What does “all books are neighbors” mean?

Someone recently asked me about the title of this weblog. What does “All Books are Neighbors” mean anyway? It sounds like an adage, but as far as I can tell there is nothing like it anywhere in Erasmus’ venerable collection (At some time I hope to expand on Erasmus’ first–and perhaps my favorite–adage: “Friends have all things in common”). And while at this time a Google search of the phrase will unearth few results, it cannot be attributed to me. I was having coffee with a friend early one morning at the Black Cow when a friend uttered those four words. imageAt first I thought I had misheard because a barista let forth a piercing jet of steam at the same time, so I asked him to repeat himself. He said, “All books are neighbors.” He had never heard the saying before either, but had recently heard a speaker use it.

Since the speaker was the first person to use it as far as I knew, I suppose the context of the speech would be helpful in giving context to what I am no doubt sure by now my reader recognizes as an ambiguous phrase. The context was that the convention of language means that one can find common ground shared by any two or more books: assumptions, understandings of the audience, and meaningfulness. Marx and Smith, King and Christie, Calvin and Kerouac, in print all these very different authors are neighbors and they engage in a dialogue that only makes sense if there is commonality. The commonality is so commonplace that readers don’t give a fig about their common assumptions and move their attention to the margins of dissonance. Now when I heard this I had to think through whether this was true or not, but I decided I didn’t give a fig either. Nor was I convinced that this was the best original context. The adage was so elegant, but the context was, well, oddly strained. It violated Occam’s Razor and all other sharp instruments of critical analysis. So I don’t think it can mean all books are neighbors to each other.

While books are our favorite artifacts of human existence (aren’t they?), they do not literally breathe or have the capacity ot relationship. Books are personified in relationship to the real beings who create them. I prefer to understand the adage to mean that we cherish the written word both to know we are not alone and that we have access to the artifact that, as the product of human creativity, reminds, amuses, entertains, angers–in short inspires us to be human.

I have thus admitted that I adopted (stole?) this adage and invested my own meaning to it as wantonly as any petty proof texter. But let us dialogue. What do you think it means? Please comment. I promise that most future posts will contain more story than dialectic.

Assuming we accept my meaning of the adage then, I chose it for this blog to suggest that books, stories, and reading will be the focus of my writing. I am using it to inspire my ideal of wanting to be more consistent with my blog as an expression of art (kitsch?) and not as a cash cow, and to share my thoughts and receive feedback from my friends who are willing to take time to read. I hope they entertain and inspire any who take up and read. That last allusion is to St. Augustine of Hippo, so you see all books are neighbors!

Telescopes of Stone

One of my singular delights, rarely indulged in, is to read a design magazine unhurriedly on a Saturday morning. The magazine is rolled in one hand, my sans-handle cup filled with coffee in the other, reclined in my frightful La-Z-Boy with the early morning light streaming in through windows and skylights. This scene is a major part of my recipe for creative thought.

When I followed my recipe this morning I was relishing the pages of an October 2009 issue of Dwell magazine. I turned a page and my attention was arrested by what I took to be a picture of the vaulted ceiling that dominates the interior of the York Minster in England. The webbed ceiling was illuminated by light streaming in from triptych stained-glass windows. The picture that caught my attention was taken from the cover of a book of photographs of the vaults of Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, and the picture accompanied a short review. The illustration drew me into the copy, and I found the real nugget of gold in the anonymous article.

The author wistfully observes that these kinds of buildings hold our fascination because they can and will never be built again because we cannot afford it, and because, well…”We don’t know how.” This observation was juxtaposed with the next paragraph, which I thought was an incredibly eloquent statement that deserves deeper consideration:

“These buildings, some nearly a millennium old, are charged with the grandeur of God, as though the architects, suddenly doubting that it could be read in nature, decided to codify it in stone (Dwell, Oct. 2009, 42).”

First, the author observes that the buildings are charged with the grandeur of God. The conscious exercise of the architects and builders was to create and fill a space that attempted to communicate the awesomeness of God. They succeeded as the eyes of those who entered this sacred space were drawn upward. Second, the author says that the designers were impelled to intention because this awe was being missed in the commonplace that nature has become. In the cathedral of nature the eyes of peasants had been directed to the earth from which they drew their sustenance. The designers had a priestly duty to mediate the grand attributes of God to a less imaginative, but hopefully impressionable generation. When others missed the obvious presence of God, those who knew him intimately struggled to construct a grand telescope of stone and mortar, as it were, so that they could see him if they would only look. Ironically, the author suggests we will never see their ilk again.

A few pages earlier is an interview with contemporary designer Phiippe Starck, who is apparently obsessed with liars, thieves, and bad religion. If the redactor’s selectivity is any indication, Starck blames a great deal on being brought up, at least, with religious education while acknowledging at the same time it helped make him what he is. From his apparently self-righteous mistrust he has fashioned a world of whimsy that includes a dream to kill (repurpose?) materiality and that he believes justifies his existence (“…I do believe we all have to try to deserve to exist.” So some don’t deserve to exist? What do we do with them (me?)? Ibid., 40) with fifteen iPods and sleep his only apparent comforts. I found the interview confusing and contradictory and wondered what wonders Starck was mediating to a suffering humanity? He needs mediation himself but he was apparently inoculated against the best antidote to materiality by the dunderheads who misrepresented the God of the universe. He grew up in an epoch that forgot how to build telescopes.

Instead, I can imagine microscopes being offered to Starck by well-meaning emergent (but equally confused) dunderheads who would praise his art, cluck their sympathies for his mistreatment at the hands of the religious, and join him in his anti-materiality crusade without ever holding out a vision of the greater story of the God of nature and of the vault. Microscopes beneath the canopy of space are plentiful, cheap, and boring.

The anonymous book reviewer uncovered an insight that must be meditated upon vis-à-vis the mediatorial designers of cathedrals: we will never see their kind again. No more telescopes of stone, mortar, and glass. Too costly. We don’t know how. Rigidity failed. The anemic identification practices of the emergent will yield no more dialogue with wanderers than his modernist forbears experienced in the last century. So at last I come to the question inspired by the insightful sentence: who (rather than what) will be charged with the grandeur of God in such a way that the eyes of others will be drawn upward?

Read to Lead: “We Must Hope for Everything”

When I read to at-risk children they rewarded my availability with a priceless gift.

In the early nineteenth century, Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was considered to be the most well-read person in New England, and she was the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard. As a pioneer in the women’s movement she certainly deserves our attention, but just as fascinating to me are all those books. She read them in an era when codices were expensive, hard to obtain, and from an entertainment and educational perspective were the ‘only game in town,’ if you will. Despite her larger-than-life reputation regarding the reading of books, Fuller never lost sight of the importance of reading for the greater community. It was she who said with simple eloquence, “Today a reader; tomorrow a leader.”

I am not sure if Fuller was the first to observe the association between reading and leading, but I am sure that this connection is almost universally accepted today. That’s the idea that is the engine that moves Read to Lead (or is it Lead to Read? I get confused…), a program of adult volunteers helping at-risk elementary school children in Kansas City. This enlightened program was started by Lynn and Jean Rundle, friends of mine who brainstormed and prayed about how to make a difference in their community by helping kids develop valuable tools that might serve them well in the frequent chaos of their social milieu. That sounded good to me, so I volunteered and was assigned to two fourth graders, Erin and Miguel,* in a school with a predominately Hispanic student enrollment.

We began by reading Madeleine L’Engle’s  A Wrinkle in Time. I was surprised immediately by their evident passion for reading, a fervor I pray neither they nor I will ever lose. Erin was adept at understanding the author’s thesis and the connection of parts of the story to the larger plot. Miguel distinguished himself as a rapid reader, swiftly moving through the text while correctly pronouncing even the words he had never before encountered. He did this despite the fact that English is but the second language in his home. My job was to listen to their reading and offer whatever I could to help their comprehension and expand their vocabulary without snuffing out their passion, let alone stoke its fire.

Each day I came I found that they had read ahead at home, and actually helped me understand what was going on in the lives of the characters–and in his and her own world. We sailed through L’Engle and on to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Once in a while they asked me to read. Erin told me she liked to hear the sound of my voice. I was never sure if she asked me to read because she was comforted by a man’s voice, but at least the act of being read to brought comfort. I noticed that she asked me this whenever she wasn’t feeling well, like the two times she was nauseated from the virus that was being passed around in her house or the time she was on the verge of tears because the landlord had discovered they were keeping a puppy and threatened eviction if they did not get rid of the dog. When she asked me to read the week after the dog had gone to the pound, she laid her head on the desk and seemed to be fighting tears, though she was so brave and strong I was sure she would never admit to the internal struggle. Before our time was up she asked to read again (“We read to know we’re not alone,” wrote C. S. Lewis.).

During these times Miguel was uniformly steady and prepared to read. Like a person who prefers the rye chips in the party mix, he relished selecting his favorite parts of the story and laughed a little as he related his reason for liking these bits. He also opened his door a small crack, allowing me to glimpse his perspective on his parents’ struggle to survive in a new country. I treasured these vivid pictures, painted with Miguel’s guileless brush. I envied the closeness and joy he felt in being an important part of his large extended family, who worked together, cried together, and showed singular genius in their ability to celebrate in one another’s company.

I enjoyed the books as well, and I found myself captured by the music of their carefully measured cadences and incipient efforts at mature expression. They absorbed the story so well I often felt I was the one being entertained. My self-consciousness was effaced and I was wrapped in the joy of a well-spun tale. As one who is startled awake when he realizes he is falling asleep, I sometimes shivered when I found myself so caught up in the story as they read that I forgot I was supposed to be providing analysis. On balance I felt I was getting more out of this “volunteering” than they were.

The last Spring day I read to Erin and Miguel we joined their teacher, classmates, and other volunteers in a celebration of the semester complete with exchanged gifts (Books! What else?) and sugary snacks. I was able to utter a few public words of encouragement to Erin and Miguel that were barely heard above the din of a classroom full of children relishing frosted cupcakes. Each of my young readers expressed appreciation after their teacher reminded them of its importance, and they sweetly shook my hand as they thanked me and wished me a good summer. I congratulated them on their excellent reading but uppermost in my mind was the thought that I would miss them next week.

It seems naive folly to imagine that education can cure the ills of our pluralistic societal experiment. History affords too many examples of well-educated wretches and evildoers. I lack the buoyancy of a giant like Margaret Fuller. Thus I am unable to predict whether the self-confidence gained through reading will help Erin and Miguel make better decisions when they are faced with the choice between right and wrong that will define their life’s course, let alone lead. But I do know–and hope they are aware of this–that they have a new friend in their corner who believes something better for them and is cheering for them. When they lose their source of comfort or when the passion wanes, I hope that they will remember me as a small but functioning part of their cloud of witnesses. I pray that they will make a connection from our briefly shared time of this likely faded realization: when someone glimpsed something of promise in them, it is because the promise is there indeed. Who knows? That might just prove to be enough.

Reading exposed me to more erudite voices than my own. I can still recall Erin’s voice as she read a relevant passage from Madeline L’Engle’s book: “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.”

I will keep reading.


(*Not their real names)