‘Reading As If for Life’: My Debt to Frederick Buechner

In Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, David uses the evocative phrase “reading as if for life” to describe his comfort in certain books during a tragic childhood. When I left graduate school after my dissertation proposal was rejected, that is what I did: I read as if for life.

At the time, I was a student at the University of Cambridge, and I had invested a year’s worth of research into the project. The rejection was demoralizing, and it meant I had to leave one of the most beautiful and culturally rich places I had ever lived. I still recall the college courtyards, chapel evensongs, bike rides through ancient city streets and hours poring over the treasures of the Cambridge University Library. All of these things made it a bewitching city.

When I left England, my sense of identity was shaken, and I was not quite sure what to do with myself. I carried with me the same bookish disposition, but without an academic objective, my reading habits changed from study to a kind of restless pursuit of direction. In A Theology of Reading, Alan Jacobs describes a hermeneutics of love whereby one reads in light of Christ’s commands to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39). After my dissertation was declined, I read to get my bearings and to recover a sense of purpose. I read with a hermeneutics of need.

Perhaps there was a subconscious imitation of the people whom I had been researching during that year at Cambridge. My reading with a hermeneutics of need came immediately after studying English Renaissance thinkers who were trained to use what they read and often considered the utility of study. For instance, in a famous work of literary criticism from the era, The Defence of Poesy, Sir Philip Sidney notes that “the ending end of all earthly learning” is “virtuous action.”

KEEPING DESPAIR AT BAY

After a year focused on such writers, I read for direction and for what helped me get through the day. My reading was wide-ranging, so if a work promised insight, it was worthwhile. This manner of reading helped to keep despair at bay. I would not have formulated it like this at the time, but the articulacy of writers of all kinds – essayists, novelists and theologians – clarified things, and I used their stories to regain perspective.

The writer I read the most was Frederick Buechner. I read everything of his that I could get my hands on, including The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, Telling Secrets, The Alphabet of Grace, Wishful Thinking, Telling the Truth, Peculiar Treasures, Whistling in the Dark and The Clown in the Belfry.

Buechner’s manner of expression is at once clear and conversational, often with a lively syntax that unfolds as he qualifies remarks, poses and answers rhetorical questions and reinvigorates clichés. Here’s an example from Telling the Truth:

Who could have foretold that out of the sordid affair between David and Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, Solomon would be born with his high IQ and his passion for ecclesiastical architecture and that out of Solomon would be born a whole line of apostate kings ending finally in a king the likes of whom nobody could possibly have foretold except maybe Second Isaiah, who saw at least that it wasn’t his beaux yeux that would draw men to him or by the power of his heavy artillery that he would king it over them?

The effect of Buechner’s style was to make old things new. Familiar theology and biblical ideas became both more accessible and more powerful.

Along with his prose style, I responded to his method. Guided by unsentimental honesty and sincere faith, Buechner often reflects on his life with spiritual insight. In The Sacred Journey, he puts it like this: “More as a novelist than as a theologian, more concretely than abstractly, I determined to try to describe my own life as evocatively and candidly as I could in the hope that such glimmers of theological truth as I believed I had glimpsed in it would shine through my description more or less on their own.” Buechner’s autobiographical theology provided great comfort.

During my time of unmooring, I applied to the Central Intelligence Agency in a frustrated move away from academia. I began a series of interviews with the clandestine service, and the agency offered an extensive bibliography for applicants – which was just the sort of thing that in my desperate mode of reading I could transition into with ease. The CIA’s reading list described the agency’s purpose, history and methods. Books like Richard Holm’s The American Agent: My Life in the CIA and Frederick Hitz’s The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage provided engaging accounts of intelligence gathering, and I addressed them with fervor.

But reading with a hermeneutics of need led me to withdraw from the interview process based on a growing self-awareness and a renewed hope of returning to graduate school, not to mention the discovery of how harrowing espionage actually is. My study of Renaissance history and culture was formative, too, because it provided the cautionary tale of Christopher Marlowe, playwright, poet and probable intelligence agent, whose clandestine activities likely caused his death. Despite its romantic appeal, I thought, I am no spy.

So failure led to desperate reading, and desperate reading to convictions about what I thought was important. My experience testifies to the value of a certain kind of reading. With a hermeneutics of need, I recovered a sense of vocation.

What I remember, however, as I reflect on this period of “reading as if for life,” is being sustained by Buechner’s work. Often I recalled words from Godric, his novel about Godric of Finchale, a 12th-century English saint. Buechner’s redemptive perspective bolstered me then, and occasionally since, with a message of hope ultimately derived from the gospel: “But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” For Frederick Buechner and the experience of “reading as if for life” I am grateful.

Robert Erle Barham teaches English at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

Image: Godric of Finchale, by Unknown, public domain, Wikimedia Commons.