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St Johns Southgate

14 Aug 2015

I lent out two books recently, so I know that it still happens, but I have a feeling it’s becoming less common. Why lend a book when you can send someone a link to the e-copy or a super-cheap online outlet?

If it’s true that we’re reading other people’s books less frequently, we’re missing out on something. There is great insight, joy and even sadness to be shared in the reading of other people’s hard copy books.

A physical book can unite two readers in a thought or feeling that transcends time and space. For instance, the other day I opened my copy of Hamlet – a second hand copy – and flicked through the pages looking for my favourite bits. As I did, I stopped to read a stanza that had been underlined by the previous owner: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”

A famous line to be sure, but as I thumbed my way through the classic tragedy I paused at the other underlined parts, all of which were sorrowful. While Hamlet is undeniably dark, the more lofty and hopeful language such as, “Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love” remained unmarked.

In reading through that copy of Hamlet I felt an affinity with the reader that had gone before me and sympathised not with humanity in general, but with a real companion reading the text with me. I don’t know if they are alive or dead and I can only guess how Shakespeare’s words moved or challenged them, but in the reading of that book I had company and was thankful for it.

I’ve had a similar experience with my pocket bible, which is also second hand. I picked it up at a book sale because it was just the right size for taking with me on pastoral visits – small enough to carry comfortably in one hand while looking for a hospital room or some such place.

I’ve often wondered if the previous owner was also a minister or chaplain, because the marked verses stand out to me as having a caring, compassionate and even pastoral emphasis to them.

Perhaps God has worked through the previous owner’s experience of the Bible and is now mysteriously helping me find the right words to say as I encounter different people of a different time, with different hopes, dreams and nightmares.

Whatever the case may be, the written word is a powerful thing and sharing in it with others brings it to life in ways we can’t make happen alone.

That’s why Shakespeare is most powerful on the stage and God’s word most powerful when read or heard with an understanding that it puts you in the company of billions of individuals who are experiencing, or once did experience, very familiar fears, tears and half-hearted smiles – including Jesus, the man of sorrows himself.

Pastor Tom

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