Why read?

I love reading. I haven’t always done so, and I can’t explain precisely how and when I was captivated by books. But I delight in reading now and for that I am thankful.

When you take a few moments to think about it, however, reading is a rather odd activity. To sit for hours scanning various symbols on a page may seem some a peculiar pastime. Perhaps it requires some form of ‘apology’ (in the sense of a reasoned defence).

Alan Jacobs, a professor of English at Baylor University, has written a delightful, elegant book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford: OUP, 2011), which performs this task admirably. (I discovered Jacobs’s work by accident, when I picked up a free copy of his biography of C. S. Lewis a few years ago. Reading that book was such a pleasure that I searched eagerly to find further work by him.)

Towards the end of the book (page 149), Jacobs writes,

To pick up a book—to decide to read something, almost anything—is to choose a particular form of attention. That choice creates simultaneously silence and receptiveness to a voice; the reader acts imaginatively, constructing meaning from the experience of finding words on a page, but also, ideally, strives to assume a posture of charity toward what he or she reads. This choosing reader is never merely passive, never simply a consumer, but constantly engages in critical judgment, sometimes withholding sympathy with a thoughtful wariness, and then, in the most blessed moments, when trust has been earned, giving that sympathy wholly and without stint.

This passage, it seems to me, encapsulates nicely some benefits of reading that are worth  considering, valuing, and experiencing. Building on Jacobs’s words, here are some thoughts on why there is value in reading.

  1. To read is a choice to listen to another’s voice: Reading is a deliberate decision to open oneself up to the words of another person. In its best expression, reading is a form of honour paid to an author. In Jacobs’s words, it is ‘to choose a particular form of attention’. Such a choice enables one to be confronted (perhaps delighted, perhaps unsettled) by a perspective on the world seen though different eyes. Jacobs recognises value in all kinds of reading: whether a book or an article, a magazine or a blog post. Yet, the decision to find a conducive place and to devote a period of time to a significant piece of reading is a means of truly listening to another voice. What’s more, we are not constrained to listen only to voices from our time and place. We can open ourselves to voices from generations gone by and (thanks to the skill and dedication of translators) to voices from numerous different languages, nations, and cultures. From a Christian perspective, reading is particularly important since God is first revealed as the God who speaks (Genesis 1:3), since John presents Jesus to us as the incarnation of the eternal Word (John 1:1, 14), and since that which God ‘breathes out’ is ‘Scripture’ (or ‘writing’, γραφή, 2 Timothy 3:16). Christians, when most consistent with the foundations of their faith, have been ‘people of the book’, even if they could not always read for themselves. And respect for Scripture should mean appreciation not just of what God says but also of how he says it. So a good reader of Scripture is someone who has learned to be a good reader of texts, able to recognise the way in which words work together in diverse ways to perform various functions. Now the commitment of Christians to the words of Scripture has not simply been for literary appreciation (though much of Scripture has notable literary qualities), but because disciples of Jesus have received the Scriptures, ‘not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God’ (1 Thessalonians 2:13, NIV). The Bereans famously ‘received [Paul’s] message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true’ (Acts 17:11, NIV). This careful evaluation on the part of the Bereans leads me to a second point.
  2. To read is an opportunity to think imaginatively and critically: Jacobs draws together two forms of thought which might initially seem very different. Yet careful reading demands both creativity (as we are enveloped by a story or as we consider what the implications of a particular philosophical or ethical view might be) and analysis (as we evaluate whether a statement is logically coherent or whether the author has made unstated assumptions). This is why I urge my students to read widely. As they begin to study a topic, they may not have many clearly-formed views about the content of the course. As they read, not only are they provided with information, but they are also confronted by perspectives on reality. Each book or article does more than simply ‘inform’; it provides a catalyst for the reader’s own creative response to the information and interpretation that they have encountered in the text. The students are challenged and trained to think. The more perspectives they consider, the more weighing of evidence and argument occurs, the more each individual can develop a clear view of a subject for themself. Of course, some perspectives, having been respectfully read and considered, should not be accepted. The careful reader will learn discernment, so that they may accept what is of value and reject what is not. Yet, I appreciate Jacobs’s encouragement to adopt, as far as possible, a ‘posture of sympathy’. This does not, I think, require a predisposition to accept every claim uncritically. Rather, it is to read the words of another in the most charitable manner. Of course, even with that commitment, careful evaluation must be carried out. Discernment requires some standard. For Christians, that standard is Scripture. To recognise Scripture as authoritative does not mean that we may not ask difficult questions about history, ethics, and logical coherence. But it means that we come to such questions with a measure of humility, recognising that we are not in a position to take the high ground of perfect knowledge of history, ethics and logic. In fact, what many readers of Scripture have found is a growing appreciation of accuracy, reliability, and coherence as their reading has progressed. The words of Scripture, in God’s purpose, may actually shape the way we think.

    There is certainly much more that could be said, and perhaps more that I will say, but for now I commend Alan Jacobs’s book to you as an engaging and enlightening read. And I commend the act of reading to you as an opportunity to listen to others and, in particular, by reading the Christian Scriptures, to listen to the very Word of God.

    Thanks for reading!

    If you would like to respond to this post, you can send an email to thesethingsarewritten@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @DrAIWilson