Last week, I mourned the double literacy loss (biblical literacy and general literacy) that marks many young people today and the disappearance of careful, sustained contemplation of and engagement with written texts—new and old. Though I recommended we rethink some strategies for impressing the Word upon believers who rarely (if ever) read books, this doesn’t mean I’m giving up my attempts to encourage young people to read.
On the contrary.
I’ve told my kids multiple times over the years, “You see all these books on the shelves? Every book is a world. Every book is a landscape. Every book has its own beginning and end, tone and feel, voice and story. Are you bored right now? Hop into one of these worlds you can open up with your hands.”
My hope is that Christians will be more inclined than our neighbors to cultivate the virtues that deep and intentional reading demands of us. I agree with Karen Swallow Prior:
“There is something in the very form of reading—the shape of the action itself—that tends toward virtue. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading (the kind of reading we practice in reading literary works as opposed to skimming news stories or reading instructions) requires patience. The skills of interpretation and evaluation require prudence. Even the simple decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.”
Time Travel to Other Worlds
In his marvelous new book, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind, Jason Baxter claims we’ve understated the impact of Lewis’s devotion to ancient literature. Lewis was a novelist, an apologist, a poet, yes. But before all that, he was an antiquarian, a man “who devoted much—indeed, most—of his life to breathing in the thoughts and feelings of distant ages, and reconstructing them in his teaching and writing” (4).
Lewis believed the power of reading old books and great literature was in the capacity to enter into a text, to carefully study the way the words are used, to feel the atmosphere and get disoriented by the differences we find when we go back in time, yet also to be drawn to the similarities of human nature, no matter the era.
If we’re to follow Lewis’s example of reading literature, Baxter says, it won’t be an attempt to extract good moral lessons and correct opinions, but to experience something more liberating, more capacious, more generous. Literature is the ability to fix our “inner eye.” It’s an act of looking.
2 Reasons to Read Well
Baxter offers two of Lewis’s reasons for reading well and widely. On the negative side, it’s so we can avoid the mistakes of our era. That’s the point Lewis made in Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces:
“A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours form the press and the microphone of his own age.”
Twenty years later, in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis offered a positive reason as well: reading widely leads to an “extension of our being.”
“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.”
This is the point that General James Mattis made in a widely shared email about reading several years ago. If you don’t read, you remain “functionally illiterate,” not to mention “incompetent.” Why? “Because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”
Baxter sums up the benefit this way:
“Literature, then, creates worlds of imaginative atmosphere, with vision and weather and smell, an atmosphere we would suffocate without, and that enlarges our being when we read well. The reader, by breathing in, living in its habitat, fixing the eye of his or her heart, becomes ‘another self,’ is ‘aggrandized,’ ‘healed,’ ‘enlarged’—in short, the reader ‘transcends’ the limitations of their merely historical and local condition, without annihilating their individuality.” (44)
Lewis claimed that in reading great literature he could “become a thousand men” yet remain himself. Reading makes it possible to transcend oneself and yet still be oneself.
To receive the full benefit of deep reading across the world and through time, we must on occasion return to favorite books more than once, to enter the narrative once more, or to feel again the force of the argument. Lewis writes:
“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. . . . We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.”
I know from experience that it’s the books I’ve read more than three times, sometimes with many years in between, that I feel have become part of me. Every time I journey to Narnia, or read The Screwtape Letters, or meet again the Karamazov brothers, or start off the year with a different translation of Augustine’s Confessions, I’m revisiting a land with which I’m familiar, allowing the texts from great minds to subtly form and shape my own.
For this reason, repetitive readings of the Gospels, the Psalms, and other Scriptures remain vital. It’s not because we don’t know them that we read, but because we do, and in some strange way, repeat readings open us up for the text to search and know us. Since the depths of God’s Word are inexhaustible, we never slake our thirst for the truths we find therein.
Literacy loss is unfortunate, but in this area, as in others, Christians can stand out. We can let the “clean sea breeze of the centuries” blow through our minds as we encounter and learn from our ancestors—what Chesterton labeled “the democracy of the dead.” Reading is one way we expand our imaginations and enlarge our hearts. There’s a bigger world in a book than in a smartphone, if only we have the patience and attention to experience it.
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