Friday, August 28, 2009

Plundering the Egyptians.

A couple of days ago, a young man looked around our living room and said, "I don't read much.  The only things I might be able to read are books about how to make money investing or other practical kinds of books that I could apply to my life.  But novels?  Why would I want to read about fictional lives, when my own is so interesting."  As I write that, I'm aware that this makes the young man look self-involved and superficial, which he in no way is.  Nevertheless, his words instantly categorized him in my mind as 'other.'

Far be it from me to criticize such an attitude toward 'stories', because Beve, my very own, beloved Beve, is also not inclined (though not entirely opposed) to reading novels.  Beve would say that he doesn't have time, which is an indication that he isn't drawn to fiction.  Of course, he also tends to attempt reading at precisely the wrong time of day for his body's daily clock--when he gets into bed to sleep.  Beve has always had the problem (or ability, depending on one's point of view) of falling asleep easily and quickly, and reading is as good as a Tylenol PM for him. For Beve, an early riser who greets the sun as it rises most mornings, reading at dawn would be a much better idea.  That is, if he was actually interested in doing so, and most of the time, he is not.  Having lived with him a long time, I've gotten used to the fact that if I've read a great book, a life-changingly great book, and believe me, I've read many of those in my life.  In fact, it's just possible those very books have taken up residence on every available wall of my house, and, if I had a 100,000 dollars or so, I'd put on a whole second story with soaring walls in order to be able to add to this volume of volumes, very few of which I'd expect Beve to even crack open, let alone read.

This, I think, makes Beve, and our insurance agent (the young man in our book-filled living room), 'other' than me.  I cannot imagine a world without fiction.  A world without other lives in which to first (and foremost) I simply enjoy, and find myself falling into as if the characters had actual addresses, actual lives, (I just read a review of a book that began with a quick antedote about the reviewer's mother who once prayed earnestly and lengthily for Irwin Chance, and then his older brother Everett, then began laughing hysterically when she remembered that these are characters in one amazing novel--which I knew the second I saw the names, but won't tell you).

But it's also part of reading fiction that  certain truths can be gleaned about life--truths which make me more than I would be otherwise.  I told this insurance man exactly this: that reading novels can be 'plundering the Egyptians.'  "Every woman is to ask her neighbor...for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters.  And so you will plunder the Egyptians." (Exodus 3:22) Moses' instructions to the Israelites before they left Egypt to take things of value from the culture in which they'd been enslaved for the last 400 years is exactly what we do when we read these stories of worlds not our own.  There is great value in this practice, truths that God uses to draw us closer to him.  Yes, sometimes those truths are like photographic negatives, where we learn how not to live by reading of how others do live.

I have learned to live with a man who doesn't read, I deeply love this man.  He has been tolerant, even encouraging of my reading over the years--buying or building more bookcases as I run out of room; gently suggesting, but not pushing me, that I cull some of my thousands of books (I think he even laughs at himself for the impossibility of such a cull).  But there are times, like at the candle-chandeliered table of my favorite professor and his wife, when we've talked literature until those candles were stubs and our heads were heavy in our hands, that I've longed for Beve to be more like me.  Longed for him to hunger for literature as I do.

But he plunders the Egyptians in his own way. He has made sport his own, made it the outlet for his creativity, made his passion for it one of God's vehicle to grow him up.  And just as I long to suggest a book to him that he'll actually stay up all night to finish--the Brothers K, Jayber Crow, The Poisonwood Bible, Sparrow, to name a few, I know he wishes I would--was capable of--playing some sport with him--tennis, bowling, basketball (!).  Other. These may be the most significant differences between us, more than the physiological differences, more than the temperamental ones.

And I'm mostly satisfied with that. Yes, I look around my house and wonder that anyone--anyone!--could live a life without books, but we are what we are, made as we were.  What is important, in the end, that we plunder the Egyptians--that we allow God to use whatever He will, in culture, in creation, in others, to teach us about Himself.

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