At Home with the Books

On June 2, 2011, I gave this speech to a ballroom full of bookstore owners, managers, and reps from Christian publishers. They asked me to make it available, so here it is.

Ladies and Gentlemen, my sisters and brothers in Christ, thank you for welcoming me to the Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit. If you looked this morning at your conference schedule and said to your companions, “who the heck is this kid speaking at lunch today,” then I can’t blame you. If I weren’t Adam Thomas, I doubt I would have ever heard of me either. But many thanks to the wonderful people at Abingdon Press and the United Methodist Publishing House for their courageous efforts to make me seem much more important than I actually am. In truth, I’m just a young Episcopal priest from outside of Boston who writes a blog that, through the mysterious machinations of the Internet and the Holy Spirit, came to the attention of the right people at the right building in Nashville, Tennessee. I thank God everyday for the opportunity to engage with other thoughtful people through my writing, and today I thank God for all of you.

(As an aside, I realized after writing that introduction, that what I just said very nearly follows the format of the opening of a Pauline epistle. I guess you can take the boy out of seminary, but you can’t take seminary out of the boy.)

Anyway, what follows would be the body of the epistle, so let’s get going. I hope that now that I’ve established my relative obscurity and complete lack of fame, you will indulge me in listening to me talk about my wonderful mother for a few minutes.

In the spring of 1995, my mother began managing a brand new independent bookstore in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. My family had moved to the Deep South from New England about six months before, and we were struggling to acclimatize to a place where a quarter inch of snow was a blizzard, “y’all” was the most prevalent word, and college football ruled even during the eight months of the year between seasons. We moved during the middle of my sixth-grade year (yes, I turned twelve in 1995 – you can do the math). On my first day of school, my lack of training as a cultural anthropologist was fully evident. The bell had barely stopped ringing when Mrs. Green, the social studies teacher, called on me. I answered, “yeah,” as any kid from Rhode Island would. Mrs. Green stared daggers at me. And I had no idea what I had done. Of course, I found out later that I had committed the South’s cardinal sin. My answer should have been, “yes ma’am.”

But since my adolescent brain was still soaking up everything around me and since I was surrounded by southerners all day everyday, I adapted to life in Alabama pretty quickly. Little League baseball had the same rules after all, and during the spring of 1995, that’s really all I cared about. My Boston-born mother, however, had lived in New England her entire life. She wasn’t surrounded by southerners all day and her brain had long since developed past the stage of easy adaptation. So those first few months in exile in a land where grits are plural and every soda is called “coke” were particularly difficult for her.

Then came a blessing from God. The owners of a new bookstore hired her to manage The Book Cellar (that’s cellar C-E-L-L-A-R). The store was across town in a row of shops dominated by a Winn-Dixie grocery store and a Sonic fast food restaurant. When she was hired, The Book Cellar was still a shell with empty bookcases just waiting to be filled. And the day the first boxes of books arrived from Ingram, my mother was at home at last. She was at home no matter the fact that Boston was 1,233 miles away. She was at home no matter the fact that she could practically breaststroke through the humid air outside. She was at home no matter the fact that some of her customers might as well have been speaking ancient Ugaritic for all she could understand them. My mother was at home with the books.

The old and, in my opinion, vastly better order.

She had always been a voracious reader, but when the bookstore job came along, her reading habit skyrocketed. She read several books a week, she kept (and still keeps) a journal of every book she finished, and she spent her entire Christmas bonus on books to fill again the already full shelves at our house. She instilled in my sister and me a love of reading and an appreciation for books. Indeed, because of my mother’s influence, I have never been able to break the spine of a paperback or dog-ear a page. She hired me to wrap presents at the bookstore during the December of my first two years of high school. Then she put me on the floor after that, and I spent my afternoons dusting shelves, fetching bestsellers, and correcting the order of The Chronicles of Narnia for folks who bought the boxed set after the publisher reordered them and put The Magician’s Nephew first. (Even ten years later, this is a topic that really heats me up. Find me after lunch if you want to know why.)

For a family of displaced New Englanders, The Book Cellar became one of the two gravitational centers around which our lives revolved, the other being St. Matthias Episcopal Church, which called my father as rector in late 1994, thus necessitating the culturally shocking move to Alabama in the first place. Over the years, the bookstore developed a small, but fervent, following. The only other game in town was a big box retailer which boasted of having a million books, but good luck ever finding the one you were looking for. My mother and her staff had read most of the books in their store and could tell a customer where on the shelf the new Tom Clancy was without leaving the front desk. The Book Cellar attracted every teacher in Tuscaloosa County, and they all ordered their summer reading selections from us. The store had dozens of ardently faithful customers, who came in just to chat with the staff and invariably went home with an armful of books. We had midnight Harry Potter release parties, and whimsical window displays, and a mystery section (handpicked by my mother) that would have satisfied the desires of Agatha Christie for life.

Then, in February of 2002, the inevitable happened. The burgeoning online retail market was selling books for ridiculous discounts. The big box’s inept service didn’t detract enough customers from shopping there. The returns on the owners’ investment were not high enough to justify staying in business. And The Book Cellar closed.

The years when my mother was managing the store were some of the happiest in her life, despite the dislocation in a place far from the one she had always known as home. The same years saw me grow a foot, learn to drive, share my first kiss, and go to college. And those years from 1995 to 2002 also marked the first huge growth of the Internet: America Online became a household name; cell phone use started filtering down into the hands of ordinary consumers; and the dot.com bubble ballooned and burst. In the years since, the Internet has undergone a second astronomical rise with the advent of ubiquitous broadband, social networking, and smartphone technology.

Looking back from the vantage point of mid-2011, I wonder how my family’s move to Alabama in late 1994 would have been different if we had been moving today. Would we have felt the extreme sense of displacement if we had been able simply to log on to Facebook and stay connected to friends in New England? Would we have felt the same level of culture shock if we could have researched the idiosyncrasies of Southerners using YouTube or brushed up on Southernisms through Urban Dictionary? Would we have felt so disconnected to everything we knew if everything we knew were just a click away?

I can’t imagine that we would have. We would have used the Internet as a life raft to stay afloat in a sea with no recognizable landmark. We would have ridden the raft of technology to the shore of our new home. Yet, even as I imagine how the Internet could have benefited us greatly in our transition from one pole of the country to the other, I can also envision how the Internet could have also deterred us from ever matriculating into our new culture. With New England friends readily reachable via Facebook, why would I have had to make new friends in my new home? With distractions like YouTube and Urban Dictionary at the ready, why would I have had to experience any of my new culture? With everything I ever knew available at the click of a button, why would I have had to learn anything new?

This is the intersection that those of us who are both steeped in Tech culture and also attempting to analyze the effects of that culture keep arriving at: the Internet offers wonderful opportunities for connection, but each of those opportunities comes attached to the ever-present danger of isolation. Every connection made via the Internet happens in an isolated manner. I may be connected to you via the web, but we are both isolated behind computer screens. I may use the GPS to find your house, but every time I visit after that, I will need to use those turn-by-turn instructions. I may read a funny text message from you, but the words don’t reach me through the welcome timbre of your unique voice.

When we use the Internet and other Tech, we cannot separate the opportunity of connection from the danger of isolation. We can only hope to trend toward the opportunity and away from the danger. This trending involves raising our awareness of how we are evolving to adapt to the omnipresence of the Internet in our lives. For followers of Jesus Christ like you and me, this awareness begins with taking stock of our expectations concerning God’s presence within the technology that has reshaped the world over the last twenty years.

Now, I don’t want to spoil my book Digital Disciple for you, considering you are all going to rush over to the Abingdon table after lunch and order it (right?), but here’s a little hint. For several years, I failed to look for God online because, when I logged on, I unconsciously shut off the part of me that seeks God’s presence. I didn’t give God a second thought when I was playing the game World of Warcraft for hours on end, so I kept myself from seeing that the Internet is suffused with potential for contact with the Divine.

Training ourselves to be open to God’s presence in the virtual world entails many of the same challenges as openness in the real world, but the disembodied, remote nature of virtual space adds a new dimension to those challenges. I hope you will dedicate some thought and prayer to your expectations of running into God online. Think about how you connect via the Tech and reflect on how those connections include some form of isolation. How will you trend away from the danger and toward the abundance of opportunities?

Before I finish, I want to get back to my mother’s bookstore and your bookstores for just a few moments. When The Book Cellar closed in 2002, a small community of booklovers became homeless. They would only begrudgingly darken the door of the big box, and the idea of buying online was still too experimental to be considered safe. With no physical location at which to congregate, the community evaporated.

As our Tech-driven society pushes more and more of our dealings with one another online and away from face-to-face interaction, I promise you that your beautiful, little, book-filled corners of the world are becoming more and more vital. Like the churches, in which many of your shops are located, bookstores are one of the vanishing places where we can rehabilitate the senses that we ignore online. While we see and hear via the Internet, the Tech gives the other three senses no purchase. But the books in your stores smell – some fresh, like crisp, new paper; others musty, like the bottom of the chest, in which you store your winter clothes. Books are tangible – whoever got a paper cut using a Kindle? And books are tasty – just ask Ezekiel or John of Patmos. And finally, books bring people together.

On behalf of my mother, the former bookstore manager, I thank you for all you do to deliver books into the hands of people who love them. I pray that your stores remain open, so that they can become little oases, at which citizens of the virtual world can remember their Incarnational selves.

Thank you. And may God bless you in your ministries and bring you the abundance of lives lived fully in God.

7 thoughts on “At Home with the Books

  1. Thank you for this wonderful tribute. It makes me nostalgic for all those books we worked so hard to find good homes for. I would like to add my thanks to all those booksellers who have stuck with it and who continue to share the wisdom of others through the written word in this tactile format.

  2. Thank you for a wonderful and challenging piece. I too hope that bookstores find ways to be physical oases in our increasingly digital world. Sitting with a book, a friend, and a cup of coffee surrounded by the richness of many books is an experience to look forward to and cherish.

  3. Thank you Adam for posting this. I was one of the lucky ones who got to hear you speak at RBTE. I read your book on the airplane flying back to Texas after the show. It is thought provoking and raised some interesting questions for me. I’m anxious to have Digital Disciple on the shelves at Viva Books in San Antonio. And, there are several people who I want to share it with personally. Again, thank you for this book, for your voice, and for your ministry.

  4. Adam,
    Thanks for posting your talk and for connecting your story to today’s online world in such a in a thoughtful way.

    I’m about to start your book for an article rounding up some of recently published books on technology and faith for CT’s Books & Culture. It’s kinda funny to think that if it were 20 years ago, I would likely not have read an author’s blog post before reading his book!

  5. Hey Adam,
    Thanks for the comment you left on my blog. I did let the folks at Accent on Books know and also directed them to your blog and this post. Almost needless to say, they loved your talk. Me, too.

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