Why We Read What We Read

Looking behind our choices

Written By John Tintera

I have been asking myself for the last week how a book that seeks to debunk one of the most widely held truths of the last 60 years can fit into a blog about spiritual reading. The book I’m talking about is called Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker. I picked up the book about two months ago after reading a review of it online. In the book, Baker strings together a series of anecdotes from the three years immediately prior to the outbreak of the war, drawing heavily from the New York Times and the diaries of several prominent leaders of the day. His goal is to raise questions about the motives of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in fighting the axis powers.

I have to admit that I have been fascinated with pacifism since I was in high school in the mid-80s where I took an elective class on the Vietnam War. In the class, debates about the rightness or wrongness of dodging the draft seemed just as relevant as they were 20 years earlier. I am also intrigued by Dorothy Day’s stand against WWII. From what I have learned about the war, there seems no doubt in anyone’s mind (except for perhaps Dorothy Day’s) that the Nazis had to be stopped, not to mention the issue of the Japanese striking first against the US. Suffice it to say that Baker calls both of those notions into question and gives ammunition (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the pacifists’ always difficult defense.

But that’s not what I want to write about. I want to write about the strange fact that I should have read this book at all. I would guess that my ratio of buying books to actually reading them is 5-1. That is to say that being a book lover (for me) is five parts aspiration, one part perspiration. The ratio may vary from person to person, but I’m certain that it applies universally to anyone who loves reading. Before I picked up Human Smoke from my dusty bookshelf I was halfway through a re-read of Robert Barron’s theological masterpiece And Now I See… Then, suddenly, the line to God went dead. The spiritual masters call it “dryness” and “the desert.” In my case, I abruptly lost all interest in spiritual reading. The book I had to read was Human Smoke.

Does that happen to you? Where does the prompting to read what we read come from? I would like to hope that it is God’s gentle hand that leads us to abandon one book and pick up another—even if it requires putting down for a time an excellent theological treatise. In the case of Human Smoke, I wonder if God was not prompting me to reflect more deeply on my professional life. I work for a publisher of military history books. Much of what we publish are reference guides to the battles, uniforms, equipment, and weapons of the wars throughout history, but there is little about human context or information about the destructive nature of war in these books. Reading Human Smoke provided an excellent antidote to such a slanted perspective, and it touched that idealist core that gave me strength and inspiration in my youth. It didn’t change the reality of war or its presence in human history, but it did remind me that God is in the midst of everything we do.

Copyright © 2008 John Tintera.