I’ve always felt a bit disoriented in the world, a quiet dissonance fizzling between the inside life of my mind and the outside world. My inside world hums along to a most mysterious and enchanting cinematic melody, while the outside culture blares tepid insurance-call-hold music on repeat.
Reading good books sometimes exacerbates this disconnect, both orienting me within while further disorienting me without. Good books stir up enigmatic longings and raise the volume on the cinematic score of my soul, centering me, yet making it harder to re-enter the “real” world of my cultural moment, which strips, measures, boils everything down to only its most income-producing elements.
This disharmony would drive me away from good books if it had its way. And it does for periods of time when I’m tired of feeling All The Things and need to retreat into ambivalence for a while.
I’m trying to figure out what’s going on, what this tension is all about.
I think maybe good books water the deep, foundational soil of my soul, while somehow also accomplishing an uncomfortable yet more important job of leaving me hungry and a bit lost in today’s culture. I don’t like to be hungry or lost, yet I crave it. Good books rekindle longing that I’ve been aware of since childhood, when my love of reading took root. It’s a longing for something so much bigger and more beautiful and more mysterious than any of my days can begin to satisfy. Longing for…what exactly?
Maybe it’s a longing to more deeply engage with the tragic beauty of life, with story, with God? To play a role in a bigger drama? To live more alive.
When enraptured in a story, I seem to peer over the edge of an abyss of deeper life and engagement, engulfed in longing to dive headfirst. I see into a flawless mirror of what it should be.
But when I look up from a book, the mirror shatters. When I put the book down, I find my feet remain firmly shackled within my innocuous, comfortable, air-conditioned, sanitized culture.
Good books remind me of the shackles of this incomplete, never-fully-satisfying side of life we live on earth—the side that only lets us see inches deep through the momentary, fickle flicker of a broken light.
This life many of us live is an inoculated life. And the very inoculation that washes us in waves of perceived safety and control somehow leaves a vacuum in its wake. There’s a hollowness to this always new-and-improved, bigger, better world we live in–this world where we’re far too reasonable for dragons and magic and mystery and unknowns. This manageable world where everything has an answer in the click of a button.
My own intellectualism and rational tendencies can be more easily indulged in this containable world, if only I could shed my skepticism of it. It has its allure, if I could only enter it fully and stay away from mystery.
But I can’t.
Reading good books reorients my inner dreamer, my very being, re-centering my internal compass. It replaces my need for all the answers, makes me comfortable with maybe.
As Mary Oliver asked:
“What’s wrong with maybe?Mary Oliver, Devotions
I want more maybe. I want less of all the things that would contain me.
I want to be comfortable with less certainty. I want to fit somewhere other than here, because I don’t fit here. I want to be fed by story.
Good books lend shape to my hazy longings and spark a tug of war among my own rational tendencies. Good books may sometimes estrange me within and without.
I often feel foreign in my own world, my own neighborhood, my own skin. I feel neither fully a member of this culture, nor fully a member of another. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe others feel these things too? Yet I do long to be more fully known. To find my elusive origin country and destiny. To find home and belonging, kinship and nourishment that lasts.
And so, the core of my struggle with good books, I think, is this: they help me find myself waiting on myself again, they fill me, and then they leave me viciously hungry.
Featured image by liuzishan