Monday, January 12, 2009

Getting to the Last Page: Part 3

My brother-in-law’s wife apparently has a habit when it comes to reading books—a habit that really only applies to fiction and not non-fiction, but a habit I’ll likely never emulate all the same: she reads the last page first. I suppose that’s one way of making sure that you get to the last page and of alleviating the suspense about how the story is going to work out. I guess it helps in case something happens and for some reason you aren’t able to read all those pages between the beginning and end—you can, with relief, say, “Ah, but at least I know how it all turns out!” But I don’t do this, and not only because I rarely read fiction.

My problem is different. You see, I have a lot of books. And many of them I have started reading. And many of them I have not finished reading. And since most of them are non-fiction, skipping to the last page for a glance wouldn’t help me much. But because I end up putting books aside, forgetting about them, and not finishing them, it’s always something of a triumph when I actually manage to get to the last page.

That’s why I can say I have been victorious and triumphant over the last several weeks. I have actually read and completed a number of books: A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality and his Searching for God Knows What, and Henri J.M. Nouwen’s The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ. Each of these authors is very different from one another. And I have appreciated, enjoyed, learned from, and been moved by them all in one way or another.

This time, however, rather than my problem being not finishing a book it might have been plowing through the book to make sure I do get to the last page. Sometimes I have the tendency to keep reading rather than stopping and taking time to reflect on what I have just read.

One example: last night after posting on discovering Nouwen’s The Living Reminder, I finished it. Now, granted, it was a thin book, easy to read in an evening. But easy to read doesn’t mean easy to digest or process. And his reflections on ministry certainly warrant more prayerful reflection (and at a future date I will share some of what he says).

Particularly when reading authors who are reflecting on the Christian life, theologically or pastorally or personally, I feel as though I am in the company of spiritual companions. And depending on the author, I may also feel as though this author is very nearly a pastor to me, a guide on how to listen more attentively to God’s voice in my life.

But for such a thing to happen, ideally, we have to digest what these authors tell us. Truth takes time to absorb. Books involve us in a spiritual conversation and our taking time to think about what we’ve read—something not always easy to do or something we’re inclined to do—becomes our half of the dialogue.

I confess that sometimes I feel guilty after reading a book, because even though while I was in the process of reading it so moved me or helped me I find I can’t remember specific quotations and would struggle to convey what it said to someone else. Often in trying to get across the meaning or impact of what I’ve read to someone else, it comes out drained of colour and lacking in the very qualities that engaged me in the first place. That makes me wonder whether I’ve really read it after all, if you get my meaning. And this is why I have the habit of reading paragraphs, sections, and sometimes whole chapters of books to my wife—I want to share what it says, but I want to do that without getting in the way. My wife is often, but not always, very accommodating about this.

All that said, I do hope that even if I can’t remember specific quotes from a good book and can’t always convey very well what it says in my own words, that somehow the simple act of reading it has changed me and formed me. That is, just like having a conversation with a friend can make you feel loved and understood—more human—even if you don’t remember all the details of the conversation, the important thing is that you had the conversation, that you sat across from one another at Tim’s; so here.

Anyway, already I want to go back with some of these books and be more intentional about gleaning wisdom from them by reflecting on them. With Nouwen’s book, I intentionally underlined here and there. This is also a good way to make a book a conversation partner. I suppose this would help me to slow down and digest a little more. And it occurs to me that rushing through a book that deserves more careful attention is not unlike trying to rush through a conversation with a person who deserves our attention. We gain more by not rushing to the last page.

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