I have too many books. They fill the shelves in my office and in our family room. Once upon a time in my idealistic past, I determined that the shelves I was given would be sufficient space, and that I would give away a book for every new one acquired. That plan is long abandoned. Books sit on windowsills, in stacks, by my bedside, and on the coffee table. Someday I will cull and clear the piles. Someday.
I take advantage of libraries to try to keep my excess under control. At one point I was tempted to get a Kindle, but when I learned how they become obsolete and add to the e-waste I already produce, I decided to stick with the known technology of paper and ink. I already spend too much time looking at a computer screen, tiring my eyes, I reasoned.
Friends and family members know my love of reading. So what do they give me? Books, of course. The truth is it’s a lifelong pursuit which began in childhood. When I went into the ministry, I was answering a call. I imagined caring for the needy, listening to the troubled, playing games with the youth, and teaching the Word to eager learners. I will never forget the day I discovered that books—not just The Book—were essential to my vocation. I was a student minister in an inner city church, and my supervising pastor confided to me, “The best thing about being a minister is you get paid to read.”
So this summer I’ve been indulging my habit, and loving it. Books take me elsewhere, and expand my understanding of the world. Last month I read a biography of a 19th century Presbyterian missionary in Japan, A Christian in the Land of the Gods, by Joanna Reed Shelton (Cascade Books, Eugene, OR, 2016). The author lives in Montana, and the missionary was her great-grandfather. Twenty-five years of his diaries are supplemented by extensive historical research. Unlike the stereotype of 19th century missionaries, he embraced Japanese language and culture and shared his Christian faith within that culture, not in opposition to it. It’s a great story, well-told, and all the more compelling because Shelton became a Christian herself as she learned her great-grandfather’s story. She counts herself his most recent convert.
I also recently read a collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian-American who writes of the immigrant experience. Most of her characters are second generation, whose lives migrate the distance between their parents’ culture and their own, living in America. Unaccustomed Earth (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008) is not as well known as Interpreter of Maladies, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, or The Namesake, a novel. What captures my imagination in Lahiri’s stories are the varied struggles her characters pass through, challenges shared by many other Americans yet complicated by their Bengali family heritage. Her work feeds my desire to grow in empathy.
Right now I am immersed in a detective novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000). Did I ever even think about Shanghai in the early 20th century before? Did I know anything about British citizens, employed by British companies and living in foreign enclaves in the far reaches of the Empire? Have I considered what life was like in China in 1937, under bombing raids by the Japanese? This book is transporting me into that world, as seen through the eyes of detective Christopher Banks. What is he investigating? I keep reading to find out more. And like the other books I’ve read this summer, it’s expanding my worldview.
Ah, summer and books. . . . I learned many years ago that book lovers are a minority, but that doesn’t deter us. It’s a cheap way to travel and an easy way to meet people. It keeps the mind active and cultivates one’s interior life. It’s a habit I’m loath to change, despite the clutter it creates.
I’m taking suggestions for my next read.