I am caught in a volley of arguments, a dangerous linguistic crossfire between the two books I’ve just begun to read. Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism” and Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” both lie open on the table like red and blue pills in Morpheus’s outstretched hands — but I’m color blind.
Or perhaps they’re just the same vague gray.
I’ve been put in this predicament by a personal rule that I’ve kept to since high school — when someone gives you a book as a gift, you read it cover to cover. I don’t always do this immediately, but I eventually get around to it without fail.
Even though I already owned a well-marked copy, I reread my girlfriend’s Valentine’s Day gift of selected E. E. Cummings poems again and again. And, though my spiritual side has remained in flux for years, I welcomed the challenge of reading C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” a gift from the same friend who introduced me to Keller.
My habit of reading gift books has formed less from a sense of obligation, and more from a genuine appreciation for anyone who’d think to give me a book. Perhaps it’s my withdrawn, bookwormish nature that makes me believe this, but I can’t think of any better way to connect with someone than by reading the same thing and discussing it with them.
These recommended texts tap into a deep comfort. I can hear the words of my friends and family through the texts they’ve chosen, and I feel the warmth of knowing that someone else has taken time to think of me. Each new shared book is like an invitation to a group tour we can embark on together and talk about afterward. It’s a dictionary for a new shared language.
The crossfire between Coyne’s and Keller’s books is one that I’ve been familiar with since I read my first recommended text — the Bible. Though I haven’t quite read it cover to cover yet, my Christian upbringing and religious schooling made this book one of the first I grappled with. Like my experience with gift books, I have always felt the voices of my family and friends through its words.
For me, there is no story of Christ’s birth without my grandfather’s calm voice speaking it aloud. There is no Moses without the memory of his cartoon picture in a coloring book, and my mother giving me crayons. Each verse quoted on a passing bumper sticker is not only rich with religious significance, but with a deep sense of personal history. These are the words that shaped my youth.
But, as with every rebellious teenager, there came a time when I felt compelled to break with the recommendations of others. In senior year of high school I began to read Vonnegut, Burgess, Thompson and Woolf, first for the quality of their work but, eventually, for the thrill of going off the grid of recommendation. These authors found enticing ways to play at the edges of Christian morality, inviting a compelling dissonance into the lulling symphonies I had lived within for so long. Onto the muted canvas came a slash of abstract orange.
Perhaps the most unsettling part of this loss of equilibrium was the lack of a familiar voice to speak the words I was reading. Unlike the biblical stories of my youth, these lessons did not come clothed in memories and familial faces. They beckoned from distant places and encouraged me to chase foreign horizons. Each foray into these new reading materials came tied with both a thrill of adventure and a pang of guilt at my departure from ingrained morals.
But it was only by following these new paths to their limits that I gained a picture of my experience in a wider context. Suddenly, the voices of my family entered into debate with others, leaving me simultaneously confused and inspired. The voices of truth I once found so inescapable were presented with compelling counterarguments, and I was vaulted to the status of arbiter between them. I was free to analyze my own doubts, to weigh them against alternatives and to carve out a space for myself between external recommendation and internal drive.
Mine isn’t a story of valiant escape from a stifling childhood, and I haven’t happened upon any earth-shattering radical truths either. My worldview is in a greater state of flux than ever before, but, by balancing introspection with an genuine acceptance of outside input, I am working to find a new kind of comfort — a comfort that springs from instability.
I begin to read, alternating between the two books. As crazy as it sounds and despite my confusion, I find a subtle peace within their contradictions.
Anthony writes the Monday column on literature and life. Contact him at [email protected].