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Story-Shaped Lives

I still have the handmade birthday card my fifth grade teacher gave me—an enormous piece of folded yellow construction paper with a big orange bookworm (wearing a festive birthday hat, naturally) drawn on the front. Somehow that flimsy relic of thirty years ago survived the many moves of my childhood and found a snug home at the bottom of the cedar box a great-uncle made me as a repository for my “treasures.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise I safeguarded it so carefully: after all, it’s certainly an unusual year when one is celebrated for being bookish–celebrated, more importantly, by the fabulously named Anquanita Ash. I mean, if that doesn’t sound like a name straight out of some wonderfully magical story, I’m not sure what does. And Mrs. Ash was magical–one of those teachers who becomes an indispensable feature of childhood lore. Goddess of the fifth grade, she strode effortlessly through the halls of Carriage Hills Elementary School, cooler than most anyone else we had ever known. One of the most memorable aspects of her classroom was how she handled reading. To be sure, she read aloud to us each day after lunch, and we had instruction in reading and spelling and the rest. But the great privilege was to be allowed time in the “reading tub”: an old claw-foot bathtub that sat in one corner of the room. Its sides were lined with a vibrant red faux-fur material whose only other natural habitat appeared to be the dashboards of certain very groovy cars. The tub itself was filled with seemingly endless pillows of all sizes and varieties. So when our work was done, we were encouraged to luxuriate with a book, there among the pillows.

Reading as full-body experience. It was an important lesson: to read according to Mrs. Ash was not a measly Gradgrindian chore of mastering subjects and verbs, but a task that was to be sought and savored and enjoyed.

Of course, this was a lesson of which, even at eleven years old, I’d been an eager pupil for a long time. For one thing, I had a grandmother who was well-known for her devotion to books. Other people might have Proustian memories of the smell of their grandmothers’ cookies; my Grandma Kline’s house smelled exactly like a (very lovely) used-book shop. Most rooms in her house featured floor-to-ceiling bookcases, with volumes overflowing the shelves’ bounds. In her basement, each room was filled with canning shelves so that the books could be placed two-deep upon them. Many of her books were from the 19th or first half of the 20th century, and on my family’s visits, I would spend hours combing the shelves, discovering all manner of Victorian literature, faraway missionary tales and theological treatises, histories of places and events of which I had never heard, cookery books, and a whole library’s worth of subjects. She had so many books that she kept at least one grocery sack by her front door with the books that she had either read or of which she had inadvertently bought doubles, and visitors to her house always spent time before they left finding at least one volume to take with them.

Reading as hospitality. As a beloved grandchild, I was not limited to choosing from this front-door stash but had the fullrun of her collection, though my mother always insisted that I ask my grandmother for any book that I wanted to have. I was never refused.

Reading as love. Indeed, I learned from my Grandma Kline that books could serve as vital companions on the journey; her wise, and typically wry, advice to me: “Always have at least one book in your purse at all times.”

But it wasn’t just my grandmother and Anquinita Ash who taught me these practices of reading; so did a family life characterized by nightly, communal novel and Bible reading, church and Sunday school experiences replete with both tale and interpretation, and scads of Bible memorization. Indeed, I had a stor y-shaped childhood. It is, doubtless, little wonder that I became an English professor.

True, these days my childhood seems positively Jurassic (though, to be honest, even at the time it was probably unusual). A week seldom goes by that does not predict the demise of books, reading– the whole shebang. Just recently, for example, I read about a headmaster at an elite prep school in Massachusetts who intends to dismantle his library in favor of a digital “learning center.” No reading tub for those kids.

Though I deeply lament this development, I do wonder if men like the headmaster can really win. Perhaps books will take different forms. That would be unfortunate, I think, but maybe survivable. Survivable because it’s not just bookworms like me; we are all fundamentally story-shaped people, hungry for narratives that are life-giving. And for people of faith, for people of the Book, this is particularly true. Not only, as Henry Zylstra has argued, because reading generally gives us “more to be Christian with,” but because the “old, old story” must be fundamental to our very understanding of the world. In Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner reminds us:

It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling.

Surely, then, this calls for more reading not less, for more attentiveness to the multifaceted stories of all of our lives and to the infinite richness of the story of the Word Made Flesh.

Jennifer L. Holberg teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.