With all the turmoil in our country and the world at large, it is sometimes difficult to find our voice and really understand where we fit in—to discover our place in the universe and how we make a contribution in it. What we thought was, now isn’t. What wasn’t, now is. How do we discover what really is?
I heard someone say once that “reading books brings in other voices.” I believe that reading books (more than news clips or social media) invites an entire feast, not just the portions others want to serve us. Perhaps this is one way to understand our place in the world.
Finding what resonates with us and then respecting what resonates with others is what we gain by reading from many venues and authors. We may not agree with everything we read—who would? But filling our minds with many thinkers’ thoughts allows us to filter what does resonate with us and form an educated opinion. It helps us create our views. In many ways, it helps establish our purpose.
According to a study in 2018 by Pew Research, 27 percent of U.S. adults had not read even part of a book in the past year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that people in the U.S. 15 years and older spent an average of 16.8 minutes a day reading—down from 22.8 minutes in 2005. Not surprising, women read more than men, and those between the ages of 20-34 read the least.
The main source of information in todays world is to “Google it.” This is a great tool to do research or start on the path of discovery, however the answers found in such formats are often formed by opinions of others and yet are posted as the final word. Is it? No! Additionally, many of us have found podcasts to be a great way to absorb information, but here again, we often turn on a podcast while we multi-task and probably absorb a small percentage of the content with little time or space to ponder the matter. Audio books are the fastest trend in absorbing books with those under the age of 35, making up 48 percent of this market. I also enjoy the fruits of podcasts and audio books but argue that reading books allows more space for pondering, discovery, and creating a deeper understanding of what really is.
Reading books provides insights, gifts, understanding, vocabulary, color, perspective, emotion, and so much more. Because sometimes I don’t remember where I had read something that powerfully changed me, I mark up my books with tabs and highlights—sometimes writing my thoughts in the margins. I will sometimes read a couple of pages, and having been caught up in the thought presented or how it made me feel, will sit and ponder for a good while, digesting how what I had read was affecting me.
Books cause me to question, and occasionally seem to shake the foundation of my beliefs, then finally settle to create a more solid foundation because my mind filtered the sediment. I often read expert writers’ prose and sit in awe of how they painted the mosaic in a way that I had always felt but didn’t have the words to express. They can make an image so vivid; I just smile at the artistic nature of words well chosen.
I have written before about the topic of being a “Seeker.” You cannot be a seeker without reading books. I used an example of my friend (let’s call him Frank) who lives alone in his small, sixty plus year old one-bedroom home; the simplest existence you will see in our modern culture. No TV, no internet, only an old phone attached to the wall gives him access to the outside world. He is in his sixties and has always lived alone. He has a chair next to his kitchen and “library” —no dining table or living room. He is very well-read and a great communicator. I was impressed to go visit him again recently. I thought I would leave a box of beef we had processed on his step with a note.
My friend had tears in his eyes as he came out of his house to greet me. He hadn’t had a visitor for months. His business of repairing older cars is nearly dead from COVID. With Frank’s OCD and cleanliness (he’s a germaphobe), I wasn’t worried about COVID protocols, though I did wear a mask and we kept social distance. He had not been in public for several weeks and has kept himself ultra-safe. He showed me his last receipt from the grocery store to prove his point—dated eight weeks ago. He made it very clear he didn’t want me to leave.
He wept as he informed me his girlfriend of 15 years had left town to move to a city far way to be with her twin sister. She had lost her job due to COVID and found a job in her sister’s city and now lives with her. He was heartbroken and devastated. He doesn’t know how to cope. He invited me into his little home and found the only other chair in his house. He never invites anyone into his little home because it is so small and for some reason is apologetic for it—but it was 10 degrees outside so his desire for me to stay prevailed. We sat six feet apart and visited. I mostly listened. He was thinking thoughts of suicide, but decided he still had a lot to live for. We talked for two hours about this topic. He had not known I had lost a son to suicide last year. Frank knew my son and together we shed a few tears in each other’s grief. My friend is very lonely.
We have shared books with each other over the last couple of years. He pulls books from his stash that he thinks I would enjoy and I do the same from mine. Books are the glue that keep our relationship alive. Our conversation shifted from grief to hope as we talked about what we had been reading recently and how those books were shaping our lives and what we had discovered.
The picture at the top of this article is Frank’s library—on the edge of his kitchen. There he sits in his one chair and acquaints himself with his many friends and voices from all over the world. These friends are keeping him alive, especially now since he lost his girlfriend. These other voices are giving him hope as he struggles through the losses of this COVID world.
I left with a couple of books from his treasury, and I will return with another. Not only are books shaping our lives, but they are also connecting us in a way much deeper than social media could (which neither of us imbibe in).
I am thinking about our chaotic world, where voices from the news and social media are shouted from our electronic devices, where voices are being cancelled, and where civil unrest is ruling the day; what if we take a step back? What if we sit a spell with a good book? What if we share our finds with others to expand our understanding? What if we bring in other voices to heal our suffering?
Charles W. Eliot said, “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
Frank’s hopes lie within the pages of the books he is reading. Is he so different from any of us? I tend to think not.