So I realize that I haven’t written an original blog post in quite a while, and though I apologize for my lack of up-to-date correspondence, it’s been exhilarating discovering life outside of the blogosphere. As life gets busier certain priorities in life rise to the surface, and though I enjoy blogging occasionally I’ve given up on becoming the next Tim Challies. That being said, I sincerely appreciate the readership of this blog and I relish times like today where I have time to sit down at a coffee shop (Peet’s to be specific, though not because of the coffee) and update you on where the Lord has me in life.
After finishing my first year at The Master’s Seminary I jumped right into heavy doses of summer school, taking Hebrew Grammar and Historical Theology intensives that are finishing up this week. Being at school from 8 AM to 4 PM everyday makes for long weeks, but it’s really no busier than having a full-time job, so you’ll find very little complaints from me here. What I did find humbling was the amount of work: reading 100 pages of historical theology every night–regardless of my fascination with the subject matter–was trying, even for an avid reader. I plowed through pages of patristical and medieval literature every night, forcing myself to inhale the deep aroma of church history even when it became quite stale. By the end of it, I was absolutely spent. What had once piqued my interest was now nauseating; I began looking forward to times in front of the TV and longed for real life conversations rather than lectures from my books. I became an embattled man full of bitter thoughts about reading. So for the past week or so I’ve been trying to rediscover the joy of reading.
Ironically, I turned to a book to rediscover this joy. No, I didn’t read a piece of fiction to get my imaginative juices flowing again, I actually read a book about how to find pleasure in reading. At first it didn’t sound right in my mind either. Would you go to an ex-girlfriend that you just broke up with to learn how to get over the relationship? Essentially, that’s what I felt like I was doing. My relationship with books had been strained and I thought the only cure was time away from reading, a “cooling down” period if you will. That was until I stumbled upon Alan Jacob’s book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.
Brilliantly written and well articulated, Jacobs made me reexamine the reasons I read–and he made me want to read more, but with a more crystallized approach. In the same way that I watch YouTube highlights of basketball players and walk away wanting to imitate their moves on the court, I was experiencing a master writer’s work firsthand while he told me what to do. His words were clear and entertaining and I didn’t want to put his book down; at one point, it took me 15 minutes to take a two minute walk to the bookstore because I was so engulfed in his words. It was wildly pleasurable to read and exactly what I needed.
Thankfully, I realized my flaw in reading: all this time I’ve been reading for the benefits that result, not for the sheer pleasure of the act of reading itself. As the eighteenth-century scientist G.C. Lichtenberg once wrote, “A book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.” I expected books to elevate me, my reputation, my intelligence, my appearance even–but these expectations were unreal and impossible. Many of us operate under the assumption that as long as our eyes glance over ink on a page, we’re bettering ourselves; as long as we check books off our reading lists, we’re becoming more cultured and wise. We’re not. It’s not the act of reading that makes better people, but rather the tossing and turning of ideas in our heads as a result of what we’ve read that changes the mind and affects the heart. Reading in and of itself is merely a means to a greater end: Our end can be to fill our minds with thoughts and ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise been there, or to lean upon authors of the past to fill our heads with pictures and images greater than what we could have concocted ourselves. By seeing that the act of reading isn’t what produces results, those unreal expectations are pulled down and you can actually appreciate a book for what it is rather than what it should make of you. This is what I lost sight of and am now striving to regain.
I used to refer to my books as friends rather than inanimate objects, and rightly so. In some ways they’re better than actual friends. Jacobs agrees: “One of the wonderful things about books is that they don’t grow agitated or dismissive. They patiently bear all the scrutiny you choose to give them, and the more carefully you read them the more of their secrets they yield.” This is the beauty of interacting with what you read. When you come to a book without expectations for what it will make of you, you can interact with it in an unexpected way. Instead of believing everything you read, use what you read as a launching pad for rebuttals or treat them as challenges to your previously established ideology. Interact, disagree, rise up in arms. Do something with what you read. Otherwise it becomes just another check off your checklist, another book you liked but you can’t quite remember why.
Now of course these are just generic epiphanies that don’t apply universally to all books. In fact, part of the challenge of reading is knowing how to interact with the various genres of literature. But that should be clear enough that you can figure that out on your own. My main exhortation is to realize that reading doesn’t make you a better or more cultured person. We read because we enjoy reading, we enjoy the storyline or the feeling we get when we finish the last page of an exhilarating adventure. Breaking down the expectations of what the act of reading will bring you is surprisingly liberating. It is a leisure activity first and occasionally a profession–for scholars and some students. Read unabashedly. Read on a whim. Find a book and read it without expectation. If it’s bad, move on to one that catches your interest.
So take heart, my friend, and find pleasure in what you read.