I will never forget one of the first times I was taken by a book as an older teenager, utterly absorbed, lost in another world. I was a new Jesus Freak in the early 70s and a wanna-be revolutionary. I realized there were changes afoot and I wanted to be a part of them.
I had acquired a mass-market paperback written by an organizer of the student uprisings at Columbia University and it was nothing like anything I had read before. What so took me was that the author recommended tearing up the book in little pieces, throwing them around the house, and then reading them when you come upon a piece (or not) because that is how it was written: on the run, in little snippets, here and there, as the spirit moved.
Wow. I’m not sure I had heard the phrase “stream of consciousness” and I knew very little about literature at the time. This was something new.
Perhaps this bohemian upstart was just lazy as a writer, but I was hooked. His invitation to stay up all night, lost in Important Things, and read his book as it was written – in the middle of the Movement, on the barricades – seemed right. I realized that books could impact my life, and that my life could somehow mirror that of an impassioned author. I realized that books – even the way they are written – matter.
Years later, as a bookseller, I’m often asked what to read. When asked, I wonder what will serve that person best. And will they be able to live into it, absorbing the author’s insight and vision. Does the writing style match the book’s content and will the style fit the buyer?
I suppose this isn’t always an issue. There are books we read for information: a Bible dictionary, a handbook on a social issue, the facts about Venezuela. But the books that we most long for, that will be remembered, thought about, talked about, marked up and re-read – books that will change your life – need to be not only what I call solid (reliable, faithful, true), but they also have to be well-written. For a book to pass muster on that ambiguous criterion, it, at least, has to express the heart and energy of the writer. If the writer cares about her topic, she will write with gusto and verve, or, as the case may demand, with gentleness, perhaps in a whisper. Sometimes an author writes the way a poem is performed, with slow, moving lines, then a punch or a shout, surprising and evocative.
This is where I have to be wise as I recommend books to inquiring readers. Do they want a carefully-argued thesis, developed in systematic ways, reaching a concise conclusion, tied up with take-home points reviewed? Or do they want to get lost in a long, swerving story with craggy detours and chapters whose themes are allusive yet somehow transformational?
Ahh, the styles of writers. This element of their craft is as important as their content; in fact, it is a major part of their content!
Was James Kunen right that we could tear up his book and read it in any order we happened upon? I think not, but his claim is itself an example of his beliefs about the nature of things, his glorying in an incoherence of sorts. I did not tear it up, by the way. The story was too important to read in bits, or so I felt. But the dangerous invitation charged the pages and changed my life.
Proust and the Squid
Tufts University’s Maryanne Wolf, an expert on dyslexia, has written a serious book about reading, intriguingly entitled Proust and the Squid. Proust is one of the most respected, passionate French writers; squids are renowned in neurological circles for their long spinal columns (which make them a boon for researchers). Wolf shows that reading is both. It is an act of literary imagination – you evoke memories and make word associations as the words of a text allows you to make meaning – and it is a physical act: hands and eyeballs and firing brain cells. Proust points us to the artistic aspect of reading and the squid teaches us of science.
How humans made in God’s image have learned to read and why God has graced us with the ability to use language, to write it down with paper and ink (or pixels and screens) is a wondrous mystery. And what a joyous matter to consider how our brains can process language and how the words in their styled ways can stir us.
This reminds me of the clichés about being right- or left-brained. Some of us are wired for poetry and Proust, and others want information; just the facts.
It is my experience that most days, we want both. I love to sell books of sheer content: study guides, teaching resources, stuff to explain life in God’s world. However, it thrills me to recommend titles that inspire us to be more than we are, whose words and cadences, sentences and paragraphs, take us along for the journey. A well-written piece of literature can cause us to enter another world, inhabit a new space, and deeply touch our hearts and minds. Thank God for good writers, authors, storytellers, reporters and bloggers; for all those whose gifts of language re-wires our brains and changes our lives.