catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 6 :: 2009.03.13 — 2009.03.27


Some books bite. Good books leave scars.

Everyone loves good generalizations like this:

  • There are two kinds of people in the world: readers and nonreaders.
  • There are two kinds of readers in the world: those who love books and those who are just passing the time.
  • There are two kinds of book lovers: people who keep their books and people who give their books away.

I’m one of those people who can’t help giving books away. Once again, I realized that I’ve given away two of my favorite books: The Things They Carried and The Writing Life. These two never seem to stay on the shelf for more than a few months. I’ve bought them over and over and over because I find people who haven’t read them.  Then I run to grab the book, saying, “This book changed the way I think about writing and reading. You must read it.”

A friend of mine once accused me of being a shameless fanboy. True. Who can resist being a fanboy of Annie Dillard’s meditation on The Writing Life? Who can resist Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece of war, The Things They Carried?

Good books sink their teeth into a reader. They bite us while we’re reading them. Then I can’t get away from the story until it releases me from its jaws and slinks back to the shelf or the library or the friend who loaned it to me.

But the best books leave a mark. We can put the book on the shelf. We can turn the book in. We can give the book away. But we cannot get rid of the book’s bite. We carry it with us like a scar or a war wound. And sometimes, when the weather is changing or when we’re alone in a quiet place, the scars from great books still ache.

Here’s a confession. I’ve stolen that scar imagery from Annie Dillard. I can’t help repeating ideas and images from my favorite books. Great books become part of us. They change the way we view the world. They change the way we appear to the world. They leave us with scars.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard talks about the pain of writing with similar imagery.

You may wonder how you start…

You have no choice. One bad winter in the Arctic, and not too long ago, an Algonquin woman and her baby were left alone after everyone else in their winter camp had starved. Ernest Thompson Seton tells it. The woman walked from the camp where everyone had died, and found at a lake a cache. The cache contained one small fishhook. It was simple to rig a line, but she had no bait, and no hope of bait. The baby cried. She took a knife and cut a strip from her own thigh. She fished with the worm of her own flesh and caught a jackfish; she fed the child and herself. Of course, she saved the fish gut for bait. She lived alone at the lake, on fish, until spring, when she walked out again and found people. Seton’s informant had seen the scar on her thigh.

In this passage, Dillard reminds writers that they will sacrifice bits of themselves when they write. We use our lives as bait for good stories.

But readers do, too. When I connect with a good book, I sacrifice bits of my life to feed it. When I read Annie Dillard, I become the Algonquin woman. I remember what my children sounded like when they cried as infants. I imagine cutting flesh from my thigh. Sometimes, I even feel a strange tingle of imagined pain.

Good books come to life in our bodies. And they change us.

In “How to Tell a True War Story” (PDF) from The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien explains it like this.

In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe “Oh.”

True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction and analysis.

For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside.

It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.

The passage doesn’t just apply to war stories. It applies to all good books. Morality is part of narrative. Isn’t that the problem with so much Christian fiction? We Christians are impatient. We leap to moralization and evangelization. We reduce the gospel to abstraction and analysis.

For example: Jesus is the truth. As a moral declaration, it seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, I have trouble believing it with my stomach.

And I never share what I don’t believe.

Some authors-like Tim O’Brien, Annie Dillard, or Cormac McCarthy-reveal common grace. Their work isn’t specifically Christian, but it doesn’t flinch. It is true. We cannot ignore them. Nor would we want to. I believe their stories in my gut, and so I share the truth of those stories with my friends.

Other authors-like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, Gene Wolfe, or Mary Oliver-reveal the specific grace of Jesus. Much of their work is specifically Christian, but it doesn’t moralize. The images are true. The stories are believable. We cannot forget them. Nor would we want to forget.

The best books help us believe the truth in our gut. And when we believe the truth with our bodies, we will share it.

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