By Dallas Robbins
“That book changed my life!”: a cliché right up there with “the more I learn, the less I know.” No self-respecting person should ever utter it in public. But clichés stick around for a reason, and as I revisit them from time to time, I always find something beneath the surface worth excavating.
In reviewing the cliché about life-altering books, one historic moment that comes to my mind is Joseph Smith reading in the Book of James. The story is familiar, if not banal, since we have heard it countless times; I worry that our dulled senses miss its essence. A young Joseph Smith in search of which church to join stumbles across a scripture that strikes to the heart of his crisis: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” Afterwards, he wanders into a grove to pray and gets not only an answer but a visit from heavenly beings.
But it’s not Joseph’s vision that grips me as much as the moment that led to it: the simple reading of a few lines of print. As Joseph recalled the experience in 1838, “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart.”
Whether this memory is fact, fiction, or a mixture of both, Joseph understood that an unexpected encounter in a book can launch our life’s course into an entirely new trajectory. I can’t help but romanticize this moment: Joseph holding his family Bible by candlelight as the sun sets, suspended between the end of one life and the beginning of a new one.
But even the text itself can be a distraction in this case. What really matters is the intimate moment when the words on the page encountered the struggle in Joseph’s thoughts—and how that moment of intersection might have been the catalyst for everything that came afterward. It is these random acts of reading that I find more intoxicating than the idea of heavenly beings visiting a boy in the woods.
Among the virtues of love, faith, and health that Lowell Bennion extols in his pithy tome The Things That Matter Most is “aesthetic feeling.” He says it “differs in several ways from other emotional states. Whereas in anger, hate, fear and romantic love we are very aware of ourselves, in a truly aesthetic experience we identify with the object of contemplation. . . . Aesthetic feeling, like a great spiritual moment, always inspires.”
Was it an aesthetic moment that grew from Joseph’s reading of James? I would like to think so. I’m not the type who seeks out revelation. Rather, I read in hopes that wisdom will find me out, exposing my lack when I least expect it, possibly pointing me toward a life path I would not or could not have planned. As one of my favorite novelists, Umberto Eco, tells, “We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”
I was recently reminded of the confluence of words and life while reading a little piece called the “Quite Interesting Manifesto,” published in a British literary yearly called The Idler:
The interesting stuff doesn’t just roll over and ask to have its tummy tickled. We reckon it takes three hours of reading, thinking and researching . . . when you might notice the unseen link, the mind-altering fact, the life-changing insight, lurking in the fireplace.
For me, three hours seems a little short, but that’s the thing about the secret in the fire: it can light you up over the course of a long tale or even a short line of poetry.
However it happens or however long it takes, the subtle surprise of these secrets reminds me of St. Augustine’s description of Ponticianus, who, while reading, “was in labor with the new life that was struggling to birth within him. He directed his eyes back to the page, and as he read, a change began to occur in that hidden place in him where you alone can see.”
I feel new lives forming in my hidden places, whether they are lying dormant or struggling on the cusp of an unexpected birth. It could happen at any moment, whether I’m reading a line from a sonnet that suddenly illuminates an aspect of my regrets, or a chapter from a revisionist history that destabilizes a belief I had long taken for granted. In my case, these births most often come as I read a novel that opens up my struggle to understand why people do the things they do, taking me out of my mind and deeper into my life. The adventure of the unseen link, the insight discovered, nourishes me with a sense of awe and aesthetic wonder, regardless of where it leads. And that is why I can’t help but read, read randomly, read headlong into the unknown.
Instead of seeking visions, when I lack wisdom, I take up a book, and then another, and another . . .