9.07.2005

autobiography in books (the early years)

Saturday is my 31st birthday and, sappy as it may be, I like to look back at things that mark my past. Joshua and Andy (and others) might be able to chronicle their lives in music. I can do that after age 14 or so. But before that, my only exposure to popular music came in two forms: AM 610 WTVN (which my dad listened to religiously) and Bob Larson's "Hell's Bells", which I watched as a pre-teen in Bible class at Christian school. So, I suspected music (what little, and generally crappy, I heard) for drawing me farther away from God (which is why I hid my Genesis Invisible Touch tape between my mattresses like it was porn or something). But not so with books. Books have ever been my companion in times of trouble. Well, books and GI Joe comics (and action figures). So without further ado, my life as it coincides with things I read. I'll keep the annotations brief. ________________________________ 1980 It all began with this book. (Not exactly like this, of course, since Amazon has no record of My First Golden Book of Dinosaurs.) But for my 6th birthday, I got a dinosaur book from my dad. I was instantly hooked. Purportedly, the next day I told him I wanted to be a palaeontologist and he had to go to work to ask his coworkers what the hell that was and should I have therapy. They should have said 'yes.' 1983 I think 1983 was when I read my first two "real" books--without many (or any) pictures, dealing with relatively adult issues--that had nothing to do with dinosaurs (I had read many of those in the meantime). I was in third grade and had to start doing book reports. Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw was notable for a couple of reasons: (1) it made me cry, (2) I realized through it that my family was not "normal". I haven't read it in years, but I'm sure that it hasn't lost its impact. (I'm tearing up already.) The second book had even more impact, if possible. Tolkien's The Hobbit has literally been a transformative book for me, a milestone that helps me remember myself. I realize that makes no sense, unless something similar has happened to you, but it's a profound feeling to connect to anything outside of your self this tightly. As you might predict, my first encounter with this story in book form (I had seen the Rankin Bass cartoon years before) was so intense that it kept me up for nights on end. I obsessed over the songs, the dialogue, trying to think about what the characters looked like, etc. But I think more than anything, Smaug stood out in my mind. Cunning, unparalleled power, extraordinarily long life, the ability to breathe fire, and a bed of gold and precious jewels--as an 8 year old, I couldn't resist loving him and fearing him at the same time. Secretly, I would imagine Smaug rising from Long Lake, pulling the arrow out of his chest, and burninating everyone and everything in sight. Oh yeah. 1985 Cosmos was a pretty intense book for a 6th grader. And truth be told, I didn't really read it as much as I just watched the PBS series. But I was struck by one thing in particular--something that has driven my academic career, such as it is/was, ever since. How is it that what I was taught about the natural world by school and church was so vastly different than what others were taught? Specifically, why was it that the same things that "scientists" (using that word loosely) thought the world was like was decried by my teachers and pastor(s) as being wrong and even sinful? I don't think the easy answer--group x was wrong and group y was right--is the correct or best explanation, hence my being in grad school yet again. 1987 I didn't know many black people growing up. My neighborhood was gradually getting more diverse, but my school wasn't. In fact, other than people of Asian descent, the only people of color I knew were the ones on TV. On the one hand, there were the Cosbys--and they were great (much better than my family!). On the other, there were all the people on "that side" of town that seemed to always be getting arrested for something. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry changed all that for me. At first, I felt terribly conflicted by the book. There seemed to be clear-cut lines between good and evil--but on the side of evil appeared many of the white folks in the book. At first I thought that the book just exaggerated. But over the next few months, as I really watched and listened, I began to see much of my family, as well as much of society, very differently. Some of the things I heard my uncle from Alabama say sounded very much like what the whites in Roll of Thunder would say. Even some of my wealthy Cincinnati relatives talked like that, though cloaked in more "proper" terminology. Also, in seventh grade I began playing football with a public school team (though I was still at Christian school) and had a number of black kids on my team--one of whom was the quarterback. His name was Robert and he and I became friends, of a sort, given that we lived in very different neighborhoods and I couldn't drive. Between Roll of Thunder and Robert, and despite my dad's contrary intentions, he had a "bleeding heart" (as he put it to my mom) on his hands by the end of football season. I finally finished The Lord of the Rings in March of 1987, after two years of on again, off again reading. In true OCD fashion, I read the entire trilogy cover to cover over 10 days of spring break. It's hard to say what reading a book like this will do to you. In some ways, my entire life was shaped by this book. Many things I say or do (as B will attest) follow indirectly from the deep spiritual insights Tolkien tapped into eloquently in LotR. I think more than anything, for me at least, the message has been that sorrow is not a useful feeling or a hinderance or an exceptionally negative, but thankfully short-lived emotional moment. Sorrow is the state of things. Jesus was the "man of sorrows." Sorrow is the only deep response to the human condition and to our effect on the world, on each other, on history. Happiness is a mere covering on sorrow; joy is supernatural breaking through. But sorrow does not equal depression, despondency, ennui, malaise, etc. It is a recognition of our distance as humans from the ideal, edenic world and how hard we must work to save anything that's worth saving from the underlying twistedness--how ultimately, we must be redeemed because we cannot actually save it ourselves. But sacrifice is still called for on our part--our small attempt at joining the larger act of redemption. I won't pretend to understand the theology or even the comprehensive basis for Tolkien's theology in LotR. But I can say that it will probably remain the most profoundly, thoroughly Christian book I will ever read. ______________________ whew! more later....

3 Comments:

Blogger mg said...

i was a big fan of beverly cleary growing up. but there definitely was something very different and terrific about 'dear mr. henshaw'. great book!

9/08/2005 7:19 AM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

"Sorrow is the state of things. Jesus was the "man of sorrows." Sorrow is the only deep response to the human condition and to our effect on the world, on each other, on history. Happiness is a mere covering on sorrow; joy is supernatural breaking through. But sorrow does not equal depression, despondency, ennui, malaise, etc. It is a recognition of our distance as humans from the ideal, edenic world and how hard we must work to save anything that's worth saving from the underlying twistedness--how ultimately, we must be redeemed because we cannot actually save it ourselves. But sacrifice is still called for on our part--our small attempt at joining the larger act of redemption. I won't pretend to understand the theology or even the comprehensive basis for Tolkien's theology in LotR. But I can say that it will probably remain the most profoundly, thoroughly Christian book I will ever read."

This is great. And true. Thanks, Eric.

I had a similar response to TLoTR when I first encountered it in eighth grade. I wasn't a Christian, didn't even have a Christian vocabulary with which to frame my reaction, but I knew that something was going on inside of me, something dredged up because of these memorable characters and the ideas and worldview they embodied. I wanted my life to have nobility and purpose, to stand for something more than what kind of home I might live in or what kind of car I might drive. TLoTR prepared me to hear and understand the gospel, although I certainly didn't know that at the time I first read it. But every 7 or 8 years or so I go back and read it again, and rediscover why it was special. And I love it all over again.

9/08/2005 9:08 AM  
Blogger Seth said...

LOTR: also a tremendously important book for me. Your comments were great to read, reminding me of my own love affair with Tolkien's world... :)

9/08/2005 9:02 PM  

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