What books have shaped your life?
It’s not an incredibly unusual question. When I was recently asked, I rattled off a few of the many titles that came to mind. But the question lingered in my mind, the phrasing of it struck me.
It wasn’t simply, “What books do you like?” Not a question of mere preferences and pleasures.
The inquiry was much more substantial, much heavier. “What books have shaped you?” It’s a question of influence and of what has been important to me.
It’s a question of formation. Which makes it, in a way, a question of prayer.
And the books I listed – yes, they certainly have formed me. Some formed me through providing information that impacts my worldview and actions. Others formed me providing a narrative of adventure or suffering, stories that expanded my compassion and heart knowledge.
But while it’s true that certain books have influenced me, I think it’s more true to say that the act of reading has shaped me —even the unhelpful stuff, the mundane, not-life-changing texts.
Reading is a form of prayer.
Reading gives me the chance to live a thousand lives in the fraction of a century that I’ve been on this planet. Reading shows me the results of various decisions, because of which I haven’t had to make the same mistake myself (although, to be sure, I’ve found plenty of unoriginal mistakes to make as well). Reading puts me in the heads of other people, allowing me to step into their world and value systems and understand what informs their experiences. It shows me who I could have been in a different time or place, or my life if I had made a few different decisions. At its best, reading helps me to really feel what it’s like to inhabit another life.
But above anything else, praying by reading expands my capacity for compassion.
This, of course, helps me better understand how I feel and my own particularity and helps me understand others and respond more kindly than I might otherwise have done.
But what feels more important is that reading helps me to understand aspects of universal human experiences. We all feel sadness and joy. We are all confused and trying to make meaning of our lives and our humanity. We’re all wondering what binds us together and what sets our own lives apart.
Although this thread of the human condition can be found in most writing (I believe that fiction, narratives, memoirs, and biographies are all among God-breathed text), this pursuit of humanity is particularly why I turn to reading scripture.
Many ask what a text written for an ancient community on the other side of the world has to do with us. Christians, too often, seem to read the texts of what they call the “Old Testament” only to demonstrate how Jesus is found in the stories. As though they only became imbued with value once God took on flesh.
But if freed from the constraint of a “holy” pedestal, these texts are freed to exist as stories, the reading of which, like all story-prayers, is meant to shape us. They offer glimpses into battlefields and royal chambers, put us in the skin of both the righteous and the corrupt, and steer us toward compassion for the widow and the foreigner.
As the author advises in the opening of the “secular” novel (as if there is such a thing) The Great Gatsby, “Just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” Narratives shape us by giving us entry points into otherness. Narratives are important because they remind us that life isn’t an equal playing field, that there is diversity of experience, and also that there is some common thread in humanity that holds us all together.