The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote that

There is no frigate like a book

To take us lands away,

…How frugal is the chariot

That bears a human soul![1]

I can think of no better description of the power of literature to transport us, carry us and nurture us right to the depths of our souls. When we need to be inspired by new possibilities, opening a book may take us to worlds we’ve never been to and historical or futuristic times we can’t hope to experience ourselves. A book may be ‘frugal’ but it’s a ‘chariot’, a mode of transport for the exalted and the brave-hearted. Or for those who hope to know a moment of exhilaration, excitement and release.

I imagine many of us find the quick satisfaction of scrolling on a smartphone to have an addictive pull when we have a few minutes spare. Or when we can’t quite face the difficult email or the sermon we’ve been putting off or the article we’ve to write for the newsletter. Of course, the phone is designed to give us a brief surge of pleasure when we tap the app or the article. Colour, headlines, and just the sort of thing we’re easily drawn to. (How clever that my phone knows I find pictures of puppies so appealing.) There are lots of strategies designed to help us break the habit and that cycle of short-term satisfaction followed by self-disgust for wasting yet another fifteen minutes on ephemera. My suggestion is that giving ourselves permission to read an actual book to nourish our souls and our sense of self might be a strategy worth trying, especially if we’ve fallen out of the habit. Putting the phone out of sight and turning off notifications, and allowing ourselves time to read a whole chapter, or more, might be the soul food we need. Especially if we are feeling jaded and tired, down or dispirited.

The apostle Paul seems to have been an avid reader, and I like to think that he viewed reading as part of his calling to love God with all his mind. When he’s feeling under attack and deserted, maybe at his lowest ebb, he asks his dear friend Timothy to bring him three things he’s left behind on his travels: a cloak to keep himself warm; parchment to write on; and books to read (2 Timothy 4.13). This tiny insight into the life of Paul has a surprisingly modern ring to it in its combining of the needs of the body, mind and soul. Paul is deeply committed to following Christ, but struggling to understand all that has happened to him. He has things to say, and letters to write, but he also needs the sustenance of the written word.

We might speculate about what books Paul is likely to have owned. With little evidence to go on, I am keen to be open-hearted here and to be equally eclectic for all of us who are willing to board the literary frigate or climb onto the chariot of the book. Perhaps it is the mental flow generated by reading something that absorbs and delights us which has the most powerful effect on our minds. That might come from revisiting a literary classic, or dipping into a book of poetry, or reading a biography of someone who intrigues us, or racing through a soapy historical novel. May we be open to new genres and read for pleasure rather than edification, from a place of curiosity rather than duty, ready to be inspired and to respond with love, for ourselves, for others and for God.

Professor Alison Jack (MA BD PhD)

Principal of New College, Edinburgh


[1] Emily Dickinson: Poems, ed. Mabel Loomis Todd (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1896), 29. Public Domain CC0.