It was 1974. I was a first-year student in the Faculty of Dentistry in the then University of Singapore. My residential hall, KE Hall, had a small library and I was there trying to study for upcoming exams. In a moment of boredom, I decided to check out the collection in that small library and found a book, The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin, 1954). I took it down and began to read. And I was lost. Exams, and indeed life, were forgotten as I joined the fellowship of the ring on their quest. I was horrified to find at the end of the book that it was the first book in a trilogy and the library didn’t have the other two books. Like a drug addict, I put life on hold for the next few days as I visited all the books stores I knew and was only able to breathe again when I found the trilogy and could read parts 2 and 3. I would go on to read the trilogy eight more times in my life to date. The trilogy would become the primary mythic narrative of my life.
Through reading and rereading the trilogy, I learnt and relearnt the following lessons and more:
Tolkien’s trilogy was a curriculum for life that helped me process that great joys and deep darkness that awaited me after university. Books have great power.
I am not saying that other media don’t have power. There have been a few movies that have moved me deeply and given me wisdom for life, including Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of Tolkien’s books, The Matrix (1999), and Star Wars 4 (1977). But I have discovered that books have a unique magic that touches you and shapes you, and that the right book at the right time can save your life.
A second book that saved my life was Luci Shaw’s God in the Dark (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989). I was in Bookazine in SS2 Petaling Jaya one afternoon (this bookstore chain has since closed down) and saw a pile of books on the floor that were on sale. One of the titles was Shaw’s book, a journal account that chronicled the period between when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer to the early days of her widowhood. I had no inkling that I would be following her down the path of widowhood. Her book was a key book in those very dark days after I had lost my wife to cancer. Her writing helped me to articulate my grief and helped me realise I was not alone. Here is one reading from the book:
I keep looking back at these recent days, wondering. Unreality wraps them round like a tent. It encloses me in artificial darkness. Unlike the sky, there is no twilight; I see no pinprick stars. The hymns and Scriptures we have chosen for the funeral seem fitting, but somehow abstract.
I am a widow, a social symbol, my face smiling to the family, my friends, with a sharp superficial brightness that glares like an unshielded light bulb. I am alone, but I cannot cry. Where is God when I need him? . . . I am feeling buried alive in my own emotional emptiness. (167)
Of course the primary book of my life is the Bible. It is God’s chosen medium to speak to us. At key points of my life, God has spoken to me through the Bible in very specific ways; though all study of the Bible will allow us to hear His voice and to see His heart. All disciples of Jesus should be committed to an ongoing study of the Bible. The Living Word speaks to us through the Bible, the Written Word. But I think disciples of Jesus should read books apart from the Scriptures. Indeed, followers of Jesus should also be committed to an ongoing study of all sorts of good books. The Bible is our central book, but God speaks to us in a variety of ways and books often give flesh to the truths in the Bible. The right book at the right time is a burning bush where we encounter God, and that could be an encounter that saves our lives.
Soo Inn will be sharing more on how reading is vital for us as Christians. You can see more details and sign up here.