Life + Culture
The Books Boomers Will Never Read
Starting January 1, 2011, 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 every day until December 31, 2029. The boomers were born from 1946 to 1964. I am almost the oldest (January 11, 1946). Only 100,000 of 70,000,000 ahead of me.
Most of the political commentary about the movement of this massive generation through the 20th century has related to its culture-shaping habits, and more recently to its ominous drain on Social Security.
But one of the forerunners (by seven years) touched a nerve not many think about. Ted Kooser, America’s Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, wakened one of many sorrows that the waning years bring — the realization that there are hundreds of books on our dream list, not to mention our shelves, that we will never read.
As in the dented spaceship of my seventies (shaking a little and leaking water), I travel the endless reaches of my ignorance, all of the books I haven’t read, and never will, come rolling at me out of the dark like a hail of asteroids. And now and then an entire library, with a glowing trail of checkout slips, just misses hitting me by inches. (The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book, 2014)
Not all boomers are readers. They will feel their losses coming at their dented, shaky, leaky space ship in different ways. But millions are.
We love to read. We wish we could read so much more. I had lunch recently with a 93-year old man, full of alertness and mental energy. He told me that in his wife’s last years he read 22 novels out loud to her.
For the boomers who read, the thought of so many books never being read brings a sense of great loss. The loss is felt in proportion to our love of reading.
Why do we love to read?
The Longing for More
Is it not a witness to our longing to know more, and to see more, and to feel more? We are always hoping to see and know and feel something that will make a difference in our lives. We want to discover something that we do not even know is there — some dimension of reality that might change us — change our families, our church, our world for the better — even very much better.
Even for Christians who know that all the fullness of deity is in Christ (Colossians 2:9), and that we find our fullness in him (Colossians 2:10), and that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in him (Colossians 2:3) — even we read and read and read, with an expectation and longing that discoveries will be made that add joy and fruitfulness to our lives for his sake.
This is not idolatry — at least it need not be. We believe that Christ made all things, and that all things exist for him, and point to him (Colossians 1:16), and hold together in him (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3). When we read, we are hoping that we stumble upon something in Christ’s handiwork that gives us joy and makes us fruitful for his name.
When we read, we turn to “the deeds of the Lord,” for all things are his servants (Psalm 119:91). When we read, we go to the ant and the bird and the lily. We do not believe that when the Lord commands us to “Go to the ant!” (Proverbs 6:6), he means go away from Christ. We do not believe that when he tells us to consider the ravens (Luke 12:24) and the lilies (Matthew 6:28), he means, stop considering Christ. No.
He means: “Go see what Christ has done, see what he has made, and what he is holding together, and what he is teaching you as you read his world — in real time, or written. Learn from him.”
And, of course, ants are just plain interesting, fascinating, beautiful (in their own ant-like way). And so is prose and poetry. There are lessons to be learned, and there is pleasure to be had in the way writers (and God) tell their stories.
So we love to read.
Like a Hail of Asteroids
And as we move into our sixties and seventies and eighties, it becomes clearer and clearer that we are traveling in the endless reaches of our ignorance, and that all the books we haven’t read, and never will, are rolling at us like a hail of asteroids. For every illuminating and pleasurable sentence we read, there are millions upon millions that we will never read. And we will go to our grave ignorant of ten thousand glorious insights.
Yes. But on the other side of the grave, what then?
It is a mistake to think that the “perfection” of our knowledge in heaven (1 Corinthians 13:10–12) means that it is exhaustive. Even the perfect Jesus “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). We are perfect in the age to come. But we are not God. We are not omniscient. We never will be. That is the difference between the finite creature and the infinite Creator: We will be able to go on increasing forever in our grasp of God and his ways, because he is infinite and we are finite.
Is this not the point of Ephesians 2:7? We are saved, “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” If Christ exhausted the revelation of his immeasurable grace on the first day of eternity, what would be the point of saying they will be revealed “in the coming ages”?
Books in Heaven?
Jonathan Edwards argues repeatedly that “the knowledge of the saints will increase to all eternity” (Miscellany, 105). With every passing moment, for millions of ages, the number of our perceptions and ideas will increase. This will reveal more and more aspects of God’s excellency. And with that, joy will increase. (See John Gerstner’s chapter “Growth in Blessedness” in Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell, 23–29.)
But will the books be there? The old ones? New ones, written by the glorified saints? Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven, has a section called “Will What Is Written on Earth Survive?” He asks, “Will you see once more the letter of encouragement you wrote to your teenage son?” If letters, memoirs, and books are fruits of God’s grace, would they be discarded?
My answer is: If books from this age can be read purely, and can glorify God, and are suitable for the increase of our joy in God, we may expect to find them in the age to come.
The Greatest Discovery
So, as we come full circle, it seems that the sorrows of the Christian baby boomers are not the same as the sorrows of unbelievers. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope — no hope of reading the unread books. For those who trust Christ, life does not end (John 5:24). The reading life does not end.
Ten years ago, the poet Ted Kooser wrote these sad, but hoping words:
Growing older cured the acne of my adolescent atheism, thinned the hair of my middle-aged skepticism, left me a doddering geezer with a firm belief that there is indeed a mysterious order to the universe. If I should live another twenty years, I may one day discover I believe in a god who holds a keen interest in Ted Kooser’s personal welfare, though I’m pretty unlikely. (The Poetry Home Repair Manual, 2005, 140)
He is half way there. And, as with millions of baby boomers following him, I pray that these dented, shaky, leaking years will bring the kind of reading that leads to the greatest discovery of all: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51).