Take and Eat

I recently attended a Christian conference on the campus of Friends University in Wichita, KS. The primary venue is a beautiful three-story building on the national register of historic places, its iconic clock tower visible from any angle.

For years now I have tended to avoid Christian conferences, not just because of COVID, but because I am less interested, anymore, in what people say than in how they live. Me first and foremost. But James Bryan Smith’s Apprentice Gathering is always focused on how we live, especially in ironic juxtaposition to what we say we believe. Plus the attendees are avid readers, and they always buy lots of books at this event—for publishing professionals, an especially heart-warming sight.

This year’s event is packed out. Most of the browsing and buying take place in two large, library-like rooms down a cathedral-ceilinged hallway from the main auditorium.

On one side of the hall, a sponsoring publisher has set up large round tables piled high with an impressive array of inviting books, conference speakers’ prominently featured in gloriously multiple-copy pyramidal displays.

Directly across the hall is an extension of Eighth Day Books, a storied bookstore located in a neighborly house in Wichita, which has expanded far beyond its brick-and-mortar sanctuary to an online presence as well as recurring vendor at key conferences around the country in religion and the arts.

As I walk into the bookstore, searching for my friend I know will be here, afternoon sun pours through tall arched wood-framed windows, casting a glow on the Eastern Orthodox iconography lining the windows with low piles of books in front of them. The room is beribboned with long, rectangular tables, volumes arranged in such inviting displays of sizes and colors and bindings and related genres they beckon with aphrodisiacal power. You want us, they whisper.

“Warren Farha!” I call out, prowling across the room to pounce on the founder and sustaining animus of Eighth Day. As he turns toward me, I yield joyfully to the gravitational pull in the widening light of his smile. Crossing paths with him across the miles and years is one of the cherished gifts of my itinerant literary-agent life.

Warren’s quiet and welcoming presence opens a space for us to talk. Then, in my favorite friendship ritual, he turns and walks toward a table saying over his shoulder, “I’ve got a book for you.” The ones he recommends are always those that dwell in me long after I dwell in them. He pulls a volume from a neatly book-ended row.

I used to help run a small press, so I had a taste of what it’s like to vendor books at conferences, shipping and unpacking and setting up, then repacking what wasn’t sold and shipping it back and unpacking it again and restocking inventory shelves. It is doggedness on repeat. When I see the wares laid out so carefully on Warren’s tables, hosts already blessed by the presiding officiant, it triggers a memory from Sunday mornings at an Anglican church which met in a small stone cathedral, light streaming through stained-glass windows. Before the service I would stand at the altar and shake out folds of white linen, listening to the choir practicing while I let the cloth settle gently onto the Communion table.

“Warren,” I say, “every time I see you here, I see you setting the table for Eucharist. The body of Christ, given for you. Take and eat.”

He tells me they’ve had their two best years ever, thanks in part to COVID indwellers reading more books, but it’s starting to level off. Some years, he says, have been hand-to-mouth, but they always found a way through. “I’ve been doing this for over thirty years,” he shrugs. “It’s the one thing I’m built for, so I just keep doing it.” His body language is diffident but in his eyes I see the fierce clarity of a hawk.

“You’re doing a long obedience in the same direction,” I say. “Eugene Peterson would be so proud of you.”

I love books, and I love the making of books. Getting them to their readers is hard work, and it is also a great privilege, and thank God we live in a culture where it is still possible to make a living at it. All of us who do this are headed, together, into a communion of writers and readers where minds and hearts and bodies and spirits are by turns broken and lamented, honored and celebrated. May it be a long, long obedience.  

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