There are many books that purport to offer you a better life. Some such books offer fairly mundane enrichment: weight loss, professional advancement, organized closets. Others are bolder, offering salvation, redemption, enlightenment, meaning, purpose, or truth.
Of the latter variety, there are those that you find through your own efforts, those that seem to draw you towards them, and those that have been confronting you with their purported importance for as long as you can remember.
The authors of these books are often treated like gurus or shrouded in mystery. Followers saturate themselves with the relevant words, symbols, ideas, and rituals in order to establish themselves as the book’s authentic audience.
When I went to college there seemed to be a correlation between reading postmodern theory and tight black pants that only make it to the ankles, similarly fitting sweaters, and Buddy Holly glasses. Jewish people who become observant of the Torah’s commandments in an Orthodox fashion begin to punctuate their sentences with “baruch hashem” (blessed is God). Fans of the Grateful Dead – who arguably performed a kind of musical scripture for their followers – used to wear tie-dye shirts, smell like patchouli oil, and have nearly-dreaded hair.
The subcultures that surround such texts – with their insider jargon, hierarchies, and carefully guarded membership – justifiably provoke cynicism in outsiders. They also compel outsiders who become interested in their hallowed text to feel like inauthentic readers, mere prospective proselytes, or dilettantes – they make you feel like it’s not really your book.
If you are not already a certified insider in one of these subcultures, and you are cynical about membership in any subculture at all, is there no enduringly edifying book for you?
Is this also true if I replace the word “book” with the word “tradition,” “philosophy,” or “religion”?
My own life has largely revolved around the promising books and traditions that I have found through intellectual exploration, that seemed to draw me towards them, and that have been confronting me with their purported importance for as long as I can remember. [See my previous post: The Importance Of Repudiated Books]. But I am often repelled by the subcultures that surround them. And this sometimes estranges me from books and traditions whose promise of edification I am otherwise predisposed to believe.
Maybe you have had similar experiences. If so, when the estrangement threatens to overwhelm all opportunities for edification with cynicism, it may be worthwhile for us to recall the following story.
The Secret Name of the King’s Beloved
Once there was a king who promised the most wondrous treasure to the person who could find the secret name of his beloved.
This king had a grand library and at the center of it he displayed “the king’s book.”
Most of the treasure hunters in the kingdom assumed that the king’s book was the book that contained the name of his beloved. They were forever crowded around it, each pushing and shoving to get closer, scouring every page.
But no one ever seemed to find it.
Some did claim to have found it. After amassing great wealth and power through other means, they claimed that their good fortune was in fact the reward of the king.
The king’s minister knew differently. He monitored the king closely. Not like the king’s worshipful subjects, the minister knew the king more intimately. He knew that the king was “only human” and he found his position in the royal service at times aggravating.
Since he was in constant candid conversation with the king, the minister knew that the king’s reward had not yet been granted.
One day it occurred to the minister that the name of the king’s beloved might not be in the king’s book.
Now, among the duties of the minister was to map the kingdom. And this task naturally required occasional travel to the farthest and most obscure regions.
He decided that he would use his next trip to find the treasure.
The minister set out for a long trip. Since he had filled in some of the map already he knew where to find the best libraries and private book collections.
He visited all of them. And he found knew places, speaking at length to the varieties of people touched by the power of the king. All the while he dutifully and fastidiously drew his map.
After a long journey, having peeked into countless rare book rooms and archives, he returned to the king’s court exhausted and demoralized. He confessed himself to the king, explaining that he had used his travels not only to map the kingdom but also to find the name of the king’s beloved. Hoping to offer at least a small amount of compensation for the abuse of his office, he did note that he had accomplished quite a bit of mapping in the process. He signed the enormous rolled paper document and handed it to the king with his head down.
“But you have found the name!” the king exclaimed in his hearty way. “You have signed it here on your map of my kingdom. You are my beloved, who knows me intimately and steadfastly surveys my dominion. You are the one who has earned my wondrous treasure, by your own name.”
Thereafter, the minister traveled far and wide on many adventurous mapping expeditions, always with the loving bounty bestowed by the king. From then on, he treasured his lot.
There is something of the greedy treasure hunter in the acolyte, the insider to the subculture of a text. The devoted reader who is less deferential (even an outsider), who does not take its claims at face value but instead critically surveys the kingdom of its meaning and influence, ministers to the author in a different way. It is this reader, perhaps, who enjoys the truly edifying bounty of the text.