My Paper Friends

By Mark Atteberry

My wife introduced me to my love affair with books. And now they’ve been my companion in life for decades.

When you walk into my office you’ll notice a unique smell. No, I don’t have an aversion to personal hygiene. Nor do I burn incense, smoke cigars, eat junk food at my desk, or keep my clothes in mothballs. The smell is a mixture of paper, cardboard, glue, and ink. That’s because my office is full of books.

Some are old and a little musty, while others have that distinctive new smell. Whatever they may smell like to other people, they smell like friends to me.

I fell in love with books shortly after I got married. I started noticing that my wife, Marilyn, who is an avid reader, was never bored. No matter where we went, no matter how much time we had to kill or how long we had to wait, she always found enjoyment by simply opening a book.

I distinctly remember sitting in a doctor’s office, bored out of my mind, drumming my fingers on the arm of my chair and counting the cracks in the ceiling, while she was enjoying some exotic adventure in the pages of her novel. I watched her smile and then wrinkle her brow as she sat quietly, lost in the drama that was unfolding in her mind. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but even I was able to see she had something going for her that I was missing.

So, for the first time in my life, I went out and bought a book that I intended to read purely for pleasure. I’d hacked my way through all the textbooks and reading lists my college degree required, but never had I read a book just for fun.

I don’t remember the title, only that it was a spy thriller. But I do remember getting caught up in the story. I remember dragging that book with me everywhere I went. I remember sitting up late, reading till my eyes burned, because I wanted to see what happened. And that was all it took. I’ve been a book lover ever since.

I’ve bought thousands of them over the years in most every genre. Even now, I generally spend my Tuesday lunch hour digging through the books at our local Salvation Army store, looking for that 99-cent treasure. If I’m driving past a garage sale and see a pile of books sitting out, I’ll almost always stop. And when my wife and daughter want to go shopping, they drop me off at Books-A-Million and go do their thing. They know I’ll be entertained for hours.

In my home office I have two shelves of significance. The first is my “Hall of Fame” shelf. On it I keep all the books I judge to be the very best I’ve ever read. On another shelf is the collection of books I intend to read next. There are about 40 books on it as I write these words. My problem is I buy so many books I can’t read them fast enough to whittle that number down. I’m sure there will be at least 40 books on that shelf the day I die.

My Books , My Friends

I’m not kidding when I say I think of my books as friends. Allow me to enumerate the reasons.

• First, they are faithful. In a world where people are betrayed by friends and lovers every day, books are completely devoted to their owners. They never fantasize about being held by other hands or read by other eyes.

• Second, they are dependable. When you call on them, you never get a busy signal. They never tell you to call back some other time. They don’t have headaches and PMS. They just sit there 24/7, ready and willing to give you everything they’ve got.

• Third, they are respectful. They only do what they’re told. If you want them to sit on a shelf and keep quiet, they will. If you want them to help you, they will. If you want them to go on a trip with you, they will. Books never argue with you or refuse to do what you ask.

• Fourth, they are helpful. They know things you don’t, which means they can help you write a paper or a speech or prepare for a job interview. They can also help you build a deck, repair your car, or choose the proper fishing lure. And because they never forget, they can bail you out when you do.

• Fifth, they are playful. They can tell you jokes and funny stories. They can puzzle, tease, tickle, and amaze you.

Help When You Need It

I am not advocating that you fill your life with paper friends to the exclusion of flesh and blood friends. But I do know that sometimes a book can help you when no person in your life can. Sometimes a book contains information that none of your flesh and blood friends possess. Sometimes a book is available when none of your human friends are. And sometimes a book will tell you what all of your other friends are afraid to say.

I have a lot of flesh and blood friends, but I wouldn’t take anything for my precious paper friends. Many of them have stuck with me and sustained me through some pretty tough times.

Let me tell you about one of my best paper friends. Several years ago I was in a thrift store digging through the orphaned books when I came across a small hardback called Moments with the Savior. It is a devotional book on the life of Christ by Ken Gire. I didn’t know anything about him and had never heard of the book, but it was only 50 cents so I figured I didn’t have much to lose. I dropped a couple of quarters on the counter and took it home.

It was a few days before I got around to opening it. When I did, my world was profoundly rocked. The sheer beauty of the writing, the depth of the insights, and the power of the applications reached to the deepest corners of my soul. I found myself devouring the book’s contents, often weeping, amazed at how it opened my heart to the Lord in new ways. To this day, I never preach on the life of Christ without preparing my heart and mind by reading Ken’s thoughts on the corresponding passage.

A couple of years ago a major Christian magazine asked 10 preachers from across the country to pick the one book, other than the Bible, that they’d like to have if they were stranded on a deserted island. I was one of those preachers and I picked Moments with the Savior. Since then several people have written and thanked me for putting them on the trail of that book. They feel the same way I do about it.

Sparking a Passion

Years ago, when I picked up that first spy thriller, I had no idea books were going to change my life. Not only have they entertained and enlightened me, they sparked in me a passion for writing. Thirty years ago I would have laughed at the mere suggestion that I might someday write a book. But as my passion for books grew, so did my interest in writing.

I tried to get published for 18 years without success. Then one day the door swung open. I was 47 years old when my first book was published. That was eight books ago. What’s utterly and completely mind-blowing (and totally a God thing) is when I get an e-mail from someone I’ve never met telling me that one of my books has become a friend to him!

When I was a kid we lived in a rural community. Occasionally, when we drove by a farm with the car windows down, the not-so-fragrant aroma of manure would fill the vehicle. As my brother and I giggled in the backseat and accused each other of being the source of the stink, my father would often say, “Boys, that may stink to you, but it smells like money to that farmer.”

Everything depends on your point of view. My books may smell funny to you, but they smell like friends to me.

Mark Atteberry has served as senior minister with Poinciana Christian Church, Kissimmee, Florida, since 1989. He has written six books, including Free Refill, The Samson Syndrome, and The 10 Dumbest Things Christians Do. His latest book, So Much More Than Sexy! (Standard Publishing) was published last summer.

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