Looking back over a year of 40 books has given me ample opportunity for self-reflection. It’s drawn my attention to the two conspicuous omissions which I purposefully left off my list: the book I put down and the book I have yet to finish reading.
The Book Put Down
I can remember only three books in my life which I have consciously put down. Of course there have been plenty of those forgot-to-keep reading books, those one chapter reads you pick up while at a friend’s house, or give back to the library, or that dreadfully boring book like Moby Dick which makes you turn the last 400 pages in an absent-minded forgetful kind of way. But by put down I mean slammed down with revolted decision: I mean really interesting books which you chose not to finish.
One of these three was a Freudian-psycho-sexual analysis of Queen Victoria & Prince Albert. Bizarre. The other two were for the same reason and by the same author, the last one just a month ago.
The troublesome author? John Steinbeck.
I love Steinbeck, and am revolted by him, too. We have had a strange relationship, he and I. When a beloved literary professor recommended East of Eden I tried to read it—but put it down only a third of the way through. The synopsis I got online said it was about the consequences of adultery (and the lurid descriptions I had already endured did not bode well for a novel devoted to a moral precept I was already thoroughly convinced of).
Years later, my husband and I stayed in John Steinbeck’s writer’s studio in Monterey, California—a darling little cottage just our size.
When I picked up East of Eden for the second time (I had, on reflection thought the lurid passages not-so-shocking when viewed from the married state), the familiarity of his California descriptions washed over me in waves of nostalgia. I am myself a Californian, and he was describing places I knew and loved.
There is no denying Steinbeck’s an amazing author. His ability to get behind the human psyche and in just a few words paint a picture which is tantalizingly familiar and physically tangible is magnificent. My second attempt at East of Eden left me in no doubt that it was a masterpiece. And despite one (or two) truly wicked characters, they are pitted against good ones, and the theme of the book is love: and what is real love? It was a deeply moving (and, I believe), over-all a very true book. It also had a happy and redemptive ending.
And then a few weeks ago I began Steinbeck’s The Long Valley. I’d read Of Mice & Men some time ago with no ill effects so thought I’d give good ol’Steinbeck another go. The Long Valley is a collection of short stories which mostly take place in California’s Salinas Valley. Each story pulls you in with eerie humanness of his writing—the almost-adorable couple, the pretty ideal, the fascinating scene, the beginning of manhood—and then just when he could resolve the story he ends it: the protagonist hopeless, possessed, crying, or dead.
I am glad I do not live in a world of Steinbeck’s making.
Each story was so fascinating—and then so gruesome. I kept reading one after the other hoping the next would end happily, maybe this time Steinbeck won’t ruin it all.
The book had me in its depressing grip—I was forcing myself to keep reading the last few short stories to the end of the collection so I could say I read it, when my husband (talking to me online) gave me this piece of wisdom:
“You don’t have to finish bad books, love. It’s very freeing when you decide a book isn’t worth reading all the way through—don’t give the author the pleasure.”
Don’t give the author the pleasure.
It sounds strange but what he said is amazingly true. There is a a kind of pleasing the author in reading. For reading is a kind of war, is it not? A battle-dance between you and the author. The author has an idea, a vision, a story to tell, and he presents it to you. And you? You can be won over, you take a willing step further into the world of the book, you can read, enjoy, praise, and share. Or you can put it down. You can step away. And if everybody were to put the book (or article, fake news, etc) down, the author has lost: and what they have written fades into oblivion.
In one of my favorite “writer-verses” in Ecclesiastes, Solomon encourages his son to hold fasts to the scriptures and warns him, “Of the writing of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12B)
To the writing of books there is no end.
As a writer I am acutely aware of the excess of literary thought committed to paper. I am myself an example of the inexhaustible impulse to write and record. I know it is a gift and I don’t exert any particular strain to contain it.
But I realize its limits.
There is no end.
There is no end to what could be written: most of it rubbish which will be forgotten.
There are words worth reading and books worth putting down.
We have a limited amount of time.
The Book Never Finished
There is another book I left conspicuously off my list. The Bible. Technically I read several biblical books, however when I looked back over my long list of mostly-Fiction I realized I didn’t read it nearly enough—not when I clearly had so much time.
Don’t get me wrong, time for pleasure reading is a wonderful gift, and reading is excellent for the improving of the mind and the honing of one’s God-given literary talents. But personally, I admit to you that I feel a pang of sadness rather than pride when I look back and see how much time, which could have been devoted to knowing my Savior better this past year, was spent on a lesser and far less lasting purpose.
There is another “writer-verse” which is one of my favorites. It is at the end of the book of John, where he says (and I can almost feel his heart swelling with the enormity of what he writes): “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)
All the books in the world.
I think one of the reasons I often don’t read more scripture is that there is indeed a battle going on—and not only against flesh and blood (my own laziness, tiredness, etc)—but also “against the powers of this present darkness,” (Ephesians 6:12) who would so dearly prefer us to swallow Steinbecks than to sup at the table of the Word.
My brother-in-law recently shared with me how he was reading about Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord: refusing to let him depart until he had received a blessing. And he did receive a blessing. Reading scripture is like that, he shared, wrestling with it until you receive a blessing. And isn’t it wonderful that when you wrestle you will be blessed?
And so in conclusion of this long year of reading my heart is full with many things.
My heart brims with thankfulness: for the hours of dead time turned to better purpose, and for discovering a few really good authors—some insightful and wise, others delightfully human.
My heart is furthermore resolved: to strengthen my arms to wrestle with the Word. To not depart until I receive its blessing.
And lastly I am comforted: that for as many books as I’ve read or put down, finished or not finished, there is a Word which I’ll never be done reading, which I’ll never be finished with, and (thank God), will never be finished with me.