The Pleasures of Reading

I’ve been thinking about how we read, why we read, and whether it can be done well.

For example, check out my review of Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Image result for the pleasures of reading in an age of distractionIn addition to Prior’s book, I’ve also been reading two other books about reading.

The first is Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading Well in a Distracted Age. A couple things I’ve enjoyed about Jacobs’s book:

Jacobs does not offer strategies, techniques, or formula for getting the most out of a book. He simply explains why and how reading can be enjoyable. His first foundational principle for reading for pleasure is to read at whim:

…for heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout–some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called ‘social and ethical hygiene.’ (17)

This is a timely word. In a numbers-obsessed culture–we count steps, calories, proteins, words, pages, sleep hours, etc.–everything has become a standard and a burden. Whimsy is a byword, and joy is suspect.

Don’t misunderstand Jacobs. Whim isn’t an excuse for thoughtlessness and bad taste. If taken seriously, whim will lead to ever expanding horizons, greater beauty, and a hunger for deeper truth. Jacobs makes a distinction between whim and Whim:

In its lower-case version, whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge–it can become for us a gracious Swiss pedagogue of the mind. (41)

Diligently reading at Whim means being selective, choosing only those books that bring the most pleasure and stir up interest. This is harder than it sounds. Especially, if like me, you constantly stand under the dark cloud of “BOOKS YOU SHOULD READ TO BE EDUCATED.” But reading strictly for numbers and standards isn’t reading. Reading, if done well, is a transformative experience (e.g., On Reading Well). It will change a habit of thought or perception. Reading at Whim facilitates reading well because it precImage result for what we see when we readipitates the enjoyment necessary for reading slowly, carefully, and lovingly.

I’d like to think I’ve had such an experience recently. I was at the publicly library and (at whim!) picked up Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read. This is not the kind of book I would normally think to read. But as soon as I flipped through a few of the pages, I added it to my library stack. It’s a fun but also serious analysis of how our minds project images of characters from a story based on the words we see on the page. If I’m not careful, thinking aImage result for what we see when we readbout how reading works while I’m reading can cause me to stall out. It’s like thinking about thinking while thinking: at some point the system crashes.

But Mendelsund’s approach, using images alongside words, avoids the usual problems of reading about reading because he forces your mind to process the same information in multiple ways. The result, so far, is an enriched reading experience. I don’t think I’ll read the same way again.

Happy reading!

Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer

From Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal which she kept as a young student:

But dear God please give me some place, no matter how small, but let me know it and keep it. If I am the one to wash the second step everyday, let me know it and let me wash it and let my heart overflow with love washing it.

I don’t know that I’ll ever find a more perfect sentiment for prayer. May we know our place, and may we love it well.

H/T: Karen Swallow Prior’s final chapter in On Reading Well.

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.