Recently, someone asked me what books have shaped my life.
I rattled off what came to my head, but the question has stayed with me. This person wasn’t interested in simply what I liked; this wasn’t a question about preferences. She was asking what was important to me—what had influenced me—but I don’t really think my answer honored the question.
It’s not simply that certain books or authors have influenced my life, although it’s very true that they have. It’s the very act of reading that has shaped me—even the unhelpful stuff, the mundane, not-life-changing texts.
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 other mistakes on my own). 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 the way I could have been in a different life if I had taken a few different turns. At its best, reading helps me to really feel what it’s like to inhabit another body in another place at another time.
But above anything else, reading teaches me compassion.
This, of course, helps me better understand how I feel and my own particularity. But what feels more important is that reading helps me to understand the aspect of universality. 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.
And although it’s true of most writing (fiction, narratives, memoirs, and biographies are all God-breathed), this is particularly why I turn to reading First Testament 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. But if freed from the constraint of a “holy” pedestal, these texts are simply stories, the reading of which, like all stories, is meant to shape us. They offer glimpses into kings’ chambers and battle fields, put us in the skin of both the righteous and corrupt, and steer us toward compassion for the widow and the foreigner.
As it 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. They are important to us 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.