Lenses and Ladders

Thoughts from tidying the bookshelves.

I spent one day last week tidying our bookshelves because they needed it. They were a jumbly, unstable mess of books and papers, everything balanced horizontally and pushed in the wrong spaces. The poetry shelf threatened to collapse. The travel books had found their far-flung ways everywhere, appropriately enough, and the novels were on the march. 

While resettling the books, it struck me how many of them are second-hand. Some bought, some gifts, some hand-me-downs. There’s something convivial about that. These books have found a second home with us. What has fed others – or delighted or amused or infuriated – has ended up with us for another chance.

My grandfather read this copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a student of history, and I now read it as a writer looking for good stories and beautiful turns of phrase. My mother found her Jane Grigson cookbook practical, and I read it now in bed with delight: “This favourite pudding of Newton’s is a recipe for the fortunate with a supply of good quinces.” 

I think that if I told her, we’d chuckle together and then make plans for dinner.

The one book I’d really like to discuss, though, is Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain which I took from my dad’s bookshelf in September after his funeral.

He bought it for his church book club and, though he knew I’d read and liked Merton during my undergraduate degree in religious studies, we somehow never got around to comparing notes. Reading his copy now, I’m struck by lines that might have caught his eye. A description of a moment looking at a French church. A feeling in a crowded place. I see my dad and his reactions in these moments, and I miss him. On one page, Merton describes working as a barker for a French side-show at the Chicago World Fair, and it occurred to me that my grandfather might have walked past him. There’s a family story that my grandfather was in Chicago at the time, but I’d need to ask Dad about that to check the details. Some things aren’t written in the margins.


Then I came to a dog-eared page. The corner was deliberately folded, but the page fell in the middle of a chapter and there were no marks or underlinings at all. So why this page? What was significant here?

The first time I read it through, I really just let my eyes skim the paragraphs, the questions of what and why too loud in my mind to let me pay attention. 

The second time through, I found it. 

. . . this is the meaning of all created things: we had been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves up to God, and in proclaiming the glory of God.

Yes. That was it. My dad would have liked that. A solid assurance we are here for each other’s good. That our lives are lenses and ladders that help others know God. Merton explores how our reason and our love fit together to reveal this truth about our being, insisting that all we are in this life and beyond it, too, is for the good of each other and to the living glory of God. Isn’t that thought beautiful and necessary and good? It is a glimpse of resurrection in the pages of a book.

My dad, like his father before him, gave books as presents. He wanted to encourage and inspire deep thinking in others. He valued depth and gift-giving, too, and liked to ask people what they were reading. One of the struggles in his last years was that his eyes couldn’t follow words on the page anymore, so my mother made him neon pink cardboard rulers to shift down the page, line-by-line as he read. When he couldn’t manage that anymore, she sat with him and read aloud. Another glimpse and another gift for these blessed, crowded shelves of our days. 


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