Texts have the power to change lives. But only if the reader is willing to spend time with them, writes Timothy Larsen.
I once heard a prominent entrepreneur dispensing advice to people who aspired to be successful like him. Instead of reading one book from cover to cover, he averred with a self-satisfied smirk, read just the introduction and conclusion of 10 books!
His advice is now passé, of course. More recently, Steve Jobs pronounced that the Amazon Kindle would fail because it is designed to deliver an unwanted product: “The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.” The new way is to bask in the smug certainty that there is no information that one cannot access through a quick Google search.
We have built a tower of knowledge that reaches to the heavens. We have become like God; we too are now omniscient.
But as a historian and an educator, I believe there are many things that can be understood only by experience; they cannot be assessed with accuracy from the outside. I try to convince my students that their limited experience impairs their judgment. Such a perspective does not come naturally to them. For example, students rip into reading medieval Christian mystics and expect to decide within a few pages if they are encountering something profound or nonsensical. I tentatively suggest that the truth of some texts comes out only by prayer and fasting. Maybe, I say, only a person who has also gone on a sustained spiritual pilgrimage of purgation, illumination and union can really take the measure of Bernard of Clairvaux or Julian of Norwich.
Books have the power to truly shape a person who is willing to read them patiently, thoroughly and contemplatively. A book that can be absorbed from its introduction and conclusion is not even a candidate for a book that could change your life. The skip-the-middle method reveals that one is either the wrong kind of reader or reading the wrong kind of books -- or both.
A few particularly rewarding, compact and potent texts are worthy of not only deep reading but even memorization. This is the most counterintuitive of practices for my students. Why memorize a text that you can access electronically any time you wish? This attitude indicates a failure to grasp the way in which a text can permanently inhabit one’s inner life. Ask yourself: If you were stranded, what resources would you have by heart to sustain you? Who are you without Google?
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy was able to address a shocked nation promptly and off-the-cuff, quoting Aeschylus from memory: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” I wonder which of today’s public figures have such rich and resonant resources within them.
Increasingly, therefore, I am trying intentionally to practice two countercultural habits: first, reading long, substantive books; and second, memorizing short but weighty texts.
Both of my recommendations necessitate discernment and risk. It requires discernment to choose the texts. This smacks of elitism or some such sinister thing in an age that tends to think it is a sign of impartial respect to treat all texts with the same cavalier superficiality. It involves risk because, discernment notwithstanding, you cannot really know in advance how powerfully and wondrously a text might shape you -- this is discovered only after you have carried it around while mowing the lawn and driving the kids to school and drinking coffee with an old friend whose life is slip-sliding away.
These are also acts that are not easily defended in utilitarian terms. Because I teach history in a liberal arts college, I am forever challenged with utilitarian questions. The most perennial, not usually put quite this crassly, is: “How will this facilitate my goal of having a high-paying career?” I have learned to respond with the observation that all noble pursuits that distinguish human beings from other animals are not easily justifiable in utilitarian terms. I grant to you the necessity of successfully securing food and shelter -- a goal we share with groundhogs and western yellow bats. Beyond that, however, there is also art, poetry, philosophy, history, theology, literature and all the other ways in which we pursue questions of meaning.
Part of nurturing my humanity, therefore, is reading books that are unnecessary for my career goals. Last year I read Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia,” which is 1,150 pages long. I have never been to the former Yugoslavia, nor do I plan to go, nor do I plan to teach or write about it. It is not a book I “needed” to read, but reading did change me in liberating ways -- it added depth and texture to my understanding of the human experience.
In pursuit of my second goal, I memorized last year a minor poem by a minor poet: Arthur Hugh Clough’s “With whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” I find high-hearted delight in declaiming it to myself as I walk a certain tree-lined path:
It fortifies my soul to know
That, though I perish, Truth is so:
That, howsoe’er I stray and range,
Whate’er I do, Thou dost not change.
I steadier step when I recall
That, if I slip, Thou dost not fall.
I’m no Bobby Kennedy, but I think this little, stored poem just might be able to help me bear some of the weight of life’s sudden vicissitudes. I keep it hidden in my heart, in case of emergency.