Reading Well

I’m working my way through Karen Swallow Prior’s new book On Reading Well, and so far I have very few quibbles. I’m especially grateful for this paragraph in the introduction:

To read well is not to scour books for lessons on what to think. Rather, to read well is to be formed in how to think. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis argues that to approach a literary work “with nothing but a desire for self-improvement” is to use it rather than to receive it. While great books do offer important truths about life and character, Lewis cautions against using books merely for lessons. Literary works are, after all, works of art to be enjoyed for their own sake rather than used merely for our personal benefit. To use art or literature rather than receive it “merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.” Reading well adds to our life–not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.

I’m nodding along with almost everything KSP says. And in passages like this, I tend to verbalize my excitement while reading. On several occasions now, my wife has asked if I was okay or if I had called her from the other room.

The difference between a receptive reader and the utilitarian reader, however, is easier to distinguish from a distance than it is in the moment. In some ways, I think graduate school has ruined me for reading. I’m too quick to ask about the “agenda” of a book in its historical moment, or to wonder about what it’s saying about race, gender, politics, etc. These sorts of analyses have their place, but the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. So much so, I sometimes forget that literature isn’t merely a fanciful declamation of politics, philosophy, science, or theology.

Especially as a literature teacher, all too often I bend under the pressures of benchmarks, objectives, and the development of “critical thinking” and “skills.” I’m always wondering, “What practical piece of information or skill can the students acquire through reading this text?”

It pains me to admit that I think this way.

But this is the whole problem with reading literature in the first place. There is NO PRACTICAL purpose. Despite what every floundering humanities department will try to sell you, learning to read Dickens will not prepare you for the job market. People with English degrees aren’t actually in high demand. Everyone struggles to find a job after college. Period.

So why do people keep getting literature degrees and why do people, more generally, continue to read literature in their spare time?

The answer, I think, has something to do with virtue (a la KSP) and beauty. As KSP notes, when literature is read well, it doesn’t simply inform us. It forms us. We are changed when we read literature, in much the same way that experiencing a Van Gogh painting or Bach’s Mass in B Minor can change us. Beauty forms us because it draws us to something that is both Good and True.

The key word here is “can.” Reading a book, looking at a painting, or hearing a symphony does not magically–i.e., without some personal effort–change us. We have to train ourselves to receive beauty. If nothing else, KSP’s book–so far–is a great reminder that our unexamined reading practices and habits will inhibit us from undergoing the kind of formation reading can enact. We can’t simply read. We must read well.

Some questions I have as I continue to read:

  • What specifically are the habits and disciplines of reading should we cultivate?
  • Can reading de-form us? Even if we’re technically reading well, is it possible that a book is bad for us? In other words, should we always be receptive readers?
  • Does reading well entail a certain amount of prior philosophical understanding? For example, in the introduction and at the beginning of each chapter, KSP helpfully lays out classical definitions of the various virtues and then shows how they appear in a particular work. Does every reader need to have a similar philosophical and historical foundation to read well?

I can already sense partial answers to many of these questions. So, needless to say, I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

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