Benediction: On Reading

By E. Brooks Holifield, C. H. Candler Professor of American Church History, Emeritus

benediction-web.jpgReading is not what it used to be. I’m not referring to the 25 percent of American adults who read no books last year—a substantial drop since 1990. I’m also not referring to the recent literary theorists who have proposed new ways to read or shown us the complex relationships between readers and their books. I’m not even alluding to cultural battles over the “canon” of books in the curriculum. And I’m certainly not speaking about the transition in the eighteenth century, which I learned about from the historian David Hall, from “intensive” reading, which verged on memorization, to the “extensive” reading that characterizes the way most of us leap from book to book—a transition that rested on the early-nineteenth century change from the scarcity to the abundance of books. Finally, I’m not referring to the way reading now divides us, as the sociologist Jackson Carroll revealed when his surveys found that liberal and conservative ministers rarely read the same books. That has probably been true for centuries. 

I’m talking, rather, about how our reading—yours and mine—has changed.

When we were children, we mostly read books simply for fun, for the excitement of compelling stories, and woe to us if we lose that childlike way of reading. But at some point we also began to learn that books, especially novels, have themes, motifs, figures, and tropes that give us a richer experience when we take note of them. We learned that fiction cannot be reduced to a few summary sentences but rather that narratives give us a density of sequences, reversals, characterizations, place descriptions, ironic turns, and complicated relationships that form something like a self-contained world in which we briefly transcend our everyday habits. We discovered that poetry could condense a seeming commonplace into a metaphor or image that allowed us to see the ordinary as if it were strange, indeed, as if we were seeing it for the first time. 

When we read nonfiction, we learned to read not simply for the information but for the argument, the often-elusive main point. We learned to hold ourselves back from jumping too quickly to conclusions, prematurely filling the margins of our books with interjections of our own opinions, correcting authors right and left. We learned instead how to get inside the author’s point of view and reserve judgment until we had seen things from his or her perspective. This required still a different manner of reading, one in which we related the chapters carefully to one another, attended to the way sentences and paragraphs formed units of thought, and kept our attention on the way authors used evidence and argument. We learned how to relate each part of a book to all the other parts. We learned to read critically.

Yet that was not the end of our learning to read, for we discovered that novels could give us insight about our own world—insight into matters of faith and unfaith, vocation and relationships, duty and obligation, evil and error, class and race, gender and sexuality, and a score of other realities that surround us daily. And in reading nonfiction, we discovered that we could not understand one book in isolation, that a book was part of a conversation, perhaps a debate, and that we read one book better if we read others that help us see the same question from different points of view. 

This was not, however, the end of our learning anew how to read. Some of us learned that the careful reading of books developed other skills—skills of attentiveness, observation, and sympathy that changed our everyday lives. We learned that efforts to read carefully are strangely analogous to our efforts to listen to others, to observe subtle alterations in a group, to pick up cues, and to persevere in our listening even when another person seems boring or alien. Reading, in short, became a form of discipline that spilled over into other spheres of our lives.

But a few diligent souls have learned that reading can be a form of spiritual discipline, a means of attentiveness that taught them to conform themselves, now and then, to the Real, to escape the clawing demands of their own egos, and to listen for the One who listens to us. For these people, especially, reading is not what it used to be. May we one day join them.

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Brooks Holifield is reading Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes.