I love libraries and bookstores.
I love the smell of books, the texture of their paper and the elegance with which each book stands in its place. I love the organized chaos of full bookshelves. There is something humbling, and yet exhilarating, about being surrounded by so many books, so much knowledge and art. I step into a library and immediately think about how many words are housed under that one roof. I walk into a bookstore and am struck by the millions of stories just waiting to be discovered. There is so much out there, so much information that even if I were to dedicate the rest of my life to reading I would never be able to read it all, not even a fraction.
It’s exactly the same feeling I get when traveling.
Every new place I go, every person I meet, I am struck by the knowledge that there are countless interesting and vibrant people and places in the world, so many that I will never see or meet them all. Its humbling to recognize just how small I am compared to this great wide world we live in, to admit that the knowledge I will accumulate in this lifetime is a mere spec in an infinite universe of information. Knowing how small my experience is makes the things I learn, and the places I visit that much more precious.
Even more than that I find it both comforting and inspiring to be reminded of something so much larger than myself.
I recently experienced this in a big way on a trip to Portland, Oregon. If you’ve been, you know that no trip to Portland is complete without a visit to Powell’s City of Books. Its an apt name for a (new and used) bookstore that takes up an entire city block and stretches over multiple stories. The sheer magnitude of what this bookstore is overcame me immediately. I didn’t know where to look first, didn’t know where to go. They try to make it as easy as possible to navigate with thorough signage (and maps!). Each level has at least one information desk and a more than adequate number of workers on the floor to help with whatever you may need.
Still, though, it was wildly overwhelming.
After a cup of coffee and a slow browse around the first floor, my group split up to hunt down our favorite sections. The Art Section is on the top floor so up a few flights of stairs I went. Not only do they have a massive section dedicated to art, but they have an entire subsection on Religious art. I quickly found myself sitting on the ground, weighed down by more books than I knew would fit in my luggage. There was so much information I wanted to have, so much I wanted to learn and memorize, so many pages to pour over, but there was no way I’d make it home with everything I wanted to take with me. So, I took pictures of the covers on those I chose to leave behind and still ended up buying more books than I should have. The feeling of awe only increased when we discovered Powell’s rare book section. A separate room built into the top floor, this section’s foot traffic is limited and controlled through passes obtained at the floor’s information desk. It was fascinating and, again, humbling. We found books older than Luther, lithographs signed by Pablo Picasso and Matisse, books from the personal collections of famous writers whose notes could be found scribbled in the margins.
Again, I was reminded of how much there is to see and know in the world, and how little of it I would personally experience.
I also often feel this way when I am working: awed and inspired while humbled by a God so much bigger than I. Through my art I make connections between little snippets of scripture, like taking little sips from a bottomless well. What I will see, learn, and discover throughout my lifetime doesn’t even amount to a fraction of who and what our Lord is. Rather than being discouraged I feel invigorated by the idea; there are endless possibilities and each little piece I am given is such a gift. I think that’s one of the many reasons I love doing what I do: within each piece I paint lies some new little discovery, some new lesson learned. Sometimes I recognize it right away, sometimes it doesn’t hit me until much, much later, but it is always there and I am reminded that we are so small, that our God is so big, and that His love for us is never ending; living water that springs from a bottomless well.
There is no need to be greedy or hasty with such love.
There is enough, more than enough, for each and every soul that has ever or ever will come into existence. Each little sip we get can be savored for the gift that it is, shared in love and abundance.
Perhaps that’s the real reason I love being surrounded by so many books.
By reminding me of how small my knowledge and experience is compared to what’s out there, it also reminds me of who I am: just a little human, miraculously loved and saved by a great, big, infinite God, whose wisdom and mercies I will never fully know or understand while I walk this Earth.