On page six, however, tragedy struck. While turning the page to discover Sam-I-Am’s next gambit for hawking his emerald fare, the edge of the page slid against the tip of her middle finger, slicing it open. Blood bubbled up and spilled out as she cried out in shock, instantly holding up her finger and shouting, “Boo-boo!” My little girl had her first paper cut.
Her mother scooped her up and took her to the bathroom, rinsing out the wound and pressing tissue against it while I scavenged for a small Band-Aid. We were all out of her Dora the Explorer Band-Aids, so I had to use a plain brown one, which wrapped around her finger nearly three times. In case you didn’t know, Band-Aids have magical powers on two-year-olds: as soon as it was applied, she stopped crying. Bedtime continued as usual and she went right to sleep.
This morning, one of the first things she grabbed when she got up was her copy of Green Eggs and Ham. She turned to page six, the infamously sharp page, and pointed to a large streak of dried blood across the Seussian landscape. “Mine,” she said solemnly. She brought the book downstairs with her, came into the bathroom as I got out of the shower, and proceeded to show me the same thing. From now on, there is blood on the pages of her book, and she took reverent care to show it to me.
Books can be dangerous things. The unpleasant experience of a paper cuts notwithstanding, it isn’t often that a book actually physically harms us. But I certainly know that books have served to pierce and incise me with wisdom and challenged. Reading, while one of the most fun, enjoyable, and entertaining activities I know, can also be a risky venture.
I can vividly remember the first time I read ahead in a book assigned for school reading. It was seventh grade, and our English class was reading Orwell’s Animal Farm together as a class. We read it out loud, our teacher calling on students to read a paragraph or two at a time. We read the first two chapters on the first day, and when I got home, I could not stop talking about it. At dinner time, I regaled my family about this strange and frightening story we’d begun to read in class. My father told me he still had his copy from high school, and after dinner he took me to a musty bookshelf hidden away in the guest bedroom of our house. He pulled out his musty paperback copy, the pages still bearing my father’s notes and scribblings. I sat down in the floor in front of that bookshelf and finished the book that night. I took that copy with me to school and showed it to my teacher and announced that I’d already finished it. I can still see the calm, conspiratorial smile on her face.
As interesting as Animal Farm is simply as a story about farm animals, this was the first book I remember reading where I understood the allegorical implications. I was aware that this book really wasn’t about farm animals, but about humans and the corruption of ideals by power and greed. I didn’t know about communism or the revolution against czarist Russia, but I knew that there was something dangerous about that story and that I’d best pay attention. The words, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” chilled me and stung me and opened my eyes to a darkness I had never seen before. This was some serious shit for a seventh grader.
Later books had the same impact on me: Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, and To Kill a Mockingbird were books I read during high school that challenged me and cut into the comfortable and easy ideas I had about the world around me, and I became hungry for literature that would subvert and confront. The summer after my freshman year of college, I read John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance back to back and had my conceptions about spirituality radically challenged. I read Camus’ The Plague and began to wonder about suffering and the existence of God. In seminary I read Sallie McFague’s Models of God and Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is and found myself face to face with the ugly realities of patriarchy in the church. I read Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God which brought my soul to its knees just like the brokenhearted priest, Father Paneloux, in The Plague.
And then I read Christology At the Crossroads and Jesus the Liberator by Jon Sobrino. Sobrino was a Jesuit priest who lived and served in El Salvador in the late 1980’s, teaching at the University of Central America in San Salvador. In 1989, responding to the public criticism that Sobrino and other Jesuits had leveled against the Salvadoran government’s tyrannical oppression and civil war, the Salvadoran army sent a death squad into the rectory where Sobrino lived and murdered eight people: six Jesuit priests, the housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s fifteen-year-old child. Sobrino, however, was out of the country for a conference. He returned to his home to find the bodies of friends and colleagues, and he wrote about picking up his own copy of Moltmann’s The Crucified God, which had been knocked off a shelf and was soaked in blood.
It’s an image that never left Sobrino, nor has it left me. The challenge for liberation of the poor and oppressed that Sobrino preached came not simply from Moltmann’s theology, but from the primary source itself – the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When I read the Bible, I am reminded of the blood that soaks its pages. The blood on the altars of the Israelites, the blood of Christ on the cross, the blood of Sobrino’s colleagues, the blood that bleeds from my own heart when I read verses like Micah 6:8 or Matthew 25:40 or 1 Corinthians 12:26. The words and stories of the Bible have the power to transform and threaten, to cut you open so that the richness of this life bleeds forth in rich and vivid color. Books are living, breathing, bleeding things that make our lives, breaths, and blood all the more vibrant and essential. Books are powerful gateways into truth and experience that can effect change, growth, and liberation. And this can be very dangerous. Just ask Malala Yousafzai, who the Taliban shot in the head because she believes girls should be educated. Is that a threat to the Taliban? You bet it is.
You may be thinking, “Wow, that’s awfully dramatic. All of this from your daughter getting a paper cut from Dr. Seuss? I mean, c’mon, Dr. Seuss isn’t exactly dangerously subversive material.” Well, if you’re thinking that, then you’ve never read Dr. Seuss. (This meme from BuzzFeed is hilariously accurate.) Children’s books can be just as subversive as adult literature. More so, even. Where The Wild Things Are may not exactly be War and Peace… but it’s close. (And much, much, much shorter.)
I love that my little girl is a reader. But what I love even more is that when a book drew blood from her, her response was to return to it and proudly display the bloodstains. I hope she continues to allow books to open her up, to wound and provoke her. That’s ultimately what reading is: celebrating and learning from the blood on the pages.