Books Help Us Understand Ourselves

Posted: April 26, 2013

Rural Pen

Editor’s Note: Columnist Luanne Austin has taken the month off. The following is a column from 2005.

In my years on this Earth, I’ve lived in small towns, big cities and foreign countries.

I’ve raced an iceboat down a frozen river, served my country as a spy during the Cold War and run a tea plantation in Africa. I have renovated an old stone inn on an island in the English Channel, lived as a nun in a Portuguese monastery and witnessed the suffering of slaves.

I’ve drifted in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a teenaged boy whose only companion is a Bengal tiger who may eat him at any moment.

People read, it is said, for two main reasons: for information for or entertainment. But there are other, more compelling reasons for keeping one’s nose buried in a book.

It has to do with the yearnings of one’s heart. For knowledge, yes, that’s part of it. But what is the knowledge for?

My bookcases overflow. In some places, they’re two deep. I have books stored in closets, piled in stacks on the floor and stashed in more than a few cardboard boxes. What am I looking for?

In his article, “The Risk Of Reading,” Mark Edmundson contends that the socialization process doesn’t always work. For some people, the values of their culture don’t fit.

I am not at home in this culture of highways, subdivisions, shopping plazas, celebrities, divorce, abortion, abuse, consumerism, Hollywood, Nashville; in this culture where sick individuals such as Michael Jackson and Brittney Spears are exalted as role models; in a culture where people attain relevance only by appearing on TV and money is the bottom line for civic and private decisions.

I long for sanity, reason, virtue, peace. I long to be home. I long for …  otherness.

I read to know. I’m not a junk reader. I sometimes read a bestseller, but formulaic books bore me.

As an introvert, I connect with people through books in a much deeper way than is generally possible in daily life.

I’ve visited Madeleine L’Engle’s home in Connecticut, hunted with Isak Dinesen in central Africa, cyber traveled with William Gibson, sat with Annie Dillard on the bank of Tinker Creek, traipsed through a magical woods with Elizabeth Goudge, felt the heartbreak of sexual double standards with Arundhati Roy, seen into the future with Margaret Atwood and crawled through marshes with Mary Oliver.

By seeing through their eyes, I’ve learned something from each of these authors: something about myself, something about other people, something about the world, something about the nature of God.

When I want to see life through God’s eyes, I read the Bible. In those pages, I am in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve in their pure joy and with them in their fall. In the pages of the Bible — inspired by my creator — I find the most accurate mirror of my self.

In those pages, I find all that I long for, all that I search for in my travels through all the thousands of pages in all those other books.

In those pages, I am home.

Contact Luanne Austin at or

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