Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books
Crossway Books, 2011
202 pp., $17.99
Karen Swallow Prior
Lit! Reading as Discipline
The notion of reading as discipline, which Tony suggests, is a fruitful consideration. It's interesting particularly in that reading is both a discipline and a means of discipline.
Reading—in contrast to speech—is unnatural, one might even say supernatural, a uniquely human ability that reflects God's image in us. Reading is learned not through mimicry (like speech) but through deliberate training, teaching, and discipline. Yet even when mastered, the act of reading still, and always, requires sustained attention. One cannot mindlessly read (in the true sense of reading, so as to understand) the way one might find oneself mindlessly gazing, walking, eating, doodling, or watching television (although all of these things can be done mindfully, too). And even with sustained attention, there are different kinds of reading that entail different levels of discipline. The sort of reading one does when the eyes flit—and the mind, too—across multiple layers of words, from web page stacked upon web page, is not the same sort of reading demanded by the concrete heft of a book held in one's hands. The physical presence of such a thing commands something from us (whether or not we heed that command) that the vaporous letters of cyberspace simply don't ask or need.
In a largely undisciplined age, it is not surprising that the discipline of reading is among the most neglected.
Yet reading not only is a discipline, but it disciplines us in return. And it is the way in which reading disciplines the mind that should be particularly compelling to Christians. As Neil Postman, following Marshall McLuhan, famously points out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the fact that the God of Moses chose, and chooses still, to communicate with his people through words—and the Word—reveals something significant about the nature of God and the nature of our relationship with him. In contrast to the image-driven worship of the pagan cultures that surrounded the Israelites, the God of the Old Testament revealed himself through the linearity, logic, and abstraction of the word. Such a God, who sets himself apart from the pagan gods worshipped through images and idols, demands more from his people than what is gained through the immediacy of visual experience. That same God later revealed himself further through the physical presence of the Word, Jesus Christ. The mediation of this Word is the defining characteristic of the Christian faith.
So, because Christ, the Word, meets us where we are, I agree with Tony when he points to the need for reading to be appealing. Reading should be both "useful and pleasing," as Horace put it so long ago in his Ars Poetica. The best books—especially the Book of Books—are not one or the other, but both.
This does not mean that our appetites are not in need of some, or even great, disciplining, but the goal of all discipline is not restraint but freedom. The trained appetite is free to gain the most pleasure—and use—from the best books.
Karen Swallow Prior is chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University.
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