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Meet many strangers

Books are like friends — both have an inordinate influence in your life. I have two middle schoolers and I know the weight of my words next to their friends’ words: a feather. I can’t get my son to cut his hair, but I know if a friend said, “Bro! You tryin’ to grow Samson locks!” he would get a crew cut the next morning. To some extent, the sports he will follow for life, the subject that can flower into a career and the songs that will inform his emotional life will depend greatly on the people he calls friends. I’ve been advised to pray unceasingly for good friends for my children.

Books have such friend-like sway. So, we are rightfully choosy in our books. When we invite a book into our living room, the book tells us what is good and what is not. A character in a story can become our ideal self, a metaphor in a poem can shatter a worldview, an essay can plot our political affection. That’s why we ask for reading lists. We want our trusted human friends to introduce us to book-friends who will be good for us. Book reviews – as the ones in this issue – are a way to watch over the gate of our soul. What’s really at stake is our formation. Dictators know the power of books, which is why they are fond of book-burning bonfires. They offer a short, required reading list (it always includes their own work — dictators, after all, are ones who dictate) and a long censorship list, because telling people what not to read is a form of control.

Reading lists aren’t censorships. We need them. But dependency on such lists leads to social bubbles. We end up reading only what we agree with. Good friends often reflect our values. It is not a community but a mirror hall. From Facebook posts to book clubs, we are perfectly safe with our narrow worldview.

That’s why I like to wander the nooks and corners of physical bookstores and libraries. Who knows what unexpected meeting can become a life-long love? A stranger-book can become a friend for life. I was all set in a pre-law path my freshman year in college when a biography of C.H. Spurgeon in my father’s library beckoned me with its blue velvet spine. When I finished that book, I gave up my law ambition to be a pastor.

This past week, my children and I found an illustrated book titled “Goliath” by Tom Gauld. I thought it would be a fun bedtime reading of a familiar story of how youth with courage can defeat giants. But the story surprised us. It was told from Goliath’s perspective. In it, he wasn’t a monster. He suffered from gigantism, didn’t want anything to do with blood and preferred admin work. But because of his size, he agreed with his captain’s plan and challenged the Israelites hoping he could end the war without more bloodshed by threatening them with his menacing stature. He didn’t think anyone would call his bluff. At the end, when we got to the full-page caption with a simple drawing of black shiny pebble slicing the air, my children and I knew where the pebble would land and how the story would end. When David is lugging back his trophy, we were sad for Goliath. The book wasn’t trying to revise history; it was just a story. But we discovered empathy, even for monsters.

So here is my blessing for you, readers. It is the blessing Billy Collins gave in his poem “Envoy” to his poetry collection: “Go, little book, out of this house and into world … stay out as late as you like, don’t bother to call or write, and talk to as many strangers as you can.”

Samuel Son is the manager for diversity and reconciliation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville.

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