I Will Live a Thousand Times Before I Die: Reading as a Way of Life

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

George R.R. Martin wrote in his book A Dance With Dragons:  “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

I constantly read and because I try to imagine what I am reading so that in a way I live it. I have been to places that have never traveled to before and on entering them I know exactly where everything is and what happened there. I remember leading a group from my Army chapel in Wurzburg Germany to Wittenberg, where Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation. As I led the group through the town a couple of people asked me how many times I had been there. I told them, “physically, never until today, but I have been here a thousand times before because of books. I saw Wittenberg in my minds eye before I ever saw the city.” They were surprised and both said that it seemed like I had been there many times.

I have had the same thing happen other places that I have visited, and again, it is because I read, and as I read, I imagine and occasionally dream.

I have a huge number of my books in my office most dealing with the history, especially the American Civil War and Reconstruction, the World Wars, and the insurgencies and counter-insurgency wars of the past seventy or so years. I have a lot of biographies, books on American history, military theory, sociology, philosophy, psychology related to war and PTSD, and a few theological works, though most of my theology books are at home because I don’t have room for them in the office.

Coupled with mementos of my military career, other militaria, artwork, and baseball memorabilia the sight and smell can be both overwhelming and comforting at the same time. I hear that a lot from my visitors, including those who come in for counseling, consolation, or just to know someone cares. They tell my visitors volumes about me without them ever asking a question or me telling them, and occasionally someone will ask to borrow a book, and most of the time I will lend them the book, or if I have multiple copies even give it to them.

In a sense my books are kind of a window to my soul, the topics, and even how I have them organized, and they are not for decoration. Many times while I am reflecting on a topic, a conversation, or something that I read in the news I peruse my books and pull one or more out to help me better understand it, or relate it to history. sometimes when in conversation something will come up and I can pull out a book. One of my Chaplains said that he should “apply for graduate credit” for what he learns in our often off the cuff talks. But, for me that is because I read so much and absorb it.

Likewise my memorabilia is there to remind me of all the people in my past who I have served with. I don’t have all my medals, honors, and diplomas up for everyone to see, instead I have pictures and collages, many signed by people who made a difference in my life. When I see the signatures and often all too kind words on them I am humbled, and in some cases a tear will come to my eye, but I digress…

I always try to read a decent amount everyday. I in the past couple of weeks I have finished reading a number of very good books dealing with different historical dramas. Since my trip to Germany at the end of September I have read, or re-read a number of books. One that I read for the first time was Where Ghosts Walked: Munich’s Road to the Third Reich by David Clay Large. I read it while during the week that we spent in Munich and it was very a very enlightening look at a complex and often contradictory city that has seen a number of cultural and political shifts since the Eighteenth Century, including its place as the spiritual home of the Nazi movement.

I re-read British military historian, Max Hastings book Das Reich: The March of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Through France, June 1944. It focuses on the leadership, and culture of the Waffen SS Division, and on the war crimes committed by its units and personnel it moved from Southern France to Normandy during the week following the Allied invasion of France. The book deals with especially the extermination of the population of the town of Oradour Sur Glane. For those who mythologize the Waffen-SS as an elite military formation, it should be required reading.

Also on my reading list in Germany and after were Anthony Beevor’s The Fall,of Berlin 1945. I read it in order to refresh my memorial on the Battle of Berlin, and the locations that we would visit while in the city. I finally decided to read Robert Massie’s Castle’s of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, which I have had on my bookshelf for years, and re-read Cornelius Ryan’s The Last Battle, also about the Battle for Berlin. I first read that book as a teenager.

One of the most troubling books that I read while in Germany was Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine, by Christian Ingrao. Believe and Destroy is particularly troubling because it shows that racism, anti-Semitism, and the planning and execution of genocide is not just the work of poorly educated thugs.

I read Barbara Tuchman’s The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution; and The Butcher of Poland: Hitler’s Lawyer Hans Frank, by Garry O’Connor. To change things up I read Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House, Rick Wilson’s Everything Trump Touches Dies, and the late Tony Judt’s I’ll Fares the Land.

I love complex characters, people who may be heroes and at the same time scoundrels. I like the contradictions and the feet of clay of people, because I am filled with my own, and truthfully saints are pretty boring. Unfortunately I haven’t read any biographies of late, although most of my reading deals a lot with biography as the characters weave their way through history.

Since we just observed the Centenary of the end of World Aar One, I have started re-reading Edmond Taylor’s The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905-1922 and Richard Watt’s The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany: Versailles and the German Revolution. Both of these are very important reads which should help us to reflect reflect on what is happening in our world today. There are many similarities and reading them causes me to wonder if world leaders will allow hubris, arrogance, greed, and pride to drag the world into another catastrophic war. Sadly President Trump, doesn’t read, and doesn’t learn from history. Unfortunately, his ignorance is very much a reflection of our twenty-first century media culture.

But to me, books are important, far more important than anything that is shouted at me on television. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote in his little but profound book, On Tyranny:

“Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this—but we still can.”

Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.”

But anyway, I am late getting this out. So have a great day and a better tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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3 Comments

Filed under books, books and literature, History, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy, Political Commentary, Teaching and education

3 responses to “I Will Live a Thousand Times Before I Die: Reading as a Way of Life

  1. I love your blog … learn something or gain an insight every time I come here. I, too, am a bibliophile, and tonight I have learned of a title that I was unaware of but will be reading as soon as it arrives in my mailbox: Where Ghosts Walked: Munich’s Road to the Third Reich. Thank you!

  2. Don McCollor

    …Well said, Padre!…I recall the beginning of the movie “A Bridge Too Far”..”few remember it now, but Europe was like this in 1944″…books transport one to past places and times…telling in their own words what people thought then…

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