Bring My Books

June 9, 1996


“Bring my Books!”

The letter begins like this: “From Paul, an apostle of Christ, to Timothy, my true child in the faith.” Timothy, we soon discover, is a young preacher for whom Paul has some interesting words of advice. About how women in his church should dress, and how slaves in the church should feel about their masters. Advice about Timothy’s personal health problems: “I suggest you no longer drink water only, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” — a recommendation that always made the teetotalling church of my childhood a little nervous. Paul also lets Timothy know about a false friend and a dangerous enemy, calling both of them by name: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone off to Thessalonica.” “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm….watch out for him!” And then, suddenly, there are two requests which I find so poignant and appealing that I’ve chosen to base the morning monologue on one of them. The first one is as prosaic and practical as any verse in the Bible: “Do your best to come before winter, and bring the cloak I left at Troas.” The cloak would have been a kind of coarse woolen poncho — protection against the the coming cold and rain. And then the second request, which has intrigued me for as long as I can remember: “Please bring my books, especially the manuscripts.”
Not a word about what was in the books, which would likely have been rolls of relatively cheap papyrus — an early kind of paper. Copies of Old Testament books, perhaps, or stories of the life of Jesus — who knows? Whatever they were, Paul is eager to have them, and especially the manuscripts — written on the expensive parchment made from sheep or goat skins. The man wants his library. And I have a feeling that if he had had to make a choice between the cloak for his body and the books for his mind, the books would have won.
I think of a remarkably similar letter, written centuries later, by another Christian scholar as he sat in a damp prison cell for his crime of translating the Bible into English. “I entreat your Lordship….that, if I must remain here for the winter, you would beg the Commissary to be so kind as to send me from the things of mine which he has, a warmer cap…..I feel the cold painfully in my head…..Also a warmer cloke, for the one I have is very thin…..But most of all… Hebrew Bible, grammar and vocabulary, that I may spend my time in that pursuit.” The name signed at the bottom of that poignant letter is known and respected by every Bible scholar in the world: William Tyndale, finally burned at the stake for his insistence on making the Scripture available to his countrymen in their own native language.
His priorities are identical to the ones we just heard in the letter to Timothy: the need for warmer clothing, but “most of all” — most of all! — for the books that gave meaning to his life. William Tyndale was a political prisoner, but prisoners of war have testified that nothing meant more in their care packages than the books that put their minds to work. Imprisonment of both kinds may seem remote on this bright, sunny morning, but I remind you that there are other kinds of prisons in our common lives — prisons of ignorance or of dull routine, prisons of hatred, jealousy or fear that cramp our lives unless we find some way out into a larger world. My comments this morning will reflect my profound conviction that one of the surest ways out is through books — not books bought to decorate the library room, but books actually read…..and read with such intensity that it’s as if, in the words of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, you were reading “with your eyes hanging out.”
Paul must have felt this way. Not only does he plead for his own books, but in advising Timothy how to grow as a minister he says, “Concentrate on your reading.” So, with Biblical sanction for what I’m saying this morning, and with some leisure time coming up for most of us in the summer, I’m using the pulpit this morning to extol the virtues of reading. We can all truthfully say with Tennyson’s Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met,” but we can also say with equal accuracy: “I am a part of all that I have read.” And the great thing about reading is that we can meet a far greater variety of interesting people, and encounter far more provocative ideas than most of us are ever able to do in any other way.
Well, reading is a nice idea, someone says, if I just had the time. We blame modern hurry, but apparently it’s an old, old excuse because Chaucer has a character say the same thing clear back in quiet medieval England. Translated into modern English, the character says, “I hope to Heaven that some day I’ll get a chance to read,” but I think we were not expected to believe that excuse. It doesn’t take long to discover that we find time to do what we really want to do, but there’s no doubt about our being more rushed now than people have ever been before.
Unfortunately, rushing is contagious; we catch the fever of the fast pace, we fall into the habit of hurry. I really didn’t want to drive the Bypass and the Northeast Expressway any faster on my trips to church, but speed limits are up and if I dawdle along in the slow lane at 70 irritated drivers sit on my rear bumper and make curious gestures with their hands. I sympathized with a Mr. Hull who wrote a letter to the editor in Friday’s newspaper: “During the 50’s,” he said, “you could terrorize other motorists and create hate and discontent by exceeding the speed limits. During the ‘90’s you can terrorize other motorists and spread hate and discontent by not exceeding the speed limits.” The philosopher William James, noticing years ago the breathlessness and intensity of American life, said these things feed upon themselves. “Put me with a tense person,” he said, “I get tense. Put me on the road with speeders, and I find myself hurrying far more than I need to, to get somewhere earlier than I had planned.”
We got off on this business of frantic haste when I mentioned the most popular excuse for not reading, that there just isn’t time. It’s not a bad excuse, because life is more frantic, but we can still set priorities — and if reading is one of them, we’ll find time to read. I’m not foolish enough to spend one minute wishing for a return to the horse and buggy my Dad used for dating, or the Model T Ford in which I took my first vacation trip as a child, but if I know anything with unwavering conviction, it’s that most of the very best things in human life come as a result of creative leisure time. I always felt a special kind of empathy with Matthew Arnold whenever I was scheduled to teach Victorian poetry. He remembered wistfully a childhood we can hardly imagine anymore, a time before games for children were organized and everybody rushed to and fro from soccer to baseball to ballet to gymnastics, a time before malls and TV and video games. Even then, over a hundred years ago, he was asking: “What shelter to grow ripe is ours? What leisure to grow wise?” He could not have imagined the pace of modern life, but he knew we do not grow wise on the run. As an ancient Hebrew book says that didn’t make it into our Bible, but should have: “The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure.” You can add things like gracious manners and gentleness and all sorts of other traits we cherish, but I have wisdom mainly in mind this morning — especially the wisdom that comes from books — and that wisdom definitely demands time spent away from the treadmill.
Leisure time, by the way, is not just idle or empty time. It is time opened up for something to enter which usually gets crowded out. Try an experiment with me, for a moment. Think of two or three times you remember with so deep a delight that even the recollection of them can bring you an instant sense of happiness and peace. Now, in how many of those favorite moments were you rushing? I’ve played this game before, pretending somebody has asked me to pick favorite moments out of thousands of days, and they have always been times when I felt no need to hurry.
Like reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel a long time ago, very slowly as I realized that on every page he was explaining my own life to me. Or that Sunday afternoon ages ago when I left my military quarters to climb the Great Ormes Head at Llandudno, North Wales, stopping along the way to watch sheep graze on emerald grass among scattered stark white limestone boulders, and then sitting at the top for a while to watch the sun set on the red tile roofs of the toy Welsh village far below me — the Caernarvon hills rolling away into blue haze on one side, the gray Irish sea stretching beyond my sight on the other. I have forgotten, in the years since then, a thousand little achievements that seemed important at the time, but the images of tranquility from that day are indelible.
It was, by an odd coincidence, in that same little Welsh village that I had time to browse in a bookstore and found a book that changed my religious life forever. On a straw mattress on the third floor of a seaside cottage, waiting for the Army to send us into duty, I was lucky enough to have time to read that book slowly and to reflect on a beautiful new approach to the life of Christ. A fate I could not control gave me a chance to appropriate that blessing. But when fate does not slow us down, we have to do it for ourselves, creating amidst all the busyness of our lives the time to read.
There are, it seems to me, three reasons to read, three rewards from reading. Two of them are predictable. The third may be less so. Read first to enjoy! Most people who read all their lives begin simply because they like it. Not at the insistence of parents or teachers, not out of necessity, not in any pattern of deliberate self-improvement, but because they come upon books that are fun to read. And as a lifelong teacher of great literature, I think this is the way to start. Far better to read a hundred second-rate books and fall in love with reading than to plow doggedly through a handful of them from somebody’s list of recommended reading, and decide reading is no fun. However you fall in love with reading, it’s the love of it that can keep you moving steadily on to better stuff. In my mother’s little collection of books there were some second-rate romance novels like Girl of the Limberlost, and one called Pegeen, which no one I’ve met has ever heard of, and mediocre as they were they filled me with the joy of reading….reading anything and everything I could find, without discrimination, until that memorable Saturday when I first walked to the public library and sat in a world of magic with kids I didn’t know while a skilled woman (bless her memory!) read aloud to us.
I learned to my astonishment one day that I could get a card and take books home, at which point I began to check out an armful at a time, poking along home so slowly that I had finished one before I reached my house. There was no television, so books became the entertainment of choice. Not great books, but books that captivated my boyish imagination. All the Tarzan books (I never walked to the grocery store for my mother; I swung through the trees!), all the books of James Oliver Curwood and the western novels of Max Brand and Zane Grey, and occasionally, quite by accident as I told you recently, books about Greek and Norse mythology which I would not have opened if someone had told me what they were.
I do not regret for a moment the lack of guidance. I have read ever since because I fell in love with reading, and I was greatly comforted later in life to find Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the most brilliant minds in English literary history, confessing to a friend that he had read every cheap little “gilt-cover….book” he could find as a boy. Once caught up in the sheer joy of reading, the zest for it led him from junk food to caviar, from cheap romances to the most demanding books of philosophy, theology and literary criticism. It was not reading the “right” books that sent him on that journey; it was an unquenchable love of reading born from reading whatever he could get his hands on as a child. He might well have confessed in later life, as Kelly Soward’s beloved Erasmus did once: “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.” So, read first to enjoy. We keep on doing what we like to do.
We read next to learn. How to prepare for a job interview, how to fix a leaking faucet, how other surgeons are doing heart valve repairs without opening the chest. If we have really learned to love reading, we don’t stop with what we need to know. We are driven by curiosity to learn all sorts of other things: why Montana and Idaho attract so many anti-government people. What motivated a bright Harvard student to murder her roommate. How whales communicate. And by and by we discover that we are making all kinds of unexpected connections. How many times have you read some word you had never seen or heard before, only to hear someone use that very word a day or so later? Or come across a completely unfamiliar idea, only to overhear two people talking about it the next day in a coffee shop? Actually, the word and the idea were around — you just hadn’t noticed until you read about them and created a magnet in the mind to attract them from other places.
As that begins to happen, life suddenly gets more interesting. When my Freshman Comp students were readingTime magazine every week I would use a simple gimmick to show them how past reading can enriches the reading of the moment. They were to look for allusions in a headline, or for some clever play on words in the midst of a feature story, to see if something they had read before made it possible for them catch on. I was remembering this last week when I saw a headline in that magazine with just the kind of pun built into it that we used to test one another — actually, too obscure for Freshman recognition, but we have some seniors in this “class” so you are invited to play the game, if you’d like. The story was about the fears of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza when Shimon Peres lost the recent election in Israel. The headline said, “Breathless in Gaza.” It makes perfectly good literal sense whether or not you catch the literary allusion, but there is one split second of fun if you do catch it — if in addition to having read the Bible story of how Samson was blinded, shackled and forced to grind corn at a mill in Gaza, you can also remember how a John Milton poem compresses that humiliation into a single line: “Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill, with slaves.” The headline writer for Time hoped that when his readers heard “Breathless in Gaza” they would appreciate the echo.
Is it important to make that connection? Not really. Any practical benefit? None — not unless it helps you solve a puzzle on Wheel of Fortune. You can be a great surgeon, a brilliant lawyer, a Christian saint and never recognize an allusion as obscure as the one I just described. But if you do, because you and somebody else have shared the same reading experience, life has given you one more small and harmless pleasure.
So, read to enjoy, read to learn — no surprise, you’ve heard those things. But there is a third reason: read to become. Goethe said of a certain great man: “You don’t learn anything when you read him, but you become something.” One of the greatest creative influences in the world is the contagious touch of a noble life. Remember Milton’s famous description of a good book as “the precious lifeblood of a masater-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life”? Well, to get in touch with such a master spirit is to have life broadened, deepened, enriched — to become something.
Start the summer by a visit to our own library, down near the classrooms. Easy checkouts, no hassle, and some excellent books….not just for the children but for adults. They serve no purpose on the shelf. And now, at the request of the Apostle Paul, and so they may touch your lives with both grace and wisdom, read some good books this summer.

Encourage in all of us, gracious God, a lifelong eagerness to
enjoy, to learn, and above all else to be forever becoming
wiser and better. Amen.