Between the Lines

The best kind of books are the ones you enter, roaming along the edges before diving headlong into the middle, lost in the pages that have become real. The types of stories where you are right there and have grown incapable of hearing the ringing doorbell or whistling tea kettle; the tales where you travel alongside the characters: dashing through an airport, or sitting scrunched up at the school desk in the back of ninth-grade homeroom, or chopping onions at a kitchen island flush with natural lighting, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, shivering alongside the protagonist as they warm their hands fireside, bandage their blistered heel, or dodge a hungry wolf.

My utter favorites are the ordinary, the mundane slice-of-life variety discovered in novels or memoirs that provoke tears to fall and laughter to bubble up and the deepest of sighs because the author just granted words to your pain, confusion, and pleasures. There is a knowing in these kind of books, where the pages cannot be flipped quickly enough; a type of read where you dread the final page because that means the end will arrive and the story will be over. You are left lingering, turning the saga over in your mind, thirsting for more.

I have kept what I refer to as my Life Book for fifteen years. It is a notebook, categorized by calendar year, (I am fond of old-fashioned paper and pen) with a list of books that I have read. The excellent ones receive a star, of which there are precious few, and the finest, the most gripping, the life-changing cannot put down type receive three stars.

If you are a Christ-follower and a reader, it becomes essential to work out your own reading plan. As a voracious book-lover, I have learned, through trial and error, to happily trust the Holy Spirit to guide my reading. I understand that what I read will shape both my thinking and my writing. It is impossible for it not to, because of the sheer amount of words that I absorb.

My favorite English professor from my college days spoke to this very thing with a bold: Think people. Chew up the meat and spit out the bones. Use the brains that God gave you, and be discerning. Read broadly and understand that all truth belongs to God. I have taken this to heart ever since she spoke these words decades ago.

I probably tend to read a bit less broadly than others, only because I know my own weakness when it comes to beautiful writing; I recognize my proclivity to be swept away with the lovely, even if it is untrue. I don’t mean only a stellar storyline; but the beauty with which words are spun. There is a balance I have learned to mentally weigh, but in a nutshell, I have learned to question: Is this beautiful and is this true? I have not always been right.

The Bible is the only perfect book ever written, and if I split hairs over every single thing I disagree with in regards to other books, I would read nothing at all, thus missing untold treasures and truths and delights. This would be a shame, as my imagination and understanding and compassion would also fade. Books are passports, flinging wide the gates to varying perspectives and time periods and heartaches and triumphs. Good books, beautifully written and true, broaden us in the best of ways.

***

For as long as I can remember, I have loved animals. Especially big dogs, with an acute fondness for Golden Retrievers. This stems back to my childhood, where for my first twelve years, we were not allowed to own a dog. I grew up in a pretty New England farmhouse, divided into apartments, where our landlord did not permit large pets. We had fish and gerbils and outdoor rabbits, all of whom I loved. But at the end of the day, these sweet creatures could not satisfy my deep ache for a dog.

Half a mile up the street, our neighbors owned a horse, whom I spoiled with apples and carrots in a semi-regular fashion. I stroked his nose and told him my deepest thoughts. He listened while innocently chewing grass, and I daydreamed about having my own farm some day. But that wish remained a dim flicker compared to my burning for a dog. Some days, while petting the horse, I was lucky enough to see Happy.

Happy was the farm owner’s Golden Retriever, who lived every square inch up to his name, wagging and jumping and licking my face. I stroked his benevolent head, scratching behind his ears as my mother visited with our neighbor. When he flopped down and panted, extending his paw to rest on my arm, I was a goner. Completely smitten.

Many years later, when our youngest child was two, I carefully snipped a slim blurb in our newspaper, advertising: Puppies for Sale. Golden Retrievers with papers, for a mere $250. I waved the clipping under my husband’s nose, looking directly at him with my large and hopeful eyes. He raised an eyebrow knowingly, and said We’ll see. And then, a few weeks later, we buckled up four excited children, and drove three hours into the middle of absolutely nowhere to choose our puppy.

The dam was sweet and subdued, licking her many puppies. She was gorgeous, with a shiny, glistening coat of deep red. We chose our dog and christened him Noah. As we were preparing to leave, my husband asked to see the sire. The couple hemmed and hawed, then motioned, albeit sheepishly, to a distant pen, mumbling: He’s a tad hyper today. Jon gave me a look, and I followed, with slowly fluttering heart to the pen. Noah’s father was splendid: large and perfectly proportioned, a lighter coat than his dam, stately and impressive. As it goes, Noah ended up being his carbon copy, in more ways than we bargained for.

Noah’s sire was wild. As soon as he spied us, he began barking and leaping, his four paws quite literally air born. He beheld a crazed look, and his barking never once ceased. Jon stepped behind me and whispered: Now I know why these puppies are only $250. Are you sure you still want him? I felt a shadow, a foreboding, but nodded determinedly, already swooning at this this darling bundle of fur in my arms. I was quite beyond reason.

Noah proved to be a lot. He was an anxious dog, but for whatever reason, set his affections upon me. I have never seen such unbridled favoritism. He followed me everywhere, and as time went on, would bark five minutes before I returned from any outing or errand. Our family grew used to it, but it was odd that he instinctively knew when I was nearing home. Each night, he circled then thumped on his dog cushion next to my side of our bed, and whenever I so much as sneezed, would place a paw firmly on my arm, watching me with mournful, worried eyes.

I registered him for puppy classes at the local pet store, and although he quickly mastered the commands: Sit, Stay, Down, Heel, he remained nervous, mouthing my hands gently as a type of pacifier during class. We started referring to him as Needy Noah.

One Christmas season, while Noah was still young and in training, Jon and I sat down to watch a movie. I clipped Noah’s leash to his collar, teaching him to obey the Stay command while at my feet. On this particular night, he repeatedly attempted to lurch towards the dining room. I kept tugging him back, urging Stay, which he obeyed for a moment, before lurching again. This was unusual, because although a bit wild, he typically longed to obey me.

Crazy dog, Jon said.

I think he is trying to tell us something, I responded. Jon wasn’t buying what I was selling.

As he lurched again, I intentionally let go of the leash and watched as he flew into the dining room, suddenly barking. I followed, and to my horror saw that a candle had fallen from the window and was burning a hole in our carpet. He had sniffed out danger and alerted us. I was so proud of him and praised him wildly. This story eventually became Noah’s Magnum Opus, one I would dredge up every time he misbehaved, (which was often), as I watched my longsuffering husband shake his head and sigh.

Noah lived for nine-and-a-half years, and the older he grew, the more bad-tempered he became with everyone except me. When cancer ultimately had its way, I cradled him as he breathed his last, his eyes locked with mine until the very end. I kissed him goodbye at that sweet spot between his eyes that had always smelled so clean, like fabric softener. I cried for days.

***

Noah certainly wasn’t for everyone, and his hyper-active jumping and anxious barking understandably annoyed many. But his immeasurable, and singular devotion to me was irresistible, and I loved him, craziness and all. We have owned a string of Golden Retrievers since, and their dispositions have been sweet and happy. Jon loves one now, and would do anything for her. I smile knowingly at his devotion, while remembering Noah.

Good books are like dogs. Different personalities and preferences and styles will lend themselves to favorites. What bursts open your heart in a certain book, might not spark others. I recommend chewing up the meat and spitting out the bones as you travel the reading road.

My Three-Star Favorites:

At Home in Mitford – by Jan Karon (I recommend the entire series which I have read through countless times.)

Educated – Tara Westover (A stunning and heart-wrenching memoir with splendid writing.)

The Pleasures of God – John Piper (This book has played a tremendous role in shaping my walk with Christ.)

Some One-Star Favorites:

Little Britches – by Ralph Moody

Stepping Heavenward – Elizabeth Prentiss

The Hiding Place – Corrie TenBoom

Safely Home – Randy Alcorn

Papa’s Wife – by Thyra Ferre Bjorn

God’s Smuggler – by Brother Andrew van der Bijl, Elizabeth and John Sherrill

An Invisible Thread – by Alex Tresniowski and Laura Schroff

True Companion: Thoughts on Being a Pastor’s Wife – by Nancy Wilson

Lad: A Dog – by Albert Payson Terhune

Shiloh – by Phyllis Naylor

Bruchko – by Bruce Olson

Wish You Well – by David Baldacci

Keep a Quiet Heart -Elisabeth Elliot (every book by Elisabeth Elliot is a worthy read)

Eight Twenty-Eight: When Love Didn’t Give Up – by Ian and Larissa Murphy

Mama’s Bank Account – by Kathryn Forbes

Crow Lake – by Mary Lawson

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss – by Jerry Sittser

The Sun is Still Shining on the Other Side – Margaret Jensen

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot – Vaughn

9 thoughts on “Between the Lines

  1. Kristin…this was brilliant. Loved it. My wife Kathy and I read it all this morning very early and both were touched by your writing. We ate both the meat AND the bones. It was both edifying and inspiring. Thank you for your gift with touching our lives with your words. Randy and Kathy Marshall, Dallas, Texas.

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  2. I am learning so much from reading your excellent writing, Kristin. So much! And, not only do I share your appreciation for the Mitford and Little Britches books, I also rate Bruchko and The Hiding Place highly. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, a well-written story always touches my heart and teaches me something new about God’s dealings with us needy (like Noah) humans. Great post!

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  3. I love this list! While reading your description of what you deem a good (great) book I was thinking to myself “oh! I’ll tell her about Mary Lawson.” And you have her on the list! I also love anything Mitford and when insomnia creeps in I will read it before bed.

    (I started reading your lovely blog a few months ago after a Tim Challies link)

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