How to Read a Book

Posted: February 5, 2020 in Uncategorized

When I say that I’m going to talk about reading a book I have to full stop and remember to define:

A book is the thing developed throughout the cultural process as oral story become translated into physical symbols, scratched on a parchment or velum with ink or a clay tablet with a stylus so that it could be passed from one person to another, one generation to another. People have been etching their stories into rocks and cave walls for as long as their brains were big enough for it to matter.

Soon enough the parchments were bound into codexes and books with spines. After the printing press came around the process got much easier and faster. Today, electronic transference of files sends manuscripts to printers thousands of miles away and whips out copies that are shipped anywhere.

People still hold these odd compilations of paper with writing on them in their hands. Even though our minds are being twisted to think in electronic, chopped up fragments and characters, many people still enjoy the experience of reading books. Not just a newspaper or magazine. Entire books. Against all odds, people want to open a cover and start a story, read the poetry, discover the history, explore their faith, fly with the fantasy that one or more people thought should be confined to several hundred pages. Something with a beginning and an end. People still do it.

After children’s books, I remember the first novel I read as a young adult. The first one. At the time it seemed like I was hiking around an unknown lake through the mist. But then I finished it. And started the next one. That, I suppose, was the beginning of an addiction and the reason a pile of to-be-read books always stares at me from my side table. And what I discovered later is that you cannot write a word unless you’ve read a word, lots of words.

So, on to reading a book. After you’ve passed the several hundred mark of books you’ve read you realize that you approach a book like a curious detective. No matter if the book is fiction, non-fiction, poetry, an anthology of several authors, you want to know what this thing is. You want to know the author or authors. If it’s historical you want to know just where that history is set. If it’s fiction you want to know what realm you are investigating.

Because you’ve done it before, you have an idea how long it will take, but not always, because books can fool you. Some are ponderous and you spend hours musing on imponderables. And then again there are the breeze-right-through books that take you on a wild ride and they are done before you started, leaving you wanting for more.

Some books will wait for you. By that I mean you can impolitely walk away, take a break, return and pick it up and start in where you left off with hardly any effort. Other books require your soul and they become resentful when you put them down. They are jealous of your time. They demand you make a choice; it’s either them or nothing. Like temperamental lovers, they are often the best ones.

Don’t become too impatient too fast. Really good storytellers warm you up at the beginning. No rush. Lay it out one piece at a time. Don’t hurry the punch line. And just when you think you might lose interest and wonder where it’s going the strings tie together and you are in the clutches of the spider who wrapped you in her web. Just wait.

Of course you have to be willing to enter the mind of the author, the character, the reader that is you in that world. It’s a form of surrender to story time. And when someone looks at you reading and suggests that you might do something really important, that’s when you should refrain from killing them on the spot. That’s an impulse that should be controlled.

Some books live with you forever as a separate thing. They have a life of their own. You can quote them, invite a character or two to dinner. Other books are just layered into the collage of book world, added to the thousands of other insights and questions you already have. Some books can’t be understood or understood well when you are too young. Some books require that you suffer a little before they spill their guts to you. And some books require that you read other books first, crawling before you walk.

Books become your friends, enemies, lovers, wise crones, disturbers, revealers, guides and healers. And back behind the page are worlds of thought, imagination and passion that wait like predators to snag unsuspecting victims off of life’s ordinary path. Sometimes you can read too much, too many things at once, pick up the next book too quickly before you’ve fully digested the last one. Some books require space and time to ponder them before the next one demands your attention.

The reason some books become classics and are not found in the bargain book box at Sams is because they are universal in their staying power. They are written well and not all books are. They address the human themes that matter not only for us but for many generations. No matter the strange use of language, the plot rings true, the characters appear as real, and the insights transcendent. Defining what is a classic is often the product of culture or who has the power to do so. But like cream, they often rise to the top. In the Milky Way of books their brightness stands out.

Some things you know only because you do it a lot. And then, like reading a book, that becomes an art. A way of knowing, I suppose. I remember a time when I proudly proclaimed that I wanted to live life not just read about life. How stupid that was. Living life does not preclude also entering a larger world of reading alongside that living. And when we do, when we take up the next title with a sense of adventure and expectation, it is as though we sit in front of a crackling fire, introduce ourselves, and ask, “Now, what do you have to tell me?”

I recently had the pleasure of joining Jonathan Best on his Liminal Theology podcast. We had a far-ranging and stimulating conversation. Tune in and listen for yourself!

Podcast: Timothy Carson

Liminality and Life: making the most of the transitions that define us
Held on three days at the Kindred Collective, 2800 Forum Blvd, Columbia, Missouri 65203:
Feb 8 (9-11 am), Feb 10 (7-9 pm), and Feb 15 (1-3pm)
The facilitator is Tim Carson

Liminality is the state of being that individuals and groups enter when they cross the critical thresholds of life. During this three-part series participants will explore liminality and apply its insights to their own mighty passages.

You may download the brochure and the registration form and if you have any questions contact the facilitator, Tim Carson, by email.

I am now reading the exquisite book Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. She takes the reader on a wild ride she first took herself with people who have opted out of a system defined by permanent housing – owner homes with mortgages, rentals – because the American Dream betrayed them. Because they lost their houses, couldn’t afford to survive the divorce, watched their 401K evaporate after the recession of 2008, or simply couldn’t survive on Social Security alone, they opted out of the system and invested in “wheelestate” – vehicles that doubled as homes. They became nomads wandering by season and opportunity to encamp, often with many others, where the temporary work was – but with a parking pad and hookups for their RVs, cars with trailers, and vans.

The new nomads immediately let go of the single most expensive aspect of a budget – mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance and real estate taxes. They became ingenious in adaptability. They supported this newfound freedom with an online and actual community of fellow nomads – people often later in life, traditionally defined as retirement age, though retirement became an idea of the past. They now parked and worked at Amazon centers, national parks, agricultural harvests.

They became nomads. It wouldn’t be the first time in world history that such a category existed.

People have migrated with seasons, available work, enterprise and clan tradition forever. Agricultural migrants, Gypsies, river barge workers, farm and ranch hands, the help in large estates, the circus, military – all lived in provided quarters as a part of their compensation. So it is emerging again today, a repeat of previous American history. In stunning numbers people are opting out of the system, going off the grid, and leaving behind what everyone said they had to have to survive and be happy.

The itinerant life is not new, of course. And though becoming a nomad is often the result of economic pressure, something many Americans experience because we live in an economy beneficial to some but not to all, the experience of the wanderer has ancient roots. Which brings us to this season in which we now find ourselves.

A goodly share of the Christmas story is about itinerancy – a liminal state experienced by those who live in transit, moving and visiting established communities. Mary and Joseph trek from home to ancestral origin town and receive hospitality from established residents. They are strangers, visitors and guests living under the protection of others. They will one day depart to travel again. After the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family becomes transient again, fleeing danger, and traveling to Egypt for protection and sojourning as refugees and strangers. They are nomads.

The adult life of Jesus, of course, was defined by this same wandering and rootlessness. He traveled alone and with disciples and provided teaching and healing in return for hospitality, a compact between established communities and itinerants. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Mt 8:20)

In a sense, Jesus was a wanderer to this world in order to remind inhabitants of this world of their true nature as wanderers; we are simply passing through and permanency is an illusion. Don’t become attached to that which necessarily passes away.

The early Jesus people were also characterized by their wandering and depending upon the hospitality of established communities. When they were not received in a community they knocked the dust off their feet and moved on to where they might be. The Apostle Paul was one of the most conspicuous nomads. But there were also thousands of others who scattered across the face of the earth, refusing to invest themselves in the trappings of earthy dominion and traveling light, taking only a staff, bag and sandals.

We have entered yet another time in which we may have more intentional interplay between established communities and itinerant wandering. Fortunately, models for social compacts between us already exist: In spiritual communities that practice radical hospitality we are taught to welcome the stranger and look for nomads in our midst who may serve as signs and reminders of what matters most. Many of them used to be trapped by conventional ways as we are now. From their new vantage point of freedom, they know our enduring plight.

Without romanticizing the situations of present-day nomads, we may take cues from those who have found a different, simpler, freer path outside a system in which winners take all, one that is often brutal and inhumane. By entering into their stories it is possible to engender a rebirth of compassion and empathy. And when we hear the stories of the Holy Family, Jesus and the early Christian communities and take them to heart, we may actually find that their examples of pilgrimage, itinerancy and hospitality provide a way forward for us today in Nomadland.

 

If you have read other books by Jim Wallis, heard him speak, or followed Sojourners, this book will not be new to you. But Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus may be a tasty consomme, the best of Jim Wallis boiled down to essentials. And it written in what he and many others consider a crisis moment for culture, country and Christians.

Based on “The Reclaiming Declaration,” which is a collective statement by faith leaders, the book falls nicely into ten chapters. The nut of the book is an insistence that Christians in general and evangelical Christians in particular have lost track of the actual sayings, teachings and examples from Jesus himself. In this polarized political time the body politic has become unhinged from its moral bearings. And Christians have defined themselves by a few wedge issues while suspending or ignoring the preponderance of everything else Jesus taught and has been practiced by the Church for centuries.

After making the a theological case for the return to Jesus himself, Wallis devotes entire chapters to questions of who is the neighbor, how are we all created in the image of God, how does one rediscover truth, how is power understood and negotiated, in what ways does fear motivate us, how can must we make decisions about ultimate loyalties when it comes to God and Caesar, what does it take to become peacemakers, and how can we once again enlarge discipleship to actually following Jesus when it comes to life and life together.

All of these questions and suggested answers are relevant and telling, especially as regards the ways in which Wallis claims that Christians have made Faustian bargains with the current political powers and principalities and lost their spiritual bearings as a result.

Reclaiming a way forward requires an ancient project, one that is perfectly suited for today: Identify who we are based on an entirely different criteria than an amoral false Christianity that compromises itself in order to be close to the levers of power.

This is good stuff. Not new, but good. And harder to do than understand.

My guess is that unless Christians embrace this ancient-future wisdom all shall be lost, not only for historic Christian communities, but for a nation that is presently stumbling blindly through a moral and spiritual blackout.

The day has finally arrived! Anticipating Thanksgiving is so much more than simply waiting for a feast to arrive, though it is that. Every savory and sweet food of the season makes its appearance. But more than that, loved ones make theirs; they find each other around the table once again, and that’s what really matters. Even those at a great distance who can’t travel this time are somehow here in spirit. As are the generations that passed before like a great mirage. Here at last.

For Americans, this Thanksgiving means even more. The past decade has been a tumultuous one, and not only for our country; the whole world experienced the agonies. But new birth somehow rises up out of ashes, so the seers and wise ones have often said. New birth rises up in the course of our individual lives, tossed and turned as they are. And new birth makes a collective showing, coming to us all, even though we may not realize the birthing that is taking place at the time.

What marks the year 2030 most is a spirit of hopefulness. Though life is never without its suffering and challenges of the moment, certain corners have been turned. It seems that the inhabitants of the blue planet are starting to realize it.

In the United States, new generations of citizens are rediscovering a lively pride in high ideals and practical solutions. Freedom, democracy and prosperity are gifts to be safeguarded and we have. We now understand more than ever before that our strength lies in our goodness, our ability to live by our principles of justice for all. To this end we have elected leaders who value our Constitution as not only a legal document, but a moral one; our responsive governance is rooted in the ideals of our people.

A new sense of unity flows through the land, not a unity based on a person, party or power, but a unity based in shared ideals. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. And this Thanksgiving, when we look at our leaders, our Congress, our State and local governments, they reflect the true diversity of the United States of America. We are many, we are one. Our elections have changed from the bad old days of dark money and the powerful buying outcomes to instead a truly representative democracy of the people. We had to change many things to get there, and we did.

Since our country renewed a foreign policy tied to human rights and dignity, the rest of the world has once again turned to us for leadership, a city poised on a hill. Because we are in the forefront of strategic alliances for the good – for climate, security, economy, development and peacemaking – we have generated broad coalitions of just nations. Those who have not yet achieved those high levels of justice that are free of corruption and tyranny have been sidelined … until they can or will.

Because we have doubled down on corruption in our country, our decision-making is more straight forward, with less possibility for abusing our essential freedoms. With fair tax codes that foster the participation of all citizens and corporations according to the degree to which they have prospered, we can afford to fund what is most important to us. Ever since we decided and then brought into reality a baseline of accessible health care for every citizen, we have become healthier, more able to contribute, and less burdened by illness and debt.

Since we embraced the power of new immigrant citizens to our country, they have been generators of the new economy, an economy that builds on new, ecologically prosperous methods. As our trade with partner countries has enlarged, old problems with crime reduced. Entire regions of the world began to flourish in their own ways as they escaped the deathtraps of despair. Suddenly, issues of borders became unimportant. Hope was everywhere. Partnerships flourished. And true competition with and between global partners drew out our best.

On Thanksgiving 2030 we are grateful that the arts are flourishing and spirituality has taken on new and lively forms that engage with our highest concerns. No one religion dominates any other, but the practice of every expression is protected. Since gun owners themselves rose up several years ago to insist on reasonable approaches to gun ownership, the fatalities have reduced and mass shootings almost abated. We feel safer and saner because our children are secure.

The past ten years have taken us to our dark side and back. We experienced the ugly face of racism that still haunts us. Because this hatred and prejudice rose up in plain sight, we were able to see it and name it as evil, as wrong, as something we must overcome. We do not justify these impulses. And our remedies have moved into cities, military, commerce, talk radio, television and internet. It is no longer acceptable to discriminate or voice hate. Our leaders denounce it. Our citizens are painfully aware of it. We have rooted out the ways it has impacted the justice system and incarceration.

With heightened awareness of our precarious environmental position, we have finally stopped denying the damage we do to our own planetary home. Our participation in broad coalitions to eliminate green house emissions, our efforts to protect our air, land and water from degradation is now seen as our new normal. Surprisingly, those who use to be some of the worst violators have developed some of the best solutions. We protect endangered species, honor set-aside conserved lands, and avoid despoiling our environment. Because it is a global problem, we participate in global solutions, and lead in those efforts.

Because we have embraced the virtues of justice for all, compassion, fairness, the rule of law, opportunity for prosperity, and investing in the forces that shape the future like education, infrastructure, and innovation, we have become a people of abundance and not scarcity. What’s more, we know that it is in our interest and the interest of global neighbors to encourage this same prosperity elsewhere. We cannot do it alone. Our interests are intertwined with the world’s interests.

Every Thanksgiving arrives with stories of loss, of struggle and new birth. This one, the Thanksgiving of 2030, is a special landmark one for all of us. Years ago, back when we wondered what would become of us as we passed through exceedingly dark times, we could only navigate by hope. It was the only thing we had. But now in retrospect we can see that hope was enough. Hope joined with the powers of the Spirit, the resiliency of our humanity, powers of which we were then only vaguely aware.

 

 

By the mid-1800s the trail-head of the Santa Fe Trail had moved from its original location in Franklin all the way to Independence and Westport, the new jumping off places to the west. All that commerce and migration up and down the great trails was curtailed during the time of the Civil War. Later, overland travel by wagon was replaced by the Intercontinental railroads. But in its heyday thousands left Independence and Westport and took the great trails west, whether for commerce to Santa Fe or to the gold fields of California, or as immigrants to Oregon, California and Utah.

Great stories and lore emerged from that chaotic and rich time and perhaps one of the most memorable was that of the notorious Wind Wagon.

As reported in local newspapers of the time, a Mr. Thomas developed a Wind Wagon fully equipped with sails. After some preliminary experimentation, Thomas returned to secure passengers for the journey across the prairies. Evidently Thomas contracted with a wagon builder, Robinson, Crook & Co of Independence, to create the fleet. Whether true or not, the idea for the special wagon was attributed to the seafaring experience of Mr. Thomas, who longed to bring his sailing experience to the sea of grasses.

Many different records of the time report the Wind Wagon’s success in travel, the way it shocked native Americans as it rolled by, the time it made with its enormous frame and wind-filled sails. What ultimately happened to the Wind Wagon project has been lost in the annals of history, but one of the last accounts states that two Wind Wagon adventurers prepared their wagon for a morning departure but without thinking to reef the sails. In the morning all they discovered were uprooted stakes and wagon tracks. The two frustrated mariners set out on horse back to run down the truant wagon, but there is no record of them having ever found it.

My favorite account comes from Judge William R. Bernard of Westport. They events in question transpired in 1853, though he did not tell the story until 1910. That is a mighty interval between event and telling, an interval in which a story may ferment mightily, but we can catch the essence of it:

It was in 1853 that a device called the Wind Wagon was invented by a man known as “Wind Wagon Thomas.” If he had any other name no one knew it. He had been a sailor. He rigged a small wagon as a trial model. The model was a success and Thomas sailed out on the prairie as far as Council Grove, Kansas. With this success the Westport and Santa Fe Overland Navigation Company was formed, to build a fleet of the Wind Wagons.

In due course of time the first Wind Wagon was completed and a mammoth vehicle it was! Wheels 12 feet in diameter, with hubs as big as barrels, length 25 feet. Two yokes of oxen towed it out about three miles to open prairie. All the stock-holders but one and a number of  prominent citizens embarked when its trial run was made. It was an even greater success than the first one, and the way the cumbersome looking rig scooted over gullies and small hillocks was surprising.

Thomas, intoxicated by his success, began a course of fancy navigating not in the catalog of prairie sailing. A sudden veering of the wind while Thomas was tacking, brought catastrophe. The wagon halted and then started backward at a speed never before attained, and the steering mechanism became deranged. Faster and faster went the Wind Wagon propelled by a freshening breeze and guided by whimsical fancy.

Dr. Parker, the only stock-holder not aboard, followed  on a riding mule as fast as possible, fearing his professional services would be needed. The steering mechanism became locked, and the vehicle started on a circle about one mile in diameter. As the vehicle gathered momentum in its circular flight, the terror-stricken stock-holders started to abandon ship, which strewed prominent citizens in its wake. All except Thomas, who remained at the helm until a stronger quartering wind sent the outfit careening into a ten-rail stake-and-rider fence near Turkey Creek, collapsing the wagon. We fished Thomas out of the wreckage, virtually uninjured.

Dr. Parker recalls the incident well: “Could that wagon go! I had one of the best saddle-mules in the country and he could not hold a candle to that wagon.”

(Wind Wagon story recorded in Old Westport by William A. Goff)