I was once asked to be after dinner speaker at a church dinner. Specifically, would I give a light hearted speech about books and reading. They knew I am a bibliophile, that I read books, enjoy handling books, love the concept and the artefact "book". They're right. I marvel at the ingenuity of letters, words, sentences, paragraphs and the human achievement that is writing a spoken language giving permanent visible communication of what is going on in the human mind. The human gifts of story, poetry, philosophy, science, and the technological cleverness of printing words and images, and then, and then the thing itself; the literary continuum of words and images impressed on paper, gathered into order, bound together as pages, chapters and volumes. A book is an everyday miracle of extraordinary significance for human culture and flourishing.
But I didn't speak much about that at all. Over the years I've read more books than I cann count. One a week on average wouldn't be an exaggeration, and only occasionally several or even two in one week. I'm a slow reader but persistent; I believe in both the long haul at the desk and the regular small increments of half hours and hours conscientiously attended to with book in hand.So if my guess of one a week is right and I started reading at 5 that would be 60 times 52 making around 3,100 books give or take. So how to choose which books to talk about? Or which writers? Or what subjects might be of general interest?
Some of them were read and forgotten long ago; some were read long ago and never forgotten. Some I could never be without, some, but not many, I wish I hadn't read at all. I have always had a library of books around me which isn't a fixed collection. Books have come and gone; many have stayed because I want to know them better, spend more time in their company, read them, refer to them, even handle them and remember the pleasure and at times the itellectual joy of what was learned and discovered and opened up by the words read and the thoughts born through reading this particular book, at that special time, for that specific purpose - and finding that the best books don't always meet our expectations. They change them, expand them, ambush our curiosity, pull the rug from our complacent assumptions, change our way of looking at the world, and call in question our ways of thinking and understanding ourselves.
I decided that some of the books that have left their deepest imprint on me were written by writers with the most memorably different names. It was an after dinner talk and couldn't go on too long so it needed to be more than the droning enthusiasm of someone who really needs to get out more. But they had asked me, a preacher and theologian, to talk about books. Well let's meet that one head on.
I chose several writers and their books that once encountered have stayed with me as books I now would not want to be without, and which I would now not want not to have read. And as both a challenge and a way of avoiding predictability I had set the condition that the author's name should be memorably different! Here's the list of books I spoke about within the maximum time of 20 minutes - a quote from each, some context, and why they have become important companions on my journey.
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupery
Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld
Selected Letters, Baron Friedrich Von Hugel
My Name is Asher Lev Chaim Potok
The Gospel According to John, Rudolph Schnackenburg
The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel
For the avoidance of doubt, the library / study in the picture is my dream place - until then, happy in my wee room surrounded by books!