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The Dead Art Of Reading

I’ve seen a number of articles lately in Christian magazines (not this particular magazine, mind you) praising reading for its own sake. One article talked about how reading helped the author move closer to God. The article featured a picture of the fellow cradling a bunch of 20
th

– century classics: Hemingway, Faulkner, perhaps even James Joyce and others. While I, of course, agree with the sentiment of that article— “Reading is good!”— I can’t help but get the feeling that all these different articles praising reading have the tone of a complimentary “eulogy.”

I can give you dozens and dozens of men I know who will casually, without shame, indicate that they don’t read. They will give an exception or two; “I read the Bible;” “There’s this one author I like;” or “I subscribe to this magazine.” But by and large, the feeling I get about saying you don’t read is akin to saying you don’t do your taxes – a difficult chore that one can’t be blamed for skipping. This, I think, is why we are hearing so much general praise of reading. To read anything at all is viewed as a Herculean labor, like hiking a tall mountain. Not too many decades ago, writers like A. W. Tozer harshly criticized reading novels merely for pleasure. In his eyes, novels were a serious form of escapism that often contained questionable content. Now, to criticize the danger of a novel seems as silly as wondering if the neighborhood Chihuahua is mean-tempered. Books, it seems, have lost their bite.

Or, at least, they have lost most of their power to reach a broad number of people and the power to provoke controversy. These decades, movies are the new book. Once upon a time, James Joyce’s Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were racy fare, debatably called “pornography.” Nowadays, movies like The Dreamers and Kill Bill raise eyebrows. People have opinions about them, right or wrong, but no one would ever thinks to praise “movie watching,” as if it was a laudable and heroic endeavor. What people still remember about movies, which many seem to have forgotten about books, is it doesn’t matter how hard the journey is, it matters where you are going. A hike up a mountain loses much of it’s worth if you are climbing up to a strip club.

Now, before I go too far into the treacherous world of generalizations, let it be said that Christian circles are still fairly focused on the written word. Faithful Christians still sit down with their Bibles at home or in small groups and read from the pages of sacred text. Christians often read a fair amount of non-canonical material as well, ranging from the worthy classics to clever contemporary novelists, from the questionable fiction of Left Behind to the debatable wisdom of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. But even with reading all these books, how many people really read. By “read” I simply mean the steady, difficult and, yes, (for all you guys out there) even “manly” exercise of reading regularly, widely and critically.

C. S. Lewis, in a preface to St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, recommends alternating between old books and new ones. Lewis wisely recommends at least “one old book for every three new ones.” While I think this is great advice, how long does it take us to read through four books? A lot of the guys I know, if they tried to do this, would be reading one old book every four years. I can imagine them saying, “Three years ago I read The Godfather; two years ago I read a Philip Yancey book; last year it was a Narnia book; and this year it’s Dante’s Inferno.” Reading at this pace, one of my “slow reading” friends would be stuck forever in Dante’s Inferno— maybe longer than the people actually in the inferno. If we are going to take Lewis’s advice and vary up our reading, we will have to read a hell of a lot more.

One thing that comes with more reading, even reading old books, is a realization that not all books are wonderful. What Lewis also notes is that just because a book is old doesn’t mean it’s correct. In all probability, if a book has stuck around for a long time, it’s a good example of its kind, but that certainly doesn’t mean that it is good. Old nonsense is just as bad as new nonsense, but none of us will ever know that until we read it.

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Reading through the “classics” one finds some wonderful surprises (Robinson Crusoe), but also some miserable disappointments (Swiss Family Robinson). Among the twentieth-century writers, I still can’t figure out why Updike is praised so highly. Having started three different books of his, I’ve sent them all skidding across the floor by about page one hundred. When one begins to read, the hushed and polite tone we use to speak of all books, even classics, goes out the window. What comes instead is the serious, yet comfortable tone we use when we speak of someone we love, or someone we hate. We often praise or curse individual persons, but who except a fool would praise or curse “people” in general. So, while we shouldn’t praise ‘books’, we should certainly praise reading, and what’s more we should actually sit down and do it.

[Felix Tallon is a postgraduate student in Scotland. He is studying the interplay between theology and the imagination.]

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