When books work well, it isn’t just that we memorise them and then, by our will and our personal wisdom, shape our lives to follow them. Rather, when books work for us, we begin to walk beside the mind that created the book. That mind may be so much wiser than ours, but we walk beside it until soon we are walking like that one.
The question becomes, Who is going to teach you both how to interpret the world around you, to see it in small, and to come to a true understanding of it, organising the context in which you live?
A child enters the world and really doesn’t make sense of it but lives in sort of a senselessness of existence. The kid first begins to know her little house and her parents, and they become the whole world to that child. You pull a child apart from that house and that well-ordered nicely-constructed, beloved family, and the kid is lost – literally lost. As the child gets older, it becomes the child’s business to read the events and the details of the universe in such a way that she puts them together so that they make sense.
So the question becomes, Who are you going to allow to become your ‘heaper into heaps’ and your ‘piler into piles [as the old Sanskrit meaning of the word ‘poet’ has it]? Who will shape the world that you enter into and dwell in? Are you going to allow football to do that, so all the world is seen in a contest? Are you going to allow simpleminded understandings – like the cartoons, newspapers or the government – do that for you? Or are you going to enter into the sweet complexity of minds, this living treasure of singers and writers who embrace more details with greater richness of beauty, deeper understanding of what is truly evil, what is good and what is the precession of human experience? You want the minds of those who have created whole cultures of insight. The more complexly we see the world, the more capable we are of admitting many people into that world – people who are not like us. Books open our eyes to the complex truths that simple, mindless stories simply have no names for. So why not pick the best?
I don’t mind the people who read romances, but that’s formula fiction. It repeats the same world over and over again, and it’s a profoundly limited world. And every one of the people who loves romantic fiction has a mind better than the world that it shapes. We call that escapism. Gerard Manley Hopkins offers his poetry as inscapism – to escape into things, truly, not escape from them.
That’s the influence of great books; they teach us how to see the world that is.
From chapter 19 of Indelible Ink – 22 international Christian writers discuss the books that shape their faith, published by CWR 2005