When people learn that I have read The Lord of The Rings nine times, they shake their heads and politely suggest that I should get therapy. I am sure they are right for this and many other reasons. But it may well be that Tolkien’s trilogy may have in fact saved me from madness. I first discovered the trilogy in my first year in dental school. I was in the small library in my residential hall, the old KE Hall, where I was supposed to be studying for my exams. As always I was distracted by all the colourful book spines calling to me from the shelves. I picked one up — The Fellowship of the Ring. Soon the hours had passed and I was totally captured by Middle Earth. To my horror I discovered that the book was only the first part of a trilogy and the library did not have the other two parts.
The next two days I frantically visited book stores in Singapore till I found the whole set. I then locked myself in my room till I had finished the story. (This is one of many reasons why I did poorly in dental school but that is another story.) I did not realise then how hard my life was going to turn out. But Tolkien’s books helped prepare me. From the trilogy I learnt that life can be very hard but that with friends and with faith your story can have a happy ending.
Last Sunday, Bernice and I had the privilege of sharing about the ministry of publishing to our church community. I started by sharing about three books that helped shape my life. Many books have shaped my life but I chose three. The Lord of the Rings was one. Another was John White’s book, The Fight. We do some mentoring as part of our ministry. It is ironic that I didn’t receive any intentional follow-up when I became a follower of Jesus. I thank God for The Fight. It helped introduce me to the fundamentals of the faith. God used it to help shape my life in Christ. It should be on any list of basic books a new believer should read. I still recommend it as a text for helping new believers.
The third book I talked about last Sunday was Luci Shaw’s God in the Dark, Shaw’s journal account chronicles the period between when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer to the early days of her widowhood. The book was on special sale, selling at a discounted price. It looked interesting and it was cheap, so I bought it. I did not know then that I would be following Shaw’s journey into widowhood. When I did, God in the Dark helped me because it showed me another person’s journey through that dark valley. It didn’t take away the pain but it helped me realise that I was not alone. Someone else had walked this path and survived. Many people wanted to help me when my first wife died. Those who had experienced the loss of a spouse were the most effective. One of the things I struggled with in the early days of my widowerhood was the guilt I felt at not feeling more grief. Here is an answer from Shaw’s book:
The day after the funeral I came down with flu but got out of bed to see Terry today. I described to her my lack of emotion: Why am I not feeling more pain or the grief of Harold’s departure? She thinks I have been grieving all year, preparing for death, learning to accept the inevitable separation (Luci Shaw, God in the Dark, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989, 169).
God gave me wisdom to understand and grow through God in the Dark and many other books I have been privileged to read. I understand first-hand the power of books and am committed to the ministry of publishing.
But is the Internet making book publishing obsolete? Am I one of a dying breed refusing to accept the inevitable? I need to be able to answer these challenges satisfactorily. Graceworks, our ministry, also does publishing. Bernice heads up the Asian chapter of Media Associates International (MAI). “MAI equips and nurtures talented men and women with a passion for producing Christian literature for their own people.” Are we wasting our time? Should we be focusing on ebooks instead? Bernice and I are excited by the potential of epublishing and we intend to see how we can do that in the future. But we are still committed to the publishing of paper books for a few reasons.
Firstly, 73% of the world does not use the internet (Andrea Ford, “Head Count,” TIME Asia, October 31, 2011,17). That is a huge mass of humanity that does not get their information electronically. Often these are folks living in areas where the church is experiencing phenomenal growth, and where there are desperate needs for bibles and Christian publications of all sorts.
And while more and more people will be reading ebooks there are still many who are reading physical books. And arguably there are still things that physical books can do that ebooks may not. The late Dr. Klaus Bockmuehl quotes Karl Steinbuch’s defence of the physical book:
One does not need an infrastructure of energy supply or special playback equipment. A book is independent of broadcasting hours and is always available. It even allows for individually adapted speed of usage. You can pause when you feel a break is needed, then continue. . . moving pictures quickly tend to arouse emotions which can be just as quickly forgotten afterwards. The book invites its readers to cool consideration and quiet decision.
We all experience constantly that a book is the most handy medium. Reading on a train or plane does not inconvenience your fellow-travellers in any way. Using one’s pencil one may even enter a silent conversation with the author . . .There is no substitute for the book (Klaus Bockmuehl, Books, Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College, 1985, 24).
Steinbuch was writing at a time when the book was being challenged by new technology and many were predicting the demise of the book. The new technology then was television. Ironically it is television that may be dying. But the book is still around. And many of the points Steinbuch raised are still pertinent. I look forward to reading The Lord of the Rings a tenth time. And yes, I need therapy.