When I homeschooled back in the late ’90’s (before it was universal ?), my daughters and I were impressed to learn that King Richard the Lionheart owned a humungous library of 800 books. We began to count the volumes stashed in the backyard shed we used for class… and after we reached 500, I realized we were far richer than a king.
However, our wealth doesn’t consist entirely of the quantity of books we own (which is vast, considering a lifetime of acquisition and the digital collection on my e-reader). Nor are we rich as a king if, like Richard, our shelves are jammed with rare or expensive volumes we never glance at. (After all, scholars debate whether Richard even spoke English! He spent most of his royal time fighting instead of flipping pages, anyway.)
So along with just accumulating books, we need to…
What’s life’s greatest gift? Perhaps, after our personal relationship with Jesus, it’s a book—the Word of God. A lavish banquet. “The Bible is for me THE BOOK,” wrote Chilean Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral. “I know not how one can get along without it, without impoverishing themselves; nor how one may be strong without this marrow or sweet without this honey.”
Consider, too, the ability to read as a gift that makes us richer than a king. I once heard that if you can read, count yourself wealthier than millions of other people who cannot decipher a single word. Such a simple thing, yet only a distant dream to millions—yes, many millions, especially women—around the globe.
I cherish the blessing of learning to read at an early age. As a child, I’d do anything for a new book, even accept my parents’ bribe to wear the despised glasses to school.
Reading wasn’t just an occasional pastime for me, either. It offered a lifeline to survival. Even now, I read to live—it’s like oxygen to me. I can’t not read. Back when we had our laundry in the bathroom, I’d study detergent labels while toweling off. Yeah, weird, I know…
In the early ’90’s, my mom introduced me to her wonderful reading list. Inspired, I started keeping a list of my own. However, my grand total for 1993 showed 8 books! Not only unimpressive, but dismal for someone who considered herself a reader.
We didn’t own or even have access to many books in Chile in those days, and I was a busy young mother. Perhaps those excuses counted, but immediately, I set out to rectify this “poverty of not reading.” These days my list runs to more like 100 books a year.
“Lack of reading is a self-inflicted poverty.” –Ravi Zacharias
How fortunate I am. But sadly, many people around us wander in the poverty of alliteracy—they can read and don’t.
Invest in Books
On the other hand, the poverty of access–not having books–heaps on a misfortune more common than you might think in some otherwise developed and well-educated countries. What, you may ask, do they spend on?
My daughter, an ESL teacher, used to joke that every Chilean home has three things: bread, Coke, and cigarettes. Of course, not everyone’s discretionary income goes up in smoke, but a TV in each room and a phone in each hand probably eats up a fair bit.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the on-screen universe too—I’m writing a blog, after all. But we need to invest elsewhere. The single time I experienced a “library” of sorts here, the librarian permitted you one book at a time, procured from behind a high counter and handled there under her glare.
The little old ladies who ran the Stewart Free Library in my childhood hometown had hawk eyes too. But they were guarding the treasures that gave a little girl like me a ticket to the world and made me richer than a king. The first time I mounted those stairs, clinging to my daddy’s hand, I felt I was entering a palace.
And so I was, because more volumes lined those shelves than I could read in a lifetime. What a legacy!
Here, blame it on excessive import duties, rampant copyright infringement, or what you will, but cheap and easy access to books seldom happens. E-books are as rare as a bookshop in the Lionheart’s time.
A young couple in our Coquimbo church asked me for book recommendations recently. The dearth of available titles makes that a challenge, yet I heartily applaud them. They desire to begin building a family library—and they don’t even have their own home.
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” –Marcus Tullius Cicero
I’d add good coffee or chai latte to that list of essentials, but otherwise Cicero had it about right. And you also need the right books in the library, just as you need sunshine in the garden.
Notwithstanding the revered Gabriela Mistral’s superiority, I confess my general opinion of juvenile literature in Chile lies somewhere between ground level and my knee. These days what I wouldn’t give to have GOOD books to hand out to the kids here. But other than a few translated classics and a (debatably) humorous series my own kids turned their noses up at, few resources exist.
And anything with a Christian worldview? Pretty close to zero, especially in their cultural context.
So, while I was raised richer than a king, the poverty of appeal—not having good books, books that you can love—has created an emotional and spiritual vacuum in many lives. Who wants to read when there’s nothing absorbing or filling to turn to?
So I’m on a mission, a Lionheart’s crusade, if you will. Good stories can change history. They can nourish hearts and feed minds. Encourage, entertain, teach, and heal. Stories keep old people young and help young people grow. They inspire us to stay mentally limber, alert, and engaged.
Who’s going to write the books that will make a difference? It shouldn’t be a gringa senior like me. Then again, why not? Inadequate as I may feel, the challenge of a literature ministry calls with increasing insistence.
The children, the youth, the women…all need fresh air and original ideas, comforting words and stimulating thoughts. While I dream of coffeeshops and bookstores and functional libraries, may God help me to stuff the shelves with the riches of His grace.