Labeled: “Books Without Dust Covers”

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*This is the first of my introductory posts for my seven blog categories. Hopefully, these foundational posts will give you a sense what I aim to build on in each category.

One of my lifelong goals is to read widely and read well. By “widely” I mean across genres, cultures and ages. There are a lot of books I will never read. There are a lot of books I don’t care to read. But there is a lot of literary wealth out there I want to work on getting. In the words of Francis Bacon…

“Some books are meant to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

And in my own words, I want to do the sort of reading that respects, realizes and reveals the author. (1) Respecting the author means giving them the benefit of the doubt. I figure it is reasonable for me to assume that an author knows more on his book subject than I do. He has, after all, published a book on it, and this process alone has required him do do at least a little research and thinking. (That may sound cynical, but I say it in light of the many ridiculous books in circulation; once you have critically chosen a book to read, give the author a little grace.)

With this attitude in place, my second goal is to (2) realize the author, that is, to correctly understand him in his context. This can be tricky depending on at least two things: 1. the complexity of the work and 2. the number of differences between the author’s context and my own…

  1. Varying complexity is found in things like sentence structure, vocabulary and content. Compare these examples from children’s literature:
    1. “In ran Jimmy John” (Rozek, Tinker’s Rescue).
    2. “Edward Bear, known to his friends as Winnie-the-Pooh, or Pooh for short, was walking through the forest one day…” (Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh).
    • As far as complexity goes, Milne has the obvious edge (though, by the wayside, “Tinker” is almost as endearing a teddy bear as Pooh and worth meeting if you haven’t already).
  2. The differences between an author’s context and my own are found in such things as his use of vocabulary (what he means by certain words), cultural or literary references, the time period from which he writes, and even the style in which he writes. These are good things to keep in mind when trying to realize (understand) an author.
    • Semi-tangent warning: Understanding a certain author is not necessarily helped by an admiration for or agreement with that author. For example, it is easier for me to follow the thought process of atheist Richard Dawkins in his discussion of genes and memes than it is for me to figure out St. Augustine’s view on the nature of the regeneration of the soul, even though my mind and heart more closely align with Augustine.

The last step in reading well, as I currently think about it, is (3) revealing the author. It is one thing to respect and understand someone. It is quite another to reveal him, that is, to evaluate him. This step requires intimate involvement on the part of the reader. For, in order to evaluate the validity, strengths and weaknesses of an author’s views, the reader must form (or refine) and expose his own views. This requires both work and courage. But while this step is often difficult (intensely difficult with the “great” books), it is the step that is the most rewarding. If you approach books this way, they will begin to shape you. They will help you grow by changing or refining your views. Books will become your friends, and the best of books, your friends for keeps. You will begin to choose books because you think they will help you grow, and not because you want to read someone who thinks and feels exactly like you do. And when you begin to realize, in the process of reading a book, that it is not helping you to grow in a significant way, you will have the simple sense to put it down. After all, books are not gods; rather, authors are not gods, with one Exception. It’s not a crime to shelve (or toss) a partly-read book. Also, speaking of the one “Exception,” I have found it crucial in this process of revealing an author (and myself in light of that author) to repeatedly turn to the Author of my life and faith in both prayer and Bible-reading/study. I am easily swayed by “innocent” human voices (my own included) from God’s own words of life and truth. There is a spiritual aspect to all reading.

Okay, I know this is getting long, but I have another stone to lay in this foundational post. I’ve explained to you my goal (to read widely and well), but I haven’t given you my motivations. Here are two of them…

One, I really want to think on things that are true and just, pure and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). In order to do this, I need to know what is true and just, pure and praiseworthy. But how can I ever really know these things, which often seem “too wonderful for me” (Job 42:3)? And yet, while I think there is a sort of knowledge that will always be “too wonderful” and too “high” for me to attain (Psalm 139:6), there is another sort of knowledge that God intends and desires for me to have; I don’t think He would have given me a brain otherwise. Of course, I want more than knowledge; I want wisdom, and simply having a brain is not enough. In his letter to Timothy, Paul instructs his young apprentice to wrestle with his [Paul’s] message in a spirit of dependence on God. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). I want to approach every book I read in this way, and I want to read widely and well because I want to hone my skill in discerning truth from error, what is pure from what is sullied.

And two, I want to be better prepared to “make a defense to anyone who asks [me] for a reason for the hope that is in [me]…” (1 Peter 3:15). It is true that the ultimate reason for my hope can be given in a word: Jesus. But in my everyday encounters with people (believing or not), making a defense and giving a reason requires many more words than one. Peter continues, “yet do it with gentleness and resepct.” This set me to thinking…. Consider how merciful, patient and creative the God of the universe is in revealing Himself to us. He has preserved for us the richest tome on earth; the Bible is riddled with content in every genre and flavored with delightful and contrasting literary styles. Likewise, our individual life experiences (which God ordains) are uniquely and even pedagogically layered in order for us to know and experience God in new and deeper ways. Surely, His thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and it is true that we don’t always see His mercy, but it is there. And it is blatant. If, then, our Father in heaven reveals Himself to us in gentle and respectful ways, should we not also reveal Him to the world in these ways? I see reading widely and reading well (which for me, practically, will involve writing well) as a way to practice revealing my God in ways that are merciful, patient and creative.

That’s all for now. I hope you are motivated to crack open a good book sometime soon. Let’s respect, realize and reveal the authors we meet, and in so doing, may we meet ourselves and that first and best Author in new and deeper ways.

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