Here’s the text for the 5 March 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. You can listen in here on the BBC website, starting from 1hr13:20 or so.
I remember packing for a family holiday once, I was about seven, and I filled up my suitcase completely with books. It weighed more than me, but somehow I dragged it down the stairs, ready to go. My mom said: You might need some clothes and a toothbrush?! But honestly, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. If I had enough books, I knew I’d be okay.
At that age, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series popular in the 1980s. In these books you the reader were also the main character. Every few pages you had a couple of choices, each of which would unfold a few pages later into more choices, and on and on until one of many possible endings. The bookcover said: “You’re the Star of the Story!” and I loved exploring all the different paths.
Exploring ourselves – knowing ourselves well – is so important in life, and books can help us figure ourselves out. I remember being 13, nervously pulling a book from the library shelf and reading for the first time about being gay. Or at 19, diving into the Bible and finding ancient descriptions of mind-blowing spiritual experiences like the one I was having 2000 years later. Or at 32, opening the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and feeling like someone had taken pages straight from my journal.
Knowing yourself is important, but let’s be honest: if you’re always the star of the story, it gets boring, narcissistic, even dangerous: if the only information we take in is from people just like us, with the same backgrounds, politics, and beliefs, we risk living in the echo chambers that are killing our society.
Good books help us know ourselves but they also help us know others. I recently read Bernardine Evaristo’s wonderful novel, Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize in 2019. In its stories of 12 mostly Black, British women, I was struck again with the truth that we are not all the same, we’re different, and that’s actually a beautiful thing. The best stories always unfold into the stories of others. The best endings are the ones where our differences don’t isolate us but hold us together. Life is not just about me, it’s about us.
There’s a verse from the Bible, about the ways Jesus meets different people right where they are. The verse goes: If these stories were all written down, the whole world wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written (John 21.25).
That’s a lot of books, that’s a lot of life. Way too much for me to fit in my suitcase alone, and that’s a beautiful thing.