolation and oppression, the bedraggled houses, the empty shops, the somehow muted traffic and people in the streets; westwards, the other sort of desolation and oppression, equally familiar, the gleaming neon and glass, the exhortations to spend and to consume, the banks for churches and the erotica for dreams. The pursuit of power versus the pursuit of happiness, black-and-white television versus color, the clenched fist versus the raised phallus, guns before butter and butter before guns. And in between, the no-man’s land or limbo of vigilant sentries on watch-towers, dogs and land-mines and armed patrols. Was there anything here to risk eternal damnation for, or for that matter to live for? The strip-tease joints and the garish posters announcing the mighty achievements of the triumphant German proletariat, equally fantasy. Plastic flesh and fraudulent statistics–where’s the difference? Perhaps, after all, the limbo is the place, lurking among the land-mines.

Listen to Thomas Wolfe as he writes in Of Time And The River:

When youth is gone, every man will look back upon that period of his life with infinite sorrow and regret. It is the bitter sorrow and regret of a man who knows that once he had a great talent and wasted it, of a man who knows that once he had a great treasure and got nothing from it, of a man who knows that he had strength enough for everything and never used it.

All youth is bound to be “mis-spent”; there is something in its very nature that makes it so, and that is why all men regret it. And that regret becomes more poignant as the knowledge comes to us that this great waste of youth was utterly unnecessary, as we discover with a bitter irony of mirth, that youth is something which only young men have, and which only old men know how to use.

Consider these thoughts of Blaise Pascal:

Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our author and our end. Now what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, etc., and fighting, becoming king, without thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.

Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.

To read these words is to understand the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to understand why Jesus told the story of the Pharisee, who went to the temple unaware of his wretchedness, and the Publican, who cried out for mercy. And like that blind man who cried out in the streets of Jericho, it is to begin to see with restored vision.

A room without books is like a body without a soul? Perhaps. It all depends on the books and the reader.

Copyright February 1994 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jeff Johnson