How Books Talk to Each Other

                                                                                    Books talk...
Johannes Gutenberg changed the world by putting more words in the hands of more people. But a thousand pages in the hand do not have the worth of one in the reader’s mind. The magic happens between the page and the brain.

In 2018, scientists discovered the interstitium - the largest organ in the human body. It’s a fluid highway that wraps and connects all the other organs, performing feats of service in the space between. Turns out a lot of work happens between the organs we’ve always known about, done by a near-invisible organ that went undetected for centuries.

So many things happen in what looks like blank space between tangible things. If you plunk out the notes of “Amazing Grace” on a piano without the proper spaces, the song is unrecognizable. The empty space is essential.

We’re told to “read between the lines” when we need to grasp that more is going on than meets the eye. In the Book of Proverbs, there’s a lot of room for pondering in the blank space between the halves of a verse. Take Solomon’s first attributed proverb, Proverbs 10:1: “A wise son makes a glad father;  but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.” Two fairly obvious points, but wait! The space between the two statements gives you enough to ponder for days – in that space lies the difference between fathers and mothers, wisdom and foolishness, gladness and heaviness. The simple verse isn’t simple at all when the reader stops in the space between the two thoughts, looks ahead and behind, and ponders. Multiple lessons lie between the lines, waiting to ambush a thoughtful observer.

Of course this applies to reading in general.

Maybe you’re like me: you have one book in the upstairs bathroom, one in the downstairs, two or three bedside. You probably have some way of choosing reading material: my husband acts vigorously on recommendations; my parents belonged to one of those book-a-month clubs. I have a friend who finds an author he likes and systematically reads their every book. Some rely on best-seller lists. My books come to me washed up on the shores of used book shops and thrift stores. I’ve always trusted that it’s God arranging my curriculum. Time and time again, exactly what I needed to read showed up exactly when I needed to read it.

Here’s how this worked in the summer of 2001, when my older son was about to leave for college, and I was aching at the impending end of the family unit. Upstairs, I was reading John Eldredge’s The Journey of Desire (if you don’t love John Eldredge, you and I will have to talk), while downstairs sat Philip Kunhardt, Jr.’s 1970 reminiscence, My Father’s House, like a ticking bomb.  

The two books talked to each other all summer, using the space between my ears as their parlor. My Father’s House held surprises. Author Kunhardt, a fellow New Jersey-ite, was a managing editor of Life magazine – a publication delivered weekly to my childhood home and which I, starved for new reading material, devoured hungrily upon arrival. He grew up in the woods in Morris County – me, too! He wrote this book after surviving the kind of heart attack that killed his father in 1963. It is a very personal book.

It became that to me, too. Kunhardt’s aim is to describe the upbringing his father bestowed on him. Gruff-but-caring, adventurous, instructive, free-wheeling but hands-on. A marvelous upbringing, a storybook upbringing. The kind of upbringing my own father would have had, (because he grew up in the same place, at the same time), had he only had a decent relationship with my grandfather. Today I searched out my copy of My Father’s House to ascertain particulars of publication, and found myself in tears, just as in 2001.

But those tears were a function of the Eldredge book, a book that encourages good people trapped in shoulds and oughts to consider their hearts, to examine them for what they love, and to embrace that love as God’s gift. The Journey of Desire (retitled Desire in recent editions) handed me permission to love Haydn symphonies and old British murder mysteries and the complex designs of good silk scarves. And, to embrace the goodness in the Kunhardt book, which I would not have done without it.

The Journey of Desire opened up my thinking like the key on a sardine tin. Before reading it, I had thought depriving myself was a necessary reflexive exercise, to be done any time I liked /wanted /enjoyed something. As a result, I squelched things God put in my heart. These two books worked like two friends come in to do an intervention, chipping away at assumptions I’d held and lies I’d believed. I wept all summer, reading the two books and contemplating their admixture of kindness, mercy, parental love, and beauty. They stitched up a corner of my soul I didn’t know was ripped. By the time Jimmy left for college, I felt prepared for the change, prepared to carry on, peaceful.

Neither book would have had its effect without the other, yet neither one said, outright, what I derived from it. The magic happened in the space between the books.

Words on a page set up a spate of synapse-jumps in the brain. Reading more than one book multiplies the effect of the jumps, because the world of more than one writer’s brain gets added to the world of the reader’s. Stereos is a Greek word, sometimes translated “established,” denoting something confirmed from more than one source. We get “stereo” from it. This tag-team reading has a stereos effect – two different streams of thought converge and contribute to each other, the effect multiplied not arithmetically, but exponentially, as I ponder what they say. Pondering the written word acts like the interstitium. It provides the space for the words on the page to perform their appointed tasks, allowing the whole to become more than the sum of the parts.

Whether you’re reading one book or ten, what have you been pondering?

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Here's the back cover photograph from My Father's House, here, a masterful portrait, IMO. Kunhardt and my dad looked a lot alike.

Back cover photo, My Father's House