About a month ago when I told my aunt that I was having trouble getting through The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, regardless of my desperate desire to enjoy it, she instantly replied with, “Well, it’s just not the right time, then.” She said this with such simplicity and conviction that it stuck with me for far longer than I’m sure she had intended it to. I knew instantly that she was right.
But what does it mean, then, to choose a book at the right time? I’ve always found book-choosing to be a moody business. Either you’re in the mood to read Crime and Punishment today or you’re not, plain and simple. (For most people on most days, the mood is never right to read Crime and Punishment.) So what explains the day when you finally are ready to read it—what changed? I think I sense it most with big or intimidating books, like Dostoevsky or Wordsworth or Joyce, and the exact same thing seems to happen every single time. It goes like this:
Day 1: Look at East of Eden. Feel right? No.
Day 2: Look at East of Eden. Feel right? No.
Day 5: Look at East of Eden. Feel right? No.
Day 12: Look at East of Eden. Feel right? No.
Day 29: Look at East of Eden. Feel right? No.
Day 44: Look at East of Eden. Feel right? Yep, let’s do it.
What? What do you mean, Yep let’s do it? For the past forty-three days it was a No, and now suddenly it’s a Yes? But honestly—that’s exactly what happens. What made me pick up The Screwtape Letters yesterday, or Eusebius today, or The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop last week? How am I supposed to know? Whatever it is, it feels a lot like a “the-wand-chooses-the-wizard-Mr-Potter” moment, where it just feels right, even if it didn’t feel right only twenty minutes before.
So why does it matter? Who cares what I’m in the mood to read today or what I’ll be in the mood to read next week?
Well, for starters, it makes packing for college really, really difficult. When I was getting ready to come down to LA a few weeks ago, I packed and repacked my books two or three times just to make sure I was bringing the right ones along. The goal is to pack a book that could satisfy every itch, every inclination, every passing fancy in the book realm that I might have over the next four months. Here’s a picture of my bed in the middle of that process:
Most of these made the final cut—and it may seem like a ton of books, but I kid you not, the first thing Rachel said when she saw my room at school for the first time was, “Wow. I thought you’d have more books than that.” So, in truth, you’re looking at a picture of extreme self-control (ha).
But that still doesn’t answer the question of why it’s so difficult to choose books. Why bother bringing novels, plays, epics, histories, nonfiction, memoirs, and everything in between? It’s not just about what they’ll look like lined up on my shelf or about dwindling the number of books in my library that I haven’t read yet (though, I’ll admit, both those are very valid reasons), but because of what happens when I read a book—because I always find, always, that the book I am reading, whether I intended it to or not, is greatly influencing the world around me.
Take earlier this year, for example. Ben and I were deep in conversations about Calvinism and Arminianism, creationism and evolutionism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy, Memorialism and Transubstantiation. Do I find it coincidental that during that time I felt a stir to pick up The Brothers Karamazov, which, unbeknownst to me, talked at length about a lot of these issues? I had no idea what subject matter it dealt with, but suddenly I’m reading “The Grand Inquisitor” and my world is being changed. Or how about when I read The Seagull by Anton Chekhov for the first time, in the middle of intense writer’s block and writer’s insecurity, and I was practically brought to tears by Trigorin’s monologue where he admits that his writing is “clever and pretty, clever and pretty, but not so good as Tolstoy”? Or even yesterday—I started The Screwtape Letters for the first time, in a time of drought in my faith, and what does Lewis speak of but the importance of living through the droughts? How could such instances be coincidental! I didn’t go looking for any of these books, hoping to find answers to questions I was wrestling with; these books just came to me, just when I needed them. Just like Providence.
This phenomenon doesn’t happen to the same degree with every book—I read The Mayor of Casterbridge earlier this summer and it did pretty much nothing for me—but even now, looking over the 50-odd books I’ve read so far this year, I had to go all the way down to #38 before I found one that didn’t impact me even a little. That says something. Either I’m really good at choosing books, or books are really good at choosing me.
It would appear, then, that the business of choosing books may be much more dangerous than we thought. When you next find yourself craving something to read, follow your instinct—I can’t tell you where it will take you, but I can promise you that wherever it takes you, I bet it will be well worth the journey.