Why We Need to Read Local Books

My face turned multiple shades of red as I sunk deep into both the couch and the book. Pinkish red because of the language I don’t typically read in “my kind of books.” Hot red because I was outraged over the events and historical figures that broke a people and a city apart. Blood red because I was becoming more compassionate for the people and the place in this book. Season of the Witch, written by New York Times bestselling author, David Talbot, wrote an astonishing capture of the city of San Francisco in the 60’s and 70’s.

I pick up and read local books to understand and learn better the roots and viewpoints of where I call home. Since I’ve lived in San Francisco for the past 5 years and seek to love my neighbors well, this was an eye-opening read, both historically and emotionally.

I now get why so many 60 and 70 year old folks back east warned us of this city. They were attuned to the media of that day that showed the Jim Jones saga and the SLA kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the AIDS epidemic, the Niners beating the Cowboys in 1982, Charles Manson, and the many who fled the south and midwest for a life amidst the “family of San Francisco” in the Haight-Ashbury.

Reading this book while living in the midst of the beauty and the brokenness, I can picture the neighborhoods and the buildings and gain a respect for the political leaders and the no-names that shaped this very city where I attend church and raise a family and attempt to make a difference.

I’m guessing for all of us, we’ve got the top selling Christian living and Christian celebrity books on our devices and shelves, but little in the genre of learning our local culture. Apostle Paul, in his letters to the New Testament churches, he wrote keenly aware of the sights, sounds, divisions, sins, and norms of that day. He could influence such a culture because he saw them, spent time with them, and ministered among them. That’s why we must read local books.

By reading a local book, you gain insight that's probably not a view like yours.

By reading a local book, you gain insight that’s probably not a view like yours. 

While we hesitate to surround ourselves with different points of view, it benefits us to read about our culture from another vantage point. Mary Keel, a fellow staff wife at our church plant and learner of our culture, says this about reading local books: “When I first moved across the country, I noticed on Netflix there was a channel called “Popular in Your Area”, and I found I was watching it all the time. There were lots of documentaries and movies that I never would have picked out, but I watched them because I knew it would give me a glimpse into the soul of my new culture and my new people. Not only did I get the insight I was looking for, but even found my thinking challenged and at times changed. Since then, I have found that reading books by local authors takes this even further. I get to hear locals express what they fear and what they applaud, what they look down on and what they value. I hear the past deep wounds of the city and find myself experiencing “ahah” moments of why the city is quick to reject certain things and celebrate others. Reading an author’s description of the place that has stolen their heart makes the place even more beautiful to mine. I find myself getting sucked deeper into the romance of the place. If you want to know and love a place, read the words of those who have known and loved a place for a lifetime . . . or at least just longer than you have.”

By reading a local book, you become a learner of the place you call home. 

I understand now why San Francisco, despite some horrific events, stands with compassion for the AIDS victim and the homeless and the runaway teen. Locals often chose to identify with one another as stories were shared. Nowadays it’s the places we’ve lived before or the jobs we’re seeking that link our stories. But it was through the hard times that San Francisco unified with one voice that we would take care of each other. “No matter how sick or helpless or untouchable people are.”

On a lighter note, you can learn you match the similarities. You can learn you have the differences. “Harvey Milk liked to ride the MUNI to city hall so that he could overhear San Francisco talking.”{Season of the Witch, Talbot, page 317} That’s what I love to do! And in this city, conversations range from the next start-up to which sports team played the night before.

I read the book and pass it along to my local friends because that’s how we know and love where we live. I’m a big proponent that if you dare to live missionally in place X, then you need to study the culture and dig deep into the roots of the place you call home. So I reached for the book written by an author who lives where I live and who did the research for me.

By reading a local book, you pray and care differently.

Addresses and neighborhoods are mentioned in Talbot’s historical account that as I pass through parts of the city, my heart sighs, grieves, wells with pride and breaks as various points. I read how churches didn’t portray the Gospel and how loud voices lured moldable teenagers into their rings of drugs and sex.

“It (San Francisco) was a haven for dreamers and outcasts and wandering souls. Both men gave their lives for this oasis of freedom; the city where no stranger was kept outside its golden gate.” {page 333}

I can see the signs of the brokenness still left in this place and the healing that continues. I can rejoice in the beauty that has come from redemption and pray more earnestly for the people to experience the love and grace of Christ.

After the death of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, Clever Jones said, “I think every city has a soul, every city is unique and special. But for San Franciscans, I don’t think there could ever be another place to call home. And a lot of it has to do with what I saw that night; with this ability to suffer horrible and dreadful events, earthquakes, civil turmoil, assassinations, and to not only endure but to create something beautiful from it.” {page 334} And what happened in the city center after such a tragedy? Someone began to sing aloud on the city hall steps, “amazing grace, how sweet the sound….”

Can’t find a local book about your city, town, or community?

Treat someone in your church or community to coffee that’s lived there 20, 30, 40 years. Learn from an eye witness. Then write down your own findings. You will gain insight, become a learner, and pray and care differently.

How are you actively learning to get to know your community?

Published April 30, 2015