For me, reading was serious business. Novels were for people who had extra time on their hands. For people who were “literature types”. You know, the ones who graduated with an English degree and could start and finish a book in the same day.
I stuck with the books that I thought were going to make me smart and successful. I read about theology, leadership, character growth, and culture. Usually I would buy the book at Barnes and Noble or order it from Amazon. I liked the way the book looked sitting on my bookshelf, just waiting to increase my intellectual aptitude.
But that’s where the majority of those books stayed—on the shelf. The books that actually did land in my lap usually didn’t stay for long. Off the top of my head, I can think of just a couple that I actually read from cover to cover. Other than that, my “reading” was doing more to drain my bank account than further my personal development regimen. The books on the shelf simply enabled an image that I liked very much: I’m one of those “well-read” types. That’s right, I know a lot.
Finally, through the recommendation of a friend, I picked up and read Garrison Keillor’s Wobegon Boy. It was one of those reads where you just get lost and can’t put the book down. It was relatable and humorous with a unique storyline. A year later (this was a slow metamorphosis) I read Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry. His intimate descriptions of family and a person’s relationship to the land were strikingly beautiful. Things continued to progress and two years ago I finally joined a book club (it was possibly more like a book date, since it was just a buddy and me).
Throughout this time, I started to realize that I had a lot of books on the shelf, left unread. I decided to put a moratorium on new purchases until I had made my way through some of the books I already owned. But I never went back to them. I got hooked on Story. And what’s more, the stories are having a profound impact on me as a person.
Late last year I read Brother to a Dragonfly by Will D. Campbell (which I posted about here). It’s a story about a man being reconciled to his past and finding the freedom and grace to understand people without judgment. This book turned out to be the catalyst for one of the more significant lessons of my adult life. And it all happened in the context of a story.
I’ve spent the past couple years almost exclusively reading fiction and memoirs. I let go of the smart-guy bookshelf and have embraced something that actually was a good fit for me: a powerful narrative. I really believe that if a story is true—not factually true, but true as in virtuous—it has the potential to broaden our perspective and help us see things in a different light, thus letting wisdom grow.
Nowadays I actually read books cover to cover and I get all my books from the library. Reading is no longer about consuming or creating an idealistic image of myself. It’s about being open to another way of seeing, getting lost in another world, and loving a story.