I have had a love affair with the printed word my entire life. Books have been my companion since the time I was old enough to be read to by my mother.
I gave my forty-five year old collection of hardbound books to my daughter when I moved to Mexico some three and a half years ago but I still maintain a handful of printed books. The two that get picked up over and over again are the Bible and Labyrinths of Solitude by Octavio Paz. The purpose of this post is to explain why these two books (out of so many) represent my go-to books.
But first I want to take you on a slight digression to generally fill you in on some of the other books that I have either – just read, reread or will read.
Note. I hate ebooks but the truth of the matter is to me they are now a necessary evil. I can’t live without them because a, they are the only books that I presently have access to and b, ebooks are imminently more portable than their printed cousins.
But I will continue to prefer printed books for two reasons: there is something about paper and ink that is so enigmatically visceral and unlike ebooks, you can actually thumb through the bloody things. And being able to flip back and forth through the pages of any book is one of those important things that you didn’t know was so important until it’s gone.
So what are a few of the ebooks that I have loaded on my two readers? For one, I have a lot of collections like all the works of Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Neal Stephenson, Tahir Shah’s novels, Philip Marlowe’s Raymond Chandler series; books of Wilbur Smith, Kurt Vonnegut, William Gibson, Mario Vargas Llosa, Paul Theroux, Michael Lewis, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Kerr, Eric Newby, Julio Cortazar, Jim Thompson, James Clavell, Ian Fleming, Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene, Malcom Gladwell, Carlos Fuentes, Bernard Cornwell, David Morrell, Brett Eason Ellis, Roberto Bolano, Albert Camus, and Joseph Campbell.
Then there are tons of single authored titles like Joseph Heller’s classic ‘Catch-22”, Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, Steven Levy’s ‘In the Plex’, James Gleick’s ‘What Just Happened: A Chronicle from the Information Frontier’, Leon Uris ‘Exodus’, Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, Fergus Henderson’s ‘The Complete Nose to Tail,’ John Burdett’s ‘Bangkok 8’, Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’, Jon Krakauer’s ‘Where Men Win Glory’, T.S. Elliot’s ‘Waste Land and Other Poems’, Julia Child’s ‘Master the Art of French Cooking’, DeCosta’s ‘Rethinking the Internet of Things’ , Fowle’s ‘The Magus’, Archibald’s ‘Twilight of Abundance’, Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’, Keith Richard’s memoirs ‘Life’, and Donna Tartt’s brilliant novel, ‘The Goldfinch.’
I have read (and reread) lots and lots of books over the course of my life. As a child up through my teens I probably averaged reading at least one entire book per day. That slowed down when I got a career and family but I probably still managed to read at least one book per week.
So why do I have this preoccupation with the Bible and Octavio Paz’s timeless classic, ‘Labyrinths of Solitude’? Simply because the former is so complexly interleaved and the latter is so rich, dense, and erudite.
Labyrinths of Solitude is a book that manages to cover so completely the mysterious culture of people know in present times as Mexicans. Paz’s approach through his essays do not follow the more conventional method of dissecting the culture historically or geographically but rather in a more oblique fashion that follows an examination of the collective political and social myths that shaped his people and country.
At present I am on my third copy of Labyrinths of Solitude. I have one here in Mexico and my daughter has the other; the first copy having been completely worn through.
Why do I hold this particular literary work in such high esteem? Probably because it is one of the finest examples of a man concisely explaining what could very well be unexplainable. He effortlessly articulates complex thoughts on art, literature, and civilization and renders them comprehensible. And the long dense chains of logic that permeates all of his essays are surprisingly coherent.
My other go-to book is the Bible which properly studied is both wondrously supernatural but at the same time demonstratively pragmatic. Meaning the narrative holds together from beginning to end and once finished it has a wonderful completeness. When you think about it, that’s a very difficult proposition considering the book has had 44 different authors spread across two millennia.
So you might ask, what makes the book supernatural?
Let’s start with the fact that the book is structured in layers, the study of which through time has revealed an inordinate collection of connective points that bind each layer to all others.
The Bible is one book that is composed of sixty-six separate books each of which taken separately can thematically stand on their own.
Note. The problem I think why so many people misunderstand the book is that they’ve never taken time to read it in its entirety. Which somehow ironically doesn’t preclude them from judging the book or speaking authoritatively about it!
I liken that phenomenon to Book Club. The first rule of Book Club is that you can’t talk about the book unless you’ve actually read the book.
And what adds to this problem is the Bible is written as a progressive unfolding of truth. So it’s definitely not like some textbook which has a chapter by chapter summation of key points at each end.
So hand in hand with this progressively unfolding methodology is that the end of the book – The Epistles – serve to shine a theological light on scenes presented in the earlier parts of the book (The Old Testament).
Example. In Hebrews Chapter 11, the Apostle Paul speaking on the subject of Faith recounted certain patriarchs (Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham) calling forth their defining instances of Faith which served to not just clarify the old but also served to recalibrate Faith into the present Age of Grace. And Paul by doing so, not just created a bridge (or a connecting point) to the old, but also used the opportunity to expand on that most Christian of concepts, Faith.
So point being – even more so than Book Club – you can’t truly understand any of the Bible without reading the whole book. And when I say understand, I am talking about the mechanics of the book. How the book works, how the book is structured. What I am not saying is it’s impossible to come to an understanding of God without first reading the Bible in its entirety. Because that’s not true. What I am saying is that to understand the book, you’ve got to read the book; and all of it. Commonsense, right?
Second, the Bible is parsed into five majorly distinct groups: The Old Testament (‘Preparation’), The Gospels (‘Manifestation’), The Acts (‘Propagation’) , The Epistles (‘Explanation’) and The Revelation (‘Consumation’).
Third, the first five books of the Bible – commonly referred to the Pentateuch – is commonly acknowledged by all Bible scholars as containing – in order – the experiences of the people of God for all ages. Genesis, the loss of fellowship. Exodus, the book demonstrating redemption. Leviticus, the renewal of fellowship and communion. The book, Numbers speaks to the passing of a redeemed people into the land of inheritance. And the fifth book, Deuteronomy is instruction for the redeemed entering their inheritance.
Fourth, the Bible can be seen as divided into yet another layer that speaks to how God has dealt with humanity since the creation. They are commonly referred to as dispensations and as such there are seven in all: First, Innocence. Second, Conscience. Third, Human Government. Fourth, Promise. Fifth, Law. Sixth, Grace. Seventh, Kingdom.
The Bible contains other layers. The book of Isaiah written by the prophet Isaiah contains 66 chapters just like the Bible itself contains 66 books. And the book of Isaiah contains all the fundamentals of the entire Bible so much that it is often referred to by scholars as the Bible in miniature.
The Psalms contains five logical divisions and each of these divisions corresponds exactly with the themes as set forth by the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. Keep in mind that the Psalms – chiefly written by David – are separated some 500 years in time from the penning of Pentateuch.
And David was a warrior not a scholar. And the Psalms (poetry) – some of which were sung – were not written contiguously and their common themes were praise and sorrow. While the Pentateuch read at face value was a story written as a history of the origins of a people.
So don’t you find it even a little surprising that these two very different literary works have such a decisive commonality? And even more so because the commonality had to laboriously studied into the light of day?
Lastly, the Bible start to finish is entirely about Christ the Redeemer. The Old Testament is about the preparation for the Redeemer. The Gospels is Christ manifested in the world. The Acts is about the preaching of the Redeemer and the propagation of his gospel throughout the world. The Epistles are his Gospels explained. And the Revelations are the purposes of God as consummated by Christ.
So if you want to take a run at either one of these books keep in mind that I’ve been reading and studying them both on and off for 15 years.
Octavio Paz’s book will sharpen your mind and make you look at the world around you with a more discerning eye.
The Bible? I can’t predict what it will do for you but it changed my life. The older I get the more I gravitate towards humility. (In fact I’ve come to positively abhor arrogance.) And so for me the thought of God sent to earth as man to ‘present himself humbly unto death’ is simply breathtaking; in all its honor, simplicity, love, and lastly as the ultimate expression of servitude.