Yesterday, on what should have been Derby Day, the temp climbed above 80 degrees. Rather than sitting at home and crying into my julep while singing My Old Kentucky Home, I walked with my kids down to the creek (crick, if you’re from down-home). I sat on the bank while they waded and caught tadpoles and generally got filthy, as kids should. We came home and I lazed in a hammock chair and (badly) strummed my new guitar and ordered Mexican takeout for dinner. It felt like summer.
Normally, right around now is when I’d be working on my summer reading list– which I would gladly share with you so we could all discuss what we are reading on the beach, or on our mountain getaway. Some years I’ve declared a FICTION ONLY summer, (because biographies are for nerds). Other summers, I’ve done a total turnaround and read nothing but memoirs. Another year, I challenged us to read only books by authors of color, recognizing that my literary life had been shaped almost entirely by white voices and worldviews.
To everything there is a season, I guess. In that spirit, I call for a season of: Reading Stuff I’ve Already Read. Maybe multiple times.
I’ve got a stack of books by my bed that I have started, and given up on, in the past 7 weeks of confinement. Some I made barely a few pages and decided I wasn’t in the mood. Some I read several chapters but could not into the groove. At least one, I read more than half of and finally said, you know what? I am not into this and I don’t care what happens to these people. So I set it down.
Because life is too short to force yourself through a book that isn’t holding your attention.
I fully acknowledge it is often not the book’s fault. It is my own attention span, which often resembles that of a 5-year-old, even in the best of times. In the midst of a global pandemic? Forget about it. Attention span has left the building. After working remotely all day, navigating online school with the kids, cooking and doing dishes, and trying to get out and exercise so I don’t lose my mind–I utterly lack the emotional energy to invest in a new cast of characters or follow a complex (or even simple) plot line.
My sense is– most of us are in the same boat these days. We may have a tall stack of titles in that “to read” pile, but dang. Do you really have anything left to give it at the end of the day?
And yet, we still need to read; for our mental and emotional health, and just to remain civilized! Reading is what separates us from primates, and honestly, it is clear from the evening news that some of the people in charge of this mess have never picked up a dang book. In all of this swirling chaos and apocalyptic meltdown, reading might keep us alive– in more ways than one. But if you’re finding it hard to get into a book these days… it’s a pickle.
So I am doing what I’ve done in stressful-times-past; re-reading old favorites. There is something immensely comforting about picking up a book you’ve read before. The characters are familiar to you, so it’s like visiting old friends. And every book that I’ve ever loved has a Strong Sense of Place– which means reading it again is like visiting a favorite destination, be it Hogwarts, Prince Edward Island, or Maycomb County, Georgia. I suspect that this summer, with all vacation plans on the rocks, these beloved reads might be the best and only travel most of us will get.
Speaking of Hogwarts– my family recently finished reading all of the Harry Potter series together. I’ve read it multiple times already; I read the first several aloud with my kids, but by the time we got to book 5, that was getting a bit arduous. So we started listening to the audiobooks. Well now we have all the audiobooks, and my kids have been listening to them over and over. They have Audible on our old cell phones, and they carry them outside while they play, or they take them to the attic and sit for hours, or down to the fort they made in the basement. Then they fall asleep listening to them at night. Harry and his friends are now their friends. I think it is not just because they love the story and characters (because who doesn’t??); it is because they are taking a journey through a familiar world where they know what is going to happen. And in uncertain times, having some omniscience about a coming tragedy or triumph is a magic all its own.
Meanwhile, I’m over here diving into Stephen King’s Dark Tower series again. That probably sounds insane for those who think of SK as strictly a horror factory. But the Tower series is a lot more than that. It’s an odyssey through crosses time, space and dimension. It is an exploration of the darkest corners of humanity, and the beam of light that connects all life at the center. It’s ultimately a question of what parts of civilization are worth preserving– and what will likely crumble and fall away when the world moves on.
Call me crazy– but that’s a thing worth exploring right about now.
And, dark and twisted elements aside, this series too is a trip with characters I know well. Even if the trip gets weird, it’s good to spend time with folks I know. No Zoom required. Also on my list to pick up again while on lockdown: the Outlander series; Anne of Green Gables; and Silas House’s Clay’s Quilt trilogy, set in a locale that is technically fictional, but based on my hometown (also the author’s hometown).
Anybody who says you can’t go home again is clearly not a book-lover.
I remember the class in seminary where we started to pick apart the “real” and “literal” iterations of scripture; where we explored source texts and genres, and started separating that which is historical from the mythical and metaphorical. At some point, we talked about the complexities of approaching scripture with children who are pre-critical age. Knowing that many of these things didn’t “actually” happen, how were we supposed to help them parse out fact from fiction? And our professor said –with kids, don’t overthink it. You just give them the stories. There will be a time and place for nuance, for questions, for literary criticism and theological depth. But when they are young, your only job is to give them a foundation; to begin building a familiarity with the language of faith. These characters and landscapes become a will become a part of their lives.
The story itself is the gift.
Questions come later. Those whose faith is rooted in a literal reading of scripture are shaken by such questions; which leads some to abandon their faith entirely, and others to just dig in their heels more deeply into their fundamentalism. For me– and, I suspect, for most of us who are readers– sifting through the layers of meaning, metaphor and story that make up the canon of our faith only made me more certain that I should spend my life reading, and telling, these same stories over and over again.
The truth of that lesson is coming home to nest with me during this strange time in the life of our church and world. And in addition to the titles I named above, this summer will probably find me reading through the book of Exodus again. Because when I find myself in the wilderness, I know exactly who to bring with me: those who have been there before.
Our old stories have something to teach us. And those that become favorites, have a place in our lives for a reason. They teach us how to find hope when that rare bird seems elusive; they teach us resilience and creativity; and most of all, they bring us to a place that is familiar, so we can catch our breath and then get back to the business of navigating the unknown.
The story itself is the gift. And fact or fiction, it’s as true as anything we know.