By Eugene C. Scott
I have thousands of good friends. Friends not just acquaintances. People who have spoken into my deepest fears and hopes, people I have shared untold hours with. They have asked and answered questions, frustrated me, left me yearning for more, angered me, comforted me, challenged, and have always been only an arms length away. None of these unusual friends have ever met me, however, nor I them. Still they have walked with me down every path of my life.
I’m not talking about my covey of life-long friends, who are thicker than blood, who also fit the above description. And no, I’m not referring to my Facebook friend count nor people in church, though they are friends too. These are friends some would not count or–possibly–even notice in their own lives. But they are there. And they have so much to say.
One of these friends, one of my best gave me great pleasure–and insight into my own family of origin–by telling me a story about a 1960s tragedy—a murder—that rocked a Minnesota family and brought one brother to his knees and the other to an understanding about the true nature of faith. Through that story, I was transported back to my childhood and warm memories of my family, before it was broken, and how my own loss started me on a journey of faith.
Another less poetic friend shared theology with me that challenged (oh how I prefer avoiding challenges to my beliefs) me and gave me a refreshed relationship with Jesus and a new view of heaven and earth.
An older friend mesmerized me with a series of jokes, puns, and one-liners retelling his life story. I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt and I found myself wishing I didn’t take life so seriously; and for a moment I didn’t.
I also had a young friend who shared with me his struggles and victories while growing up without a father. I saw my own struggle in his–my father died when I was eleven. He too had fantasy father figures. His were Bill Cosby from “The Cosby Show” and an older hippy kid who befriended him. Mine was my older sister’s boyfriend. We arrived at a school father/son event in his souped-up GTO. I knew I was the coolest kid there until I realized this guy was not my dad no matter how hard I wished he was. My friend’s story defined my story. Though many men could influence, help, mentor, and love us fatherless kids, no one could replace our real fathers, except maybe God.
There are many more of these friends I could share with you. Strangely none I have seen face to face, however.
As you may have guessed, these friends are all books. The Minnesota family is Leif Enger’s invention in his outstanding novel, Peace Like a River. Enger’s storytelling and prose were so simple and beautiful I have read this novel half a dozen times.
Dallas Willard wrote one of the freshest, most challenging, accessible theologies called The Divine Conspiracy. It describes God’s desire, God’s conspiracy to let us know him and to live life beyond our human constraints. I go back to it again and again and discover new layers each time.
The next friend mentioned above is I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! an autobiography by my favorite comedian, Bob Newhart. I read it in two days and still retell his jokes to whoever will listen.
Next Donald Miller’s delightful books are each funny and light, true, and flawed, real, yet able to slip under the skin and pierce one’s heart. Miller’s fourth book To Own a Dragon: Reflections on Growing Up Without a Father is a slim book—197 pages—each page of which showed me my past and future vistas through viewing Miller’s life.
Some suggest my friends, books, should be placed on the endangered species list. Reading is declining, ebooks may bury books with bindings. Movies and TV have also dug the grave deeper. These good friends of mine are on life support. Or are they?
I look at my library of friends, lined neatly on the shelves, or not, so diverse and beautiful, and full of life and wisdom–and even foolishness–and I grieve. Their loss, if it comes, will be great. To me people who do not read books (or God forbid, cannot!) are like people who have seldom or never tasted chocolate or ice cream. They are missing something delicious.
Or more accurately they are missing a rich interaction no other medium can offer, daily conversations with people from all over the world and all through time that will comfort and challenge while also delivering them on great flights of fancy. I have read a piece of one book or another daily, missing only a few under duress, for nearly twenty-eight years. I can’t imagine life without books.
In 1953 Ray Bradbury wrote a science fiction titled Fahrenheit 451 in which the government begins to burn books because they deem them dangerous. But like most other beautiful, important things in our lives, nothing so drastic or romantic will spell the demise of books. If books die it will be while we are not looking. Their loss will come at the hands of inattention.
There is hope. Brabury’s novel recounts a secret society that covenants to save their favorite books. Each person participates by memorizing a book and in essence becoming the book. The book through its host, so to speak, comes to life. Bradbury’s idea is not far-fetched because story–factual or fictional–is the life blood we readers share with books. Story is a part of most–if not all–of our lives. Our very lives are stories, unbound, living books. Therefore, the soul of a book, story will live on, as it did before books and as it will after.
And I for one–no matter whether others read or what technology comes–will not easily let go of my many friends.