“When Books Could Change Your Life”

Recently, the required reading for one of my classes included “When Books Could Change Your Life” by Tim Kreider. I found that the piece really spoke to me not only as a reader, but as an adult who is living life post religion.

I was born and raised in the Mormon religion. I grew up a firm believer and never imagined that I would eventually leave the faith. I had doubts, certainly, but to me doubts were a part of the experience of having faith, of believing. It wasn’t until I was an adult and fell in love with a woman that my beliefs (which taught me that physical expression of my attraction to this woman was sin) began to crumble away.

I remember the security that I had in faith. Religion gave me all of the answers . I knew where I came from, I knew where I was going. Death didn’t even frighten me – the first person who was close to me that I lost passed when I was an adult, so I grew up seeing death as a distant misunderstood friend. That first death changed my view, but that’s a story for another day.

Religion meant that I knew the grand plan  and my place in it.

Now, what does that have to do with early literacy?

Kreider points out:

The reading we do as children may be more serious than any reading we’ll ever do again. Books for children and young people are unashamedly prescriptive: They’re written, at least in part, to teach us what the world is like, how people are, and how we should behave … There is a level of moral instruction in these books underneath the incidentals of plot, character and setting that we’re constantly absorbing: How would a decent person act in this situation? What would a bad person do? What’s the right thing to say to a friend when something terrible happens?

This description of the experience of early readers also describes, for me, what I found in faith. I didn’t feel the growing pains that Kreider describes most adults experiencing as their worlds enlarge beyond the basic morals and virtues discussed in books – because those basic morals and virtues were the fence posts of my world. And the complications, the gray areas that you come to see and experience with age? I put those in the hands of a greater power, confident that what was wanted of me was to stay in the safety of those fence lines.

And that comfort kept me back from living a full life I could take complete ownership and joy from – although if you would have suggested such a thing to me at the time, I would have vehemently denied it.

Sometimes it is only when a weight is lifted that we realized how heavy of a burden it had become.

Even as fully grown adults we remain secretly starved for guidance and instruction. Many of us are walking around with the uneasy feeling that we missed the first day of class and wondering if there are CliffNotes. Most people desperately want someone to tell them what life’s about, what people are for, what we’re supposed to do — how to be a human being. But serious literature, at least since the 19th century, has been disdainful of fulfilling any didactic obligation. Sorry, kids, that isn’t what art is for.

Although religion did hold me back, it provided so much comfort. It made life seem so easy to understand. If I had a question, I knew where I should go for correct guidance. I had absolute trust in my religious materials and leaders.

The idea of children’s literature having a link with the religious is not my own – I credit that completely to Kreider, as he concludes his article with this idea. However, before I had even reached the end of his piece  I found what he wrote resonating with those religious parts of my personal life experiences. And somehow he had also articulated what I miss, now that religion is no longer a part of my life. Although I am just as stubborn now as I was when I was religious ….the pain of leaving has made it so that I don’t want to admit that I miss any of it. I want to vehemently deny that, too.

Isn’t it funny how things change so much, yet also stay the same?

Meanwhile, books that unabashedly purport to supply all the answers sell like Hula-Hoops or Viagra. This genre is called “wisdom literature” if it’s old enough to be respectable or “self-help” if it’s by someone who’s still alive and making money off it, and ranges in credibility and earnestness of intention from the Tao te Ching and Aurelius’ Meditations to shameless dogshit like The Secret. “Religious” comprises its own category on publishers’ best-seller lists, so mammoth and lucrative is this market.

I would suggest that the vast popularity of this genre is because it is effectively children’s literature for adults. They address us directly, confidentially, allegedly explaining everything and advising us how to comport ourselves correctly. Even cynical hoaxes (or, to give them the benefit of a doubt, artifacts of clinical delusion) such as The Celestine Prophecy, The Da Vinci Code and The Shack partake of — or exploit — that same thrill of being let in on a secret, the shiver of magic you remember from the first time you walked farther back in the old wardrobe than the wardrobe went and felt the furs turn to firs against your cheek, or glimpsed an old Victorian house in the fog where none had been the day before, or saw an unearthly glow over the hill out in the old apple orchard. Titles such as The Secret, The Rules and The Game pretty much say it all: Someone’s finally going to initiate us into the select society of Those in the Know, for only $23.95 retail.

These books also frequently appeal to some authority higher than that of mere fellow human beings: the ancients, beneficent aliens or good old God. (This is how sacred texts always establish their authority: Hey, I didn’t make this stuff up; I just wrote it down.) When we’re children, all the books we read are handed down to us, like the Ten Commandments, by grown-ups, who seem like, and sort of are, a different order of being from ourselves. They’re the gods of childhood, bigger and older and more experienced; they know more than we do, imparting what wisdom to us they think we can bear, empowered to tell us what to do. I’m over 40 now, no longer by even the most charitable definition a young adult, and I’m starting to realize, in something like panic, that I don’t understand anything, and that nobody else seems to know any more about it than I do. There aren’t any grown-ups. And maybe there aren’t any secrets left to tell.

I think it’s all too human to want what it is that both our experience with early literature and religion gives us – not only guidance, but that sense that there is a permeating right and wrong that is somehow woven into the fabric of humanity. That what we do somehow deeply matters, that our actions serve to impact something bigger than the moments in which we exist.

I’ve often thought about the fact that we breed seeds out of fruits. The entire point, evolutionarily speaking, of a plant offering up  tasty fruit is to get its precious seeds eaten. Why? So that those seeds will travel to a new place with the creature who ate the fruit, then get their own chance at life as they leave the digestive track insulated in natural fertilizer. Isn’t it fascinating how we neuter these plant’s attempts at progeny? We won’t allow the leafy masses that serve us by providing delicious calories to leave anything lasting in their wake.

And yet, isn’t what they offer a struggle that represents our whole existence? Aren’t we all trying to leave seeds that somehow will bear fruit, no matter what tract they take ? Whether we’re talking actual children or just time invested in worthwhile endeavors, every member of humanity with their basic needs met has spent their time on earth struggling to be a part of something larger than mortality. Time has so much impact on what happens inside of our lives – is it any wonder that we want to reach out and impact Time in return with equal force?

No wonder fruit evolved to become so delicious. No wonder humanity has come so far in the time of its existence.

And yet, all for what? Perhaps, for nothing at all except to produce a moment where we share the flavor of who we are, of what we’ve cultivated and formed with the time we’ve been given. A burst of expression that may ultimately ends with seedless fruit. Because we no more control the end outcome of our efforts than those seedless fruit plants. But that doesn’t stop us from developing into something amazing for trying.

It’s a more complicated (and perhaps terrifying) conclusion than what faith or children’s books gave me – but it has changed how I appreciate things. Including my own mortality.

Of all of the generations of humanity to live and die, now and in the future, I am the one who personally gets to experience the  unique richness  in  the identities being cultivated by those I am sharing my time on earth with.

And I’ve decided, without anyone telling if or how or why, that I want to relish every flavor as best as I can.