Slice From An Autobiography That Will Never Be Written or The Year of Reading Dangerously
I still have this book, and I sometimes show it to my students, whom I always encourage to expand their vocabularies in order to expand their understanding of reality. The book sports 132 pages of entries, starting with "autonomy" and ending (in 1994) with "demotic." Yes, I continue to learn new words (I picked up "gimcrack" from Shelby Steele's stellar, White Guilt), but now write the definitions in the books where I find them. I still often use the dictionary my mother gave me when I went off to college in 1975: The American Heritage. We are old friends.
I have known the general whereabouts of the vocabulary book since 1976, but I only recently found something else within its musty and chaffed covers--a list of books I read in 1981. This was entered near the very back of the book, which I had not entirely filled with new vocabulary conquests. During 1981, I worked in a campus ministry in Eugene, Oregon, called The McKenzie Study Center. I was twenty-four years old, with a Bachelor's degree in philosophy from The University of Oregon (the mail order school). My duties included teaching a class each quarter at the University as part of a special program that let community people teach classes for credit. I also did some evangelism and discipleship. But mostly I read as much as I could on a plethora of topics, all related to my class, "The Twilight of Western Thought: A Christian Response" (Sociology 400). I made about $400 a month, which was spent on rent, food, and books, books, and more books.
What an idyllic life it was. I was single, had very few responsibilities, very few needs, and a wealth of time for study and reflection. My black book records that I read 116 books that year. I cannot make out a few of the titles, but the topics included comparative religion (R.C. Zaehner), the New Age movement (I was researching my first book, Unmasking the New Age), philosophy (mostly Existentialism, Camus, Sartre and William Barrett), theology (Carl Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority), apologetics (Van Til, Schaeffer), ethics, economics, education, art, church history, sociology, and more.
Such a life of classical leisure is far beyond me today, although I have far more time to read than most humans; moreover, few people have probably ever experienced this amount of time for protracted reading. I know, however, that Joseph Campbell (the Jungian purveyor of mythical distortions of Christianity and much else) spent some similar years as a young man. What different trajectories we took. Looking back, I realize that this year of reading dangerously (and the whole period from 1979-84) was formative and foundational for me intellectually. I was an autodidact with a vengeance, untutored by any mentor, unanchored to any controlling ideology (beyond the Christian worldview), and consumed by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge (which I still possess). I had not yet begun to write very much--except in 1983-4 when I wrote Unmasking the New Age--so most of my time was buried in books.
I remember that at some time between 1979-81, the Director of the ministry came into my bedroom/study, where I was hunched over my desk, and said, "You need to get out there and spend time with people!" Well, I did some of that, but books took up most of the time. And I'm thankful that they did. Thanks, Wes, for letting me continue to read.