Thought for the Week: Books

Ian Kirk-Smith considers words, writing and books

This issue of the Friend is devoted to words, writing and books.

Quakers, since the seventeenth century, have had a very close association with the written word. Books, despite a fidelity to the advice to heed ‘the spirit and not the word’, have always been at the heart of the Quaker faith. Friends are highly literate. An appreciation for books has been partly inspired by a desire to seek new ideas and a deep respect for independence of thought and mind.

Francis Bacon once said: ‘Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.’ Early Friends, of course, did this with one book: the Bible. Today, it is less important on the shelves and in the minds of Friends. Quakers soon became enthusiastic writers and publishers of pamphlets and tracts, as Stuart Masters’ recent series in the Friend reminded us.

It is interesting to note the number of books in this issue that illuminate and educate. Quakers respect independent thought and would echo an observation on books once made by a president of Harvard University in America, Charles William Eliot: ‘Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.’ They aid understanding and openness. As Thomas Aquinas said: ‘Beware the person of one book.’

There are many important and challenging contemporary issues confronted in this special books edition of the magazine. Some relate to contemporary Quaker faith and practice. Zélie Gross talks about the background to With a tender hand, her book on eldership and oversight that was one of the most significant Quaker books of 2015. Craig Barnett reviews a new publication that tackles an familiar concern: the future of the Religious Society of Friends. Interesting new books written by Friends in 2015 on spirituality and prayer are covered in this issue. Trish Carn also reviews three volumes relating to biography and family history.

Other books relate to Quaker action in the world. There are a number of reviews of books that tell inspiring stories of Friends who have put their faith into action in places such as Malta, South Africa and China. These reflect action in the past. Major subjects of our time, such as the growth of nuclear armaments and militarism, and the injustice of the present tax system, have also prompted authors to ‘speak truth to power’ in 2015.

We hope you enjoy the issue and encourage Friends to remember the words of Oscar Wilde: ‘It is what you read when you don’t have to that will determine what you will be when you can’t help it.’ It is good advice for readers of all ages.

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