A little over a year ago, I took a job teaching literature at a private school just outside Atlanta. I moved my family into a wise old house in a half-horse town about twenty minutes from the school, and we have spent the past year slowly settling in. Last fall, I hired a guy to drywall and circuit part of the house’s ample, unfinished basement, a space I had determined would make a decent office. From a stack of 10′ x 10″ lumber I’ve fastidiously sanded, stained, and sealed, I’m currently outfitting the walls with book ledges. On these, I’ll be able to store the contents of about thirty banker’s boxes full of books, commentary sets, and teaching files from my years of pastoral ministry. It’s as amateurish a work in progress as ever there was, but it’s coming along.
Fittingly enough, I’m doing this because of something a teacher said to me.
Back in seminary, some seventeen years ago, an intimidatingly bright man named Ralph Wood taught my capstone course, which was called Gospel & Imagination. This appropriately vague moniker allowed Dr. Wood, a Tolkien, Chesterton, and O’Connor scholar who primarily teaches literature courses, to compel us Master of Divinity students to read everyone from George Herbert, to Walker Percy, Graham Greene, and his dear Flannery, to Wendell Berry, Stanley Hauerwas, and Cardinal Ratzinger. Dr. Wood was, and I assume still is, a highly opinionated professor. I’ll never forget the way he structured his class: each session would begin with a student providing in-depth analysis of a pre-selected Herbert poem, followed by said student reading a prayer specifically composed for that class session. The prayer was supposed to ask the Lord to bless the group with a productive discussion while simultaneously reminding each of us of the ministerial applicability of Herbert’s theme. Dr. Wood was infamous in the seminary, not simply for having the gall to actually grade these prayers, but for grading them so meticulously that it sometimes seemed even St. Augustine or Thomas Cranmer would struggle to eke out a B-.
The prayer-leader would lose points if he or she paused too long, or didn’t pause enough. The professor lowered scores each time filler words such as “like” or “just” were used, if the prayer was not in third-person plural, or if it dared use the word “share” inaccurately. (Dr. Wood was adamant the actual meaning of “share” is fundamentally misunderstood by multitudes of Christians.) And if the prayer did not open with proper apostrophe to the Lord, he would stop it before it even got started. “God isn’t your buddy!” he lectured us on more than one occasion. “Our words should always ascribe to Him as much of the due power and glory one has the capacity to express.”
This persnickety approach to teaching put off many a student. In the years immediately prior to mine, the roster dwindled significantly. By the time I sat in Dr. Wood’s class, there were only five other students braving the course with me. As a result, this set-in-his-ways professor simply quadrupled the expectations: each student was now tasked with parsing a Herbert poem and leading the class invocation four separate times! Despite the extra work, though, the intimate size of the class allowed us to get to know Dr. Wood in a way I fear most of his students never did. As challenging as his course was, in time the half-dozen of us came to appreciate our eccentric professor’s startlingly profound wisdom. There were innumerable moments throughout the semester in which his unique viewpoint on the Church, academia, or the world at-large would cause our own mental lightbulbs to flicker on. I’m aggrieved that I did not write down more of these thoughts, as I’m certain I could revisit them with as much appreciation as when one picks up an old work of Frederick Buechner’s, or when you come across a lesser-known but no less profound quote by Thomas Merton.
There was one piece of advice, however, that I vividly remember to this day. On the afternoon it was offered, a few of us had walked across campus to hand-deliver a paper assignment. The office Dr. Wood kept was in the old Tidwell building of Baylor University (which I hear was only recently renovated). It’s a location that always reminded me of the clock tower courthouse from Back to the Future. Yet inside the bowels of the building, the place held an austere, almost crypt-like solemnity, and Dr. Wood’s top-floor office remains the largest professor’s office I’ve ever seen. It was like something out of Dead Poets Society, the kind of place from which one imagines an uppity, pipe-puffing, tweed-clad academician might compose bitchily erudite essays for prestigious literary journals no one’s ever heard of.
The space was quite narrow, but also quite long, like the nave of a church. The ceiling was almost as high as the room was long. Wooden catwalks lined both walls, their two-and-a-half-foot platforms accessible by ladders. The whole office bore the feel and scent of a dusty cathedral. You half expected to see ropes dangling from a lofty belfry and a pallet of straw and blankets where Quasimodo slept. And yet, the most extraordinary part was that, lining the walls all around from door to far window to soaring roof, were shelves upon more shelves upon even more shelves of books. Novels, poetry, plays, anthologies, biographies, essays, histories, criticisms, compendiums, commentaries… Books of every shape, size, and age lined every available space. They were stuffed, spines facing out, from one end of a shelf to the other, while smaller paperbacks were crammed in the remaining free spaces between the spines and the shelves above.
If you guessed that Ralph Wood had every one of these books scrupulously organized, categorized, and alphabetized, you are, of course, spot on. You could tell he liked it when students had to visit his office. It was not the intimidation in their expressions that he looked for. No, it was the dumbstruck wonder that spread over the entirety of our bodies as we slowly turned circles in that narrow space, necks craned to sky, pondering in astonishment if such a place could really exist outside of a Victorian-era novel. We knew the guy was a literature professor, but we never expected… this.
We students took all this in, the light of an autumn afternoon spilling through the tall window behind the professor’s desk. Our pathetic, six-page papers were clutched in our sweaty palms, completely forgotten. Dr. Wood stood up from his desk. Behind his thick glasses his eyes were bright, and he was wearing a toothy, self-satisfied grin. He swept an arm in the direction of one wall, and then he spoke three words that we had heard him speak multiple times in class but never really heeded. Usually he said it when we were finishing one novel and preparing to start the next. He would urge us not to be so hasty to sell off our textbooks at the end of the semester, no matter how much they might’ve cost us. And there, in his office, he repeated the phrase we had heard before, only this time it landed with greater weight, as our extraordinary surroundings seemed to amplify his words like a symphony hall.
“Build your library,” he told us. “Build your library.”
Now, as I sweep my stud-finder over the drywall of my new basement room, marking the spot where I will drill pilot holes and affix sturdy brackets to hold my homemade book ledges, Dr. Wood’s encouragement comes to mind. As I lug banker’s box after banker’s box into the room, I consider the wisdom of those words. Certainly, with the endless digital conveniences of our technologically-dependent age, owning a roomful of physical books can seem these days like an unnecessary chore – a waste of space and, with each new purchase, a waste of funds. The device on which I write this post could, in seconds, provide me with probably 90% of the words that I find in these works, which now litter the cement floor of this office-to-be, awaiting their assigned ledge. Why would I spend so much time, energy, and money constructing shelves for thousands (I haven’t counted, but I would estimate in the thousands, or close to it) of volumes, most of which will simply sit there catching dust for months, even years, before I ever consider pulling them down and flipping through their pages again?
These thoughts notwithstanding, I am struck by a deeper quandary as well, because the vast majority of these books concern subjects I am no longer tasked with explaining. Because I am no longer a pastor. I teach literature and composition to high-school students. Today, the commentary sets, Bible dictionaries, and tomes of Church history stare back at me blankly, as if wondering, “Why are we still here? Do you even need us anymore?”
When I was forced to resign from my pastorate two years ago, I had boxed these books up in the belief that somewhere soon, in another office on another generous set of bookshelves, I would unbox them. Somewhere in this post-Christian nation of ours was a community of faith who would trust me to lead them. And this library I had carefully curated, in obedience to my wise professor’s advice, would indeed come in handy in that work. Now, here they sit, these wonderful, wonderful books, full of insights and truth that just can’t be included in the brief, rudimentary lectures I now deliver to classrooms of half-asleep fifteen-year-olds, some of whom can’t be bothered even to bring their copy of Much Ado About Nothing to class (let alone preserve it for their own fledgling library).
“Build your library,” Ralph Wood told me, and I have done just that. And where has it gotten me?
What my professor did not tell me, but what hundreds and even thousands of those books thronging the shelves in his medieval castle of an office might say if they could speak, is, Build your library not for what it will do for you, Bo, but for what it has already done. In your moments of triumph as well as tragedy, let this room remind you that no good story, no meaningful history, is without its own highs and lows, its own mountains and valleys. As you live your story, heed that which you’ve learned from all these others, the fiction and the non, the beautiful and the heart-wrenching. Here, Bo, here is the cloud of witnesses – the factual and the fantastical – surrounding you, teaching you, comforting you, correcting you, and drawing you deeper into mysteries that have no bottom. Pray with them. Alongside them. Pray with that depth of reverence your professor modeled for you. Build your library, Bo, not that it may prove you worthy of some measure of honor or respect, but rather that you may honor all those who poured pieces of themselves out for your edification.
Build your library, yes. Build it, that you may be reminded it is not about you at all.
All right, then. Build it, I shall. May each screw find purchase. May each bracket sit true. May each ledge bear the weight not merely of all the pages set atop it, but of all the life that surges and swells within those pages. For all the hardships and disappointments I have known in this life, including the ones that has led me to this wise old house and this still-unfinished basement, may these freshly painted walls, makeshift ledges, and wonderful library remind me I am not alone in this long, strange sojourn. I am surrounded by a multitude of voices, many of whom proclaim from their pages the greatest truth of all – that the Father of our faith, and the Author of all my prayers, surrounds me as well, each and every day.