By Fred Gaiser
Originally published in the February 2018 issue of 1666 Coffman Newsletter
One of my regular courses at Luther Seminary was Theological German, a course taken
primarily by graduate students who needed to pass two language exams as prerequisite for a PhD. To that end, I kept a supply of German mysteries to help students learn to “read” a
language rather than just decipher it.
One day I took one of those mystery novels off my shelf to read while eating at a
restaurant. Engrossed in the novel, I was brought out of my reverie by voices at the next table. I asked myself why are those people speaking English? After all, aren’t we in Germany? It was, I think, an extreme example of being “lost in a good book.”
Lost in a Good Book turns out to be the title of a novel by Jasper Fforde, one of a series
featuring a woman named Thursday Next, a “literary detective.” Fforde envisions the characters in books as one might understand the characters in a play. That is, while “on stage” they are bound to the written text and the nature of the character as created by the author, but “offstage” they have a life of their own. When characters are given freedom, one result—in fiction as in life as we know it—is, alas, mischief or mayhem, which is why the BookWorld requires its own policing system (Jurisfiction), and our hero Thursday Next is a Jurisfiction agent who must enter books in order to police the miscreants.
Though we cannot actually enter books physically, as Thursday does, we can enter them in
our minds, even get “lost” in them. Reading takes us to different places, even distant ones. In his book The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts writes, “Language is the landmass that is continuous under our feet and the feet of others and allows us to get to each other’s places” (p. 82). Again, as Birkerts notes, reading the literature of another people or another culture can erode the sense of “irreconcilable otherness” that otherwise cannot be overcome (106). “True, the lives depicted in many of the works are in certain aspects alien to me. But …the fact that I can enter those lives by way of language confirms for me the existence of a commonality prior to all cultural differences” (106). Is this too optimistic, especially in these days when diversity is celebrated and often insisted upon? Is it not still the case, for example, that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus? Perhaps, but Birkerts suggests that even this might be overcome through reading. (This is why it is particularly frightening that, according to many reports, Donald Trump simply does not
The full title of Birkerts’s book is The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an
Electronic Age. The title reflects the author’s fear (in 1994) that genuine reading might be a thing of the past. Indeed, Birkerts might suggest that it’s even worse today, given the advent of social media, text messages, Twitter, and Instagram. Or are these networks simply one more step in the long history of reading?
The first chapter of Karin Littau’s fascinating book Theories of Reading is entitled “The
History of Reading.” Littau reminds us that “whether you are sitting studiously at your desk or curled up comfortably on your sofa, whether you are in a public library or in the privacy of your home, the likelihood is that you are reading these words silently. To read silently, rather than aloud, is a relatively recent phenomenon” (13). Earlier on, books and other written materials were usually read aloud, not only because the material was best shared but because most people were simply unable to read. In churches, the Bible was not read in splendid solitude, but was read aloud as an experience meant to bring people together. Actually, when most church-goers could not read at all, the purpose of stained glass windows was to draw them into the biblical story in pictorial form. The windows were essentially picture books, sermons, preaching on texts.
As an aside, my all-time favorite stained glass window is in St. Jakobskirche in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany. The large windows behind the altar portray many of the biblical stories. The picture of the manna in the wilderness depicts peasants sitting on theground while it is “raining” pretzels! That’s not just story, it’s preaching—indeed,
great preaching. The artist would easily have earned an A+ in my biblical preaching class!
Back to Jasper Fforde and his BookWorld, where, as noted earlier, characters can take on totally new lives. The Cheshire Cat, for example, has much more to do “offstage” than he is allowed when confined to his textual and pictorial tree in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—including nothing less than serving as librarian of the “Great Library,” the huge expanse where everything ever published can be found—something like the Library of Congress writ large.
What of our Coffman library? It is certainly a jewel of our building, but is it “great” enough to interest the Cheshire Cat? Perhaps not in extent, but certainly in the way it serves our in-house needs, and occasionally I find there an altogether unexpected treasure.