I’m going to go ahead and say it: I prefer a physical book over any electronic platform. There is something about the solidity of a book that conveys its own message even before you read the first sentence. Ferris Jabr, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Scientific American, describes the joy of reading a printed book this way: “One can feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand, and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail — there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled.”
A book can be a voyage, a turning point, a moment of self-discovery, even transcendent. We can find ourselves so deeply immersed that no matter what chaos is unfolding around us, we are unaware. Yet when we emerge from our transfixed state, we will have a learned something, gained something, felt something, that we will bring into the world and, hopefully, make it better.
Books can see us through many long, dark nights, whether existential, spiritual or actual. In the extended winter of Iceland, books are a traditional Christmas Eve gift for the season aptly named Jolabokaflod (Christmas book flood). Icelanders are some of the most literate people in the world and their love of the printed word is legendary. One Icelandic proverb goes so far as to say, “It is better to go barefoot than without a book.” Iceland’s first lady, Eliza Reid, believes this trait runs deep.
“If you look at many other European countries that went through the Renaissance, Iceland didn’t have materials to develop a great culture, architecture, to build sculptures, to make musical instruments, to create music,” Reid was quoted in The Christian Science Monitor as saying. “They just had the written word.” And, yet, having the written word can be everything.
Books … are the written words that guide us, walk alongside us, encourage, and challenge us to think compassionately, to think bigger, to think in a way that includes the “other.”
If all were stripped away except the written word, we would still have hope, imagination, love, mystery, questioning, quarrels, reconciliations and redemptions to hold in our hands. Books are portals, not only to the stories and histories contained within, but to a way of understanding one another. I believe we have more patience with books than with people, and because of that, we are willing to listen to their perspective, hear their hearts and see through their eyes in a way we seldom allow the person standing in front of us. We are willing to go to places we would never venture on our own, to worlds that stretch us to believe the impossible, and know there is reason to love one another despite all evidence to the contrary.
Books, fiction and non-fiction alike, devotionals, commentaries and Scripture: these are the written words that guide us, walk alongside us, encourage, and challenge us to think compassionately, to think bigger, to think in a way that includes the “other.” I might even go so far as to place books in the category of basic needs, a form of self-care that speaks to our psyche and our soul; and, if that is true, then we are also called to help foster reading, encourage literacy, and provide resources for everyone, equally.
I also like to imagine that we are the book God holds and reads each day, following our lives with curiosity and love. God continuously writes us into the story universal unfolding from his divine imagination, a holy authorship that creates endlessly, offering us unlimited possibilities, beginnings and endings, and a thousand paths that will, ultimately, lead us home to the author of our book. We are the living library of God’s house and the pleasure God takes in this reading of our lives is beyond calculation.
And if God were to choose a new habitation, I believe Iceland might be that place. Now, go out in peace — and read a book!