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Coffee Table Books

October 30, 2006

Coffee table books come in many sizes (usually large) and with varied intent (from that of informing and celebrating to that of almost pornographic titillation of susceptible fanatics, such as dog lovers, mountain lovers, or chocolate lovers).

They are usually lush, full of pictures, and well-made. At the library, we pass many of them by because, in general, they don’t get used much. Almost by definition, they need to be bought and left on coffee tables for many seasons, not borrowed for a few weeks from the library.

Whether all large, beautiful books are to be considered “coffee table books” is a matter of convention we shan’t discuss. The library has many “oversized” books, which is merely a functional definition. They don’t fit nicely on the regular shelves, so they are kept on the “oversized” shelves under the windows upstairs.

A book is made large usually to accommodate pictures. Thus, art books are often large. Cookbooks. How-to books. One of my favorites is the photo essay called “The material world” that looks at the possessions of representative families from around the world. It makes a fascinating comparison.

I might put that one on a list of “coffee table books that could make a difference.” Another that might go on such a list is a new book: “Talking to God: portrait of a world at prayer.” It has wonderful pictures of people from around the world, across many religions, in the act of prayer.

The accompanying text is composed of selections about prayer from the works of writers such as Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and on and on.

But the photos are what engaged me. On the one hand, prayer seems like such a personal pursuit that the taking of photographs seems invasive, while the viewing of photographs of people praying seems voyeuristic. On the other hand, though, most if not all of these photos were taken in public places.

Most of the subjects have their eyes closed, which immediately hints at the province of prayer. The faces vary from rapture to joy to unreadable placidity to intense concentration to possible pain. Here, one might consult the text for various perspectives on the pursuit and goals of prayer.

In the book you’ll glimpse Sikhs, followers of Cao Dai in Vietnam, Buddhists, Catholic nuns, a baseball team, evangelical Christians, Hindus, Catholic worshippers, Muslims — and now we’re up to page 25. Virtually every picture is familiar in some way, but taken as a whole, the collection has a powerful effect.

Prayer seems to be a fundamentally human thing to do. Yet despite the commonality, and despite the reading of emotions in the faces of people at prayer, each face is ultimately opaque. You can’t know the thoughts behind the face.

This has always made me suspicious of claims to piety and of the goals of communal prayer. And wary of self-indulgence. When you look at these pictures, it’s clear that prayer is intensely personal, as are its benefits. Prayer is talking to God, but the writers in this book all favor the view that prayer is not about asking but rather about listening.

As Martin Luther said: “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”

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