A long time ago, a wise woman told me to keep a reading list of the books I read, a practice she had begun when she was a girl. She joked that she had to keep a list because she hated starting a new book only to discover she had already read it. The real reason she keep track of her reading was the same reason runners log miles, gym-rats record workouts, birders list sightings. Lists are a record of accomplishments, a tangible measure of improvement, a memento of our hard work.
I didn’t really listen to this learned lady until June of 2005, when my reading so profoundly shaped me that I had to record the experience in some way.
That June my grandfather was slowly dying of cancer. My extended family had gathered to watch and wait for the inevitable together. When the wait dragged into weeks, I bought some books to help me pass the time.
My grandfather had long been encouraging me to read C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, so I started Out of the Silent Planet and Ted Kooser’s Flying at Night. Kooser writes often about death and grief, as well as the redeeming aspects of memory and the unending goodness of the world. Kooser reminded me to acknowledge the world around me, to continue affirming life even in a house of death. But it was Lewis’s book that gave shape to my grief.
In Out of the Silent Planet one of Lewis’s characters tells of a pilgrimage he made to a holy place as a youngster. As he stood on the edge of an enormous waterfall, he realized how the reality of death enriches the beauty of the world: “my heart has been higher, my song deeper, all my days…There I drank life because death was in the pool.” But this drink was not the best drink in the world: the best drink of all was “Death itself in the day I drink it and go to Maleldil [the character’s name for Christ].”
This passage was pivotal, because it spoke directly to my situation. Death was indeed an enemy, and I suffered from the pain of impending loss–but there was also a sense of victory. Death could not hold my grandfather. At the very moment that Death crushed him, my grandfather would defeat his final enemy forever.
This realization was so profound that my entire vision of the world shifted. The victory of Christ on the cross became a real victory. Faith took on muscle, Hope became stalwart, and Love grew to an indomitable force. For a while all my anxiety, grief, and fear died away into a quiet calm. For a while I rested in the “still point of the turning world”, was simply a creature marveling at the glory and order of the ineffable Creator.
That June of 2005 I started my reading list to mark this pivotal point of my life. In the first month, I devoured the rest of Lewis’s Space Trilogy, his Grief Observed, and Chesterton’s first volume of Father Brown. Since that month, my reading continues to be shaped by the vision given me by an odd correspondence between the ravages of cancer and the riches of reading.
There are several reasons to keep a reading list. You will certainly read more books with a list than without, but this really isn’t the reason I keep mine. My list is a record not only of titles, but of context–of moments in my life when my reading helped shape my struggles and define my dreams.
Perhaps this is the reason that human are inveterate list-makers: as mortals, we have only a short time to make sense of the world and find our place and purpose in it. My reading list helps me remember where I’ve been and how I’ve changed. It reminds me that I’ve failed and been forgiven, that I’ve grown and given grace.
What started out as a “how-to” post has taken a very different direction. I hope you do start a reading list to help you read more in 2012. But even more I hope that your reading next year will bring you a renewed vision of the One who “keeps all our goings graces.”