My father was a clergyman who started his career in Bly, a rough and tumble, logging town in Southern Oregon. I remember as a four-year old sitting in a clearing in the woods and watching a deer at a salt lick, while dad sat on a tree stump reading. By the time I was a teen we had moved to Fullerton, California and dad went back to school part time to get an M.A. in English Literature. Books were piled everywhere.
I don't remember a day when my parents weren't sitting in adjacent chairs reading books and stopping occasionally to share some pithy excerpt. I read eagerly in school and remember how delicious it was to learn a new word like "fiddlesticks." It was a long word, the longest I knew until I encountered Mississippi, and it sounded vaguely illicit, which is the kind of word a pastor's son is sure to treasure.
In my senior year of high school I was to write a paper on Robert Burns and I put off the research and writing to the day before it was due. On that memorable day, when I was supposed to be in the public library, I was across the street at the gym, having been easily seduced into a long basketball game that ended after the library closed.
Bookless, I returned home to inform my dad that I was dropping out of school.
Dad hauled me into his library and pulled a stack of Robert Burns books off the shelves and introduced me to the concept of an all-nighter, which sounded more appealing than unemployment, another concept he explained with some conviction and passion that night.
My first year of college I took a lit class from Elizabeth Hough, who required us to read a novel each week. She also assigned a term paper involving literary interpretation. I chose to research and write about the significance of the birdcage in Frank Norris's McTeague. I didn't put it off to the last minute.
While in college and then again after graduate school, I attended Berkeley Presbyterian church, where a dynamic, intellectually curious young pastor named Earl Palmer preached. Not a week went by without him mentioning some book that went immediately to my "must read list": Dostoevsky, Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, C.S Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, G.K Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien are but a few of the names he introduced to me.
I got into broadcasting almost by accident, my interest piqued when I learned I could receive free review copies of newly published books, and that better yet, I could interview the authors! This was back in the days before hostile political talk radio, back in a kinder, gentler more erudite time when broadcasters were expected to read books and conduct intelligent long-form interviews with authors. It was back in a time when America still nurtured a "middlebrow culture" of individuals interested in thinking through ideas and issues and equally turned off by highbrow academic pretensions and lowbrow bottom-shelf mindlessness. Middlebrow culture is a reading, thinking culture.
All this is on my mind because last year Earl Palmer retired and asked if I would host a live The Kindlings Muse podcast event featuring him. The concept is simple. Earl makes a list of books thoughtful Christians ought to read. We all read one book a month and gather at the Burke Museum Café at the University of Washington for a discussion. Last night we were talking about Mark Twain's spiritual quest. As always, Earl brought a pile of books from home and read selected excerpts. Each book has his name on the inside cover and the date when he bought it. Each is dog-eared and worn, underlined and highlighted and has been read and reread.
I asked Earl how in his busy schedule he has had time to read all these years. He talked about reading on planes, reading before bed, always carrying a book wherever he goes and fervently advised severely limiting television viewing.
After the show his wife Shirley said she could have answered my question more succinctly. "When does Earl read?" she asked, then answered. "Always."