When my uncle and aunt left their Century Farm in Iowa to ranch in Oklahoma they offered me much of what had been sitting, unused for generations, in their attic. There were books. Heaps of them. My favorites were the old ones with worn covers, among them a frayed copy of The Jungle Book with my sweet great aunt’s name written inside the front cover, old school books, and a book of my great-uncle Lester’s titled Darkest Africa.
Over the weekend I moved a stack of books from the bedroom to the dining room. The ones with red and green covers worked, but not the blue. I don’t decorate with blue. Those, I thought, would be perfect for that project I wanted to do that needed pages ripped from old books.
And then I opened one.
There, on the flyleaf of Outlines of American Literature with Readings, was my great-uncle Sidney’s name, along with a picture that he’d drawn, tiny and detailed, appropriate for a man who grew up to be a hobbyist in miniatures. It would be hard to tear that book apart, so I reached for the other, identical to the first. There, inscribed neatly under Lester’s name, were these words: “Literature is a permanent, written record of man’s best thoughts and feelings, and whose main purpose is to give pleasure.” Lester went to the mission field in Africa and died before I could know him, but that he bothered with that inscription makes me think I might have liked him.
Books, weighty records of man’s best, bring not just pleasure, not only companionship, but understanding. According to CS Lewis, “In Reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself…” Through the lives of others, my own comes into focus. This doesn’t require a whole book. It can be the work of a single sentence.
JRR Tolkien wrote one such sentence for Bilbo Baggins, who said, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I had been known to utter the word stretched to describe my own life, but Tolkien’s imagery clarified reality. The butter was finite and the bread, especially once I hit the mommy-ing years, was more than I could command.
Bilbo was preparing to make his great escape when he uttered his lament. I don’t want to escape. My life, my people, my purpose, are here. With fixed stamina for the tasks of life and people to love, the days loom long. I never seem to have enough to go around. To live my life, love my people, and serve my purpose without running out or resorting to doling out margarine, butter’s unfortunate synthetic substitute, I have to look beyond myself to the God who always has enough, whose strength is made perfect in my weakness, and who will supply all I need. He’s aware of just how much bread is lined up on the counter and stands by with the butter.
Blue or not, the books are back on my shelf, reminders of great uncles adored and unmet, the power of literature, and that I was not made to do this on my own.