Posted by: Paul Chiariello | October 28, 2011

BOOKS: A Personal Story about Passion & Everything that Matters

When I was young, sometime in early middle school, I remember clearly and distinctly where I was standing when I first reflected on that overwhelming feeling itself.

During the hymn it was both the music of the words and their meaning – a meaning shared through time with everyone around me – that overwhelmingly gripped me at such a young age.

I understood it then as the divine and personal presence of Jesus.  At the time I associated it with Camp Iroquiona, a Christian camp I went to only in the summers and various weekends throughout the years of my childhood and adolescence.  This feeling that coursed through my being and clearly resonated on the same frequency with all my friends around me I saw as unique to the ambiance and activity of the camp. But I desperately wanted to take it home with me, so I could tap into this deepness outside of those brief hill-side summers.

This was when I started reading and taking detailed notes on several of the books of the Bible.  Proverbs was my favorite.  As were most of everything else. I loved the parables and sermons of Jesus.  And for stories, the book of Judges could not compare.

But this resonance that seemed to so physically ring through me was only half of the picture.  My parents tell me that at a young age I couldn’t wait to learn how to read so I wouldn’t have to wait for my allotted bed-time story.  Even now I must admit I get a little giddy looking at big pictures in children’s books about animals or ancient Rome.  This second half was a fascination with the exotic world I lived in.

Of course early on I associated the ecstasies of both of these, though I wouldn’t have used that word, with God.  It was all His after all.  But the romance in the resonance of the ‘spiritual’ and breathtaking expanse of the natural faded as the preoccupations of acne and girls swayed priorities.

But this hiatus was brief and at its end it was books that brought me back to reality.  Reading Stranger in a Strange Land, a book of science fiction, jolted me back to what was real more than anything else.  And the moral of that sci-fi story?  Well, for fellow lovers of Valentine, you will agree nothing matters more than people.

It probably seems strange for a post on the importance of books to now interject that nothing matters more than people.  Which is it?  The fleshy odor of a real live person or a block of ink and wood worked over by the hands of the former?  But that is it.  The question itself juxtaposes what I’m trying to get out of this short paper.

Towards the end of my college career I remember so incredibly vividly that old summer-hymn feeling creeping up and filling my cheeks while reading Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.  This was one of many, many initial experiences that collectively built up into the Humanism that I now know and live and love.  Coming down from the heights of Dylan Thomas and reflecting on the feeling itself, I found no God this time.  It was Godless.  Coming to this point was actually a long time coming, but the realization that this ecstatic filling (for there isn’t really a better word for it) was Godless was an experience unto itself.  Instead of a lofty divine all I saw was humanity.  Just as in the chapel on that grassy hill singing hymns, I realized there was no God in the moment, but merely friends and role models.  Back then I didn’t see it.  But reading that poem it became clear that that something wasn’t God, but another common denominator: a bond with others. In the summer camp it was not that some frequency was resonating within us each, but that each of us were resonating to the same frequency.  And in my childhood picture books on animals and Rome, it was exploring the world I lived in with those that came before me.  It was with those people then and now that I shared and connected and together tapped into something that so greatly surpassed myself.

So, back to the question, which is it?  Is it books or is it people that is this summum bonum?

Well, the truth is that I’m not comparing books and people on the same level, as the same kinds of things.  But instead the former is a kind of symbol or mirror or embodiment of the latter.  ‘Books’, in the extremely broad sense that I have been using the word, are the expressions of people.  More than any other relic there is nothing that is more… more what? Actually, writing this right now I don’t know.  I’m stuck for words, but keep on writing.  More human?  More representative of what we are?  Our hopes and dreams and ideals?  Our past and future?  Our inner demons and our attempts to wrestle with them?  Books are the stories we use to comfort and lie to each other.  The summation of all we know as well as the means by which we debate among ourselves in our attempts to know it.

If what matters is not the destination but the journey, then books are the expression of the joys and sorrows we find along it; they are how we debate which steps to take and they are the records of that journey when we look back.

You probably will sympathize with this next point since you’ve already clicked to read this article, but I have to say that I am simply baffled and frankly upset by the connotations of the phrase ‘book smarts’.

In my own travels I have met with hundreds of people and tried my best to learn from each.  I have lived in half a dozen countries on almost every continent.  I’ve been camping for weeks at a time in deserts and woods and prayed on holy pilgrimages.  But all I have and will ever do is a mere sliver of humanity limited by space and time.  In many ways bungee jumping, sex, that hike you didn’t think you’d finish and both making and letting go of best friends are all vivid experiences not on the menu in any library.  But in the same way you cannot find in a bookless world the poetry of ee cummings for the young mind, the transcendent moments of the last pages of a Hesse novel, any wrestlings over meaning with our religious and philosophical fathers or the sheer mountain top expanses of human history when peering over the edges of the Iliad, the Mahabharata, an ancient Persian Dynasty or any other of the mythical or ‘real’ battles and peaks we have recorded.

It all comes together, I believe, in communication.  What matters, in or out of books, for human reality is communication.  Face to face is best for most things, where it can be found.  But books are how we remember who we are as a civilization and how we discuss across the greatest expanses of time and space what that means and what we want it to mean.  They lock in what can’t always be spoken, except when pronounced in our own voices.  And thereby make a personal moment to be shared with the greatest minds and poets that ever lived.  They are our one on one contact with the stories and mythical groping of the world taken from every corner of the planet.  Stories subsequently mulled over by generations of those great minds and poets.  Books are nothing but our own living time machines of communication.  With them nothing needs to really die, and therefore that which is human is made so much more than the people that are alive.  Books, in the broad definition I have used, are the thing that really expands our world beyond the limits of what we can merely reach out and touch.

When I read a book now – post Dylan, Proverbs and Valentine – there is nothing less in the experience than a personal plug connecting me and communicating with the only dialog that might very well exist in this universe.  And therefore the only dialog where self-reflecting beings can pour into and struggle over the beauty and sense of this world.



  1. “it was not that some frequency was resonating within us each, but that each of us were resonating to the same frequency.”

    I love this; it is a beautiful expression of what spiritual experiences are (regardless of the religious context in which the experience takes place)

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