Modern airlines would rather sell us happiness than provide basic comfort. Instead of serving us food, they advocate buying food. They recommend we watch something entertaining while providing us no easy way to watch anything. They urge us to relax while sandwiching us into seats designed for people the size of house elves.
However, on a recent flight, I noticed my airline had matched the bromide to the situation: they urged me to sip, watch, and relax just over a bin marked “literature only.” Brilliant!
This is the best advice for happy living I have found in a secular space in some time! Literature, words carefully placed on a physical page, is so precious that it has its own space. I am large (though dieting!) and the airplane seat is small (and getting smaller!), but the “literature only” bin is the perfect size for a book or magazine.
The very word “literature” terrorizes some folk. Dostoevsky is so long and uses so many words. Even A. Conan Doyle will not use a vague word when there is a perfect word for the moment: Abbey Grange starts with the “game afoot” and describes Holmes as “abstruse and learned specialist” and that is exactly right. If our vocabulary must grow, then it is only so we can be more precise in our creativity and our problem-solving. The man who knows that his acquaintance is “abstruse” will act more like Watson, a faithful friend, and not be offended by brilliance struggling to explain insights.
Literature can do what a movie can never do: make an argument, paint an imaginative picture where we control most of the details, and recreate us so we can love each other better than we have ever loved before now. Why? Great literature can give us the ability to think deeply, examine our feelings more carefully, and love more precisely.How to read?
We must try not to gulp a great text . . . though if it is perfect, we may have no choice on first exposure. I read Lord of the Rings too quickly because I loved the book too well. The first taste made me drunk of Tolkien’s imagination. I swilled it down and wanted more. Since that lost weekend, I have reread the book or listened to it as an audiobook every year.
I read it slowly, in small sips. I savor all of it, even the poems I rushed through in order to get to the plot.
This is easier for us. Video has given us an ability to frame a scene. Sip the beautiful book and then stop and watch with your mind. Think. What is happening? Visualize the best you can. See the world that is being created by the great author and fill in all the gaps that a movie would provide for you. The author trusts you, a soul created in God’s image. Watch.
You can read the Atlantis tale in Timaeus all your life and there will be more there to find. Relax. The story of the Gospel of John is so lovely, so pure, so true that there is no end to what the words will teach you. Calm comes when we can step outside of what is to what might have been or at least could be imagined. We relax there and sometimes reject what we find. Even with God’s Word, perfect in itself, we can err, but that need not produce great tension. Instead, we relax, because when a thing is in words, then we have not yet committed, we do not yet believe, and we certainly do not act.
Sip. Watch. Relax. It is not safe to do so with every book: literature only. Even a wicked book is just words and that separates us from the evil enough to learn from the genius that still resides in any of God’s children. God came to earth Himself, but He also left a book in which we can enjoy ourselves forever and ever.
Rachel Motte edited this essay.