One of the most formative things my mom did for me growing up was building her library. She never made me read any of her books; I don’t even remember her ever recommending one. It was more of an open buffet of sorts, set out in the living room and made ready for me to serve myself. Through the years, I was nourished at her shelves, more than once helped without anyone other than God knowing just how much.
I think love for reading is more caught than taught. It was certainly that way in my case. We didn’t watch much TV or have video games growing up, so books were naturally a form of entertainment. I read in my free time, during trips in the car, and in the bathroom. On Wednesdays we’d go to the Brooklyn Public Library where the children’s librarian recorded our visits in her ledger. Every third week we signed in, we were invited to walk behind her desk to browse the rolling cart and bring home a reward for our recurrent visits — one free book of our own choosing!
Recently, I helped my parents sort through their books. Most are going to the church library, but I set aside a few boxes for myself. My parents raised us to live simply, you might say frugally, as many Chinese immigrant families do. (I still reuse ziplock bags and buying garbage bags still feels like a scam when plastic supermarket bags work fine.) But my mom has never skimped on books. She says she was taught that by my grandmother, a refugee to Hong Kong and a school principal. It must have been a lesson my mom took to heart, because the shelves in our home were always full.
In highschool, I heard a Christian leader talk about a set of books on her bookshelf she didn’t let others touch. The idea was so foreign to me that it has stuck with me since. In our home, books weren’t meant to be hoarded, they were stewarded with generosity. Guests perused our living room shelves, at times asking about a title, sometimes bringing one or two books home. Years later, when my mom started purchasing books from the bookstore where I now work, she began buying multiple copies whenever there was a good promotion— just in case someone she knew could benefit from a copy. It’s a habit that remains (I joke that the bookstore has a warehouse here in Staten Island) and has been passed on to me, my sister, and my sister-in-law.
Sorting through books at my parents’ place, I consider which titles I’d want my own kids to be able to grab off our shelves on a whim. I remember the time I sat at my bedroom desk, self-consciously searching a systematic theology textbook index. I had checked over my shoulder before finally finding my way to a section on “doubt.”
I set aside a stack of books addressing the questions I had as a teenager, written by authors who have been instrumental in forming my conviction that Christianity is a thinking-religion, able to withstand the challenges of every age.
I pack biographies and stories of revival, books that gave me a vision of Christianity beyond my own experiences. They showed me that the roots of our faith are deeper than current debates and the branches of the kingdom reach to the farthest corners of the earth. Here I was given models to emulate, practical examples of what God is able to do in and through lives of imperfect people given over to his glory.
John Piper has said, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do, Sometimes even sentences.” I don’t know that I can separate the influence of whole books versus their parts, but it’s true that my most vivid recollections of books are of my mind, heart, even life, pivoting on sentences. Augustine’s defense of God’s incorporeality in Confessions. C.S. Lewis’ defining anxieties as an afflictions, not sins. Elisabeth Elliot’s assurance that our Shepherd wants to lead his sheep more than we want to be led. Jim Cymbala’s stories about a pew collapsing when he first started at Brooklyn Tabernacle Church and his church’s earnest prayers for his prodigal daughter. Andrew Murray’s assertion that we don’t pray because we don’t love– a charge that changed my prayers in college which in turn changed my whole life.
It’s incredible to think of sovereign Love and providence at work here. That God would meet the past, present, and future needs of my heart, mind, and soul through the words and lives of strangers— what a mystery and comfort, what grace and privilege. This is what I’m hoping for as I bring some of these books home and build a library of my own.
Before unpacking the boxes from my parents’ place, I move our bookcases from the second floor down to the living room. Arranging the shelves of our now merged libraries, I think about which ones I want to be eye-level for guests, imagining that after the pandemic, they’ll be able to browse our shelves before and after group gatherings. Perhaps standing there with needs God alone knows, they’ll spontaneously pull out a book and read a pivot point sentence. Perhaps one of the books here will hold out hope for one of my own children during their own darkness of doubt or trial.
Our hand-me-down bookcases now hold some of the same books they did as I grew up. They are an imperfect set, not quite matching and sagging a bit. They are working for us though. Already, my oldest has read through a few books she pulled out on her own: two biographies, a book my brother received on his baptism, a collection of stories about persecuted Christians. I’m going to be the librarian, said my girl as we shelved books.
What matters more the condition of their aged particle board is the invitation these shelves continue to extend. May the weary questioner meet Grace and Truth, may the thirsty and hungry find Water and Bread, and may many be summoned to the Supper through the words served here.