To be a Christian is to be one who is being shaped by the Word and by words. The Holy Scripture is nothing less than the God-inspired response of his people to works in the world in and through his covenant community. God chose to communicate something of himself through the medium of words. And centuries of Christians have used words to reflect of God’s word, creating a rich tapestry of tradition and teaching that fills out and helps to shape our own experience of God in Christ. Christians must value words. It’s impossible to value words absent reading.
I’m currently enjoying Alan Jacobs’ book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford, 2011). In it he makes the case that, before all else, reading ought to be pleasurable and it ought to be whimsical. He contrasts this with the American populist tradition of Mortimer Adler’s, How to Read a Book. I confess there’s a copy of Adler’s book somewhere in our library, but I’ve not read it. Adler is part of the American self-improvement cult that subjects all endeavors in life to becoming more proficient, efficient, and ultimately wealthy. According to Jacobs, at the heart of Adler’s approach is the notion that there is a corpus of books which we have a duty to read. This deontological approach is central to Adler’s book–he admits it’s possible to read for pleasure, but that anyone can do that.
Jacobs, on the other hand, argues that the primary reasons for reading are pleasure and whim. The two are, of course, closely related. A whim is a sudden desire–the urge to pick up and read. Whim is the product of an underlying intellectual curiosity that enjoys entering into another’s experience and having one’s view of life expanded. Whim brings pleasure and where there is not pleasure, whim starts looking elsewhere.
Jacobs quotes a story from Randall Jarrell (p. 15f.) about a scholar he encountered who read Kipling’s novel Kim.
The critic said that once a year he read Kim; it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love–he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or an article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means–that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence, Read at whim! read at whim!
Jacobs points out the apparent contradiction in the quote. How can he commend reading for itself and at the same time reading a book because it changes me? Jacobs: “The book that simply demands to be read, for no good reason, is asking us to change our lives by putting aside what we usually think of as good reasons. It’s asking us to stop calculating. It’s asking us to do something for the plain old delight and interest of it….”
When was the last time you read something simply because it piqued your interest?