“You see these spots?” my dad would ask, pointing at my nose. “They aren’t freckles. They’re print that’s rubbed off from having your nose stuck in a book.”
He wasn’t far from the truth. I read voraciously as a child. I took a book along with me everywhere—just in case. Just in case I got bored, just in case I wanted to slip away and retreat back into its pages.
“You need to socialize,” my parents would say, forcing me to put down my latest book and talk to people. But I was deeply engrossed in another world, and it was hard to pull myself away. The characters became my friends, and their stories fueled my imagination. Worlds and times otherwise inaccessible to me became my mind’s playground.
As I got older, the books became thicker, the stories more complex. I learned to be less of a social recluse, but I sometimes read late into the night, “just one more chapter” stretching into five or ten.
Now, my eyes scan the names of titles and authors emblazoned on the spines stacked and standing on my shelves. I remember the worlds they beckoned me into, the lessons they taught.
The golden-haired scrawny girl I was learned something along the way, in between the creases and typescript: I did not want to use books to retreat from my own story. Vicarious escape and distraction at the expense of the plot and characters in my own life was a false promise. My own story was an adventure and worth fully inhabiting.
I held onto the delight of getting lost in a story—but learned not to stay there indefinitely. I learned to come back to my own story with more vigor and insight. I returned from my imaginative escapades with pictures of love and courage, sorrow and redemption. Instead of escape, I found the stories shaping me.
I remember the time I first came to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I was a sophomore in my undergrad English program, and we were studying a segment of Russian literature. I wish I remembered more of the class, the professor, my classmates. Instead what I remember is a story.
One of the Karamazov brothers, Ivan, tells the story of the Grand Inquisitor. It has haunted me from the first time I read it. In it, Jesus returns during the time of the Inquisition. He is arrested by order of the Grand Inquisitor who visits him in secret. The Inquisitor tells Jesus to leave, for the church doesn’t need him anymore. He claims Jesus got things wrong; clearly he didn’t know what the people wanted. They didn’t want freedom—freedom is too much for them. They preferred ignorance; they preferred being told what to do. The Church had fixed Jesus’ mistake, though, and Jesus must leave before he spoils her work.
Because of this tale, I think often of what we would tell Christ if he returned. Would we repeat the words of the Grand Inquisitor? Would we claim Jesus got things wrong and we need to correct him? Would we say the freedom he offers is too much? Do we say this implicitly through our actions?
This story shaped me. It shaped my thinking and my vision, influencing the way I see the world, my faith, the church. It offers a warning to the tendency I see in my own heart to turn freedom and grace into rule and law. It gives me the language to grasp and explain my world.
All the best stories, I think, do this. They put a slice of our humanity on the page, reflecting our human condition in the broken beauty of the world. They are powerful not because they are factual but because they are true to the human experience. We see characters not so different from us at heart, and say, “Ah yes, me too.”
For good or ill, the stories I absorb affect the story I’m living. The best stories invite me in, only to release me back to the real-life story I find myself in. The power of these books isn’t in overt morals or in heartwarming endings. The power is in the story—for the story itself shapes us.
These are the stories I’ll keep reading, and the ones my grandchildren will find someday on my dusty bookshelves. These will be the books that have changed my life.