The underlying principle of Doc’s aphorisms seems to be that it matters a great deal how we spend our time and where our deepest affections lie. This matters not only to our character but to the communities, large and small, of which we are a part. As I suggested in my previous post, this is in part because how we spend our time also tends to determine how we spend our money and resources, that is, how we consume. The activities listed here—reading, engaging in conversation, and listening to or performing music—have in common the fact that they involve communing, even when done in solitude. Moreover, arguably they are not, at least not by definition, pricey or complicated activities. In ideal practice, they are activities in which we connect to a larger community or otherwise broaden our sense of the world. I have already written about the ways in which musicdoes this, so I will focus this post on reading and conversation.
We can think of reading and conversation as synonymous, at least when they are both done right. Reading is a dialogue with the mind or minds of others as long as we are not engaged in what Peter refers to as “wresting the scriptures” which can be generally understood as a kind of demand that the meaning of what we read or hear is what we desperately, greedily, or selfishly want the words of others to mean. This clearly cannot be what Doc has in mind. The pleasure and value of reading and conversation would seem to be the way in which these activities keep us open to others and thus curb our tendencies to treat life and others like a television screen or iPhone which with the push or swipe of a finger moves us along to something else more to our liking.
I find it disturbing just how much more urgent Doc’s advice seems in an age of technology that had not yet arrived when he did most of his writing. He already knew children’s lives were becoming mechanized, overly structured, and selfishly focused on entertainment and pleasure. He knew too, as Wendell Berry has written more eloquently than anyone, that our bodies were rarely used any longer for work or even for recreation but were valued as commodities and determinants of self-worth. Things, of course, have only gotten worse in these regards. What happens to our relationships to ourselves, to time, to others, and what is our sense of community when we take the time to read slowly, for the sheer pleasure of it, or when we read because we are curious, thirsty for greater understanding, or simply experiencing open admiration for the chance to inhabit a gifted mind? What happens too when we take the time to really converse with someone, rather than merely communicate? How much deeper do our conversations go, beyond the surface of brief emails, texts, or perfunctory transactions of information? Relating to someone else requires an active engagement of the imagination, profound listening, and a temporary suspension of self-interest, maybe even temporary suspension of self-awareness. True conversation certainly involves risk since it requires honesty, humility, and vulnerability. Compassion means “to suffer with,” so reading and conversation are compassion in practice, exercises in broadening and blurring the boundaries of our otherwise too narrow worlds.
It was a long time ago now, almost 30 years, but at age 19 in 1984, I spent my last summer at Lowell Bennion’s Boys Ranch as a counselor before heading off to my mission. It was also the last summer he would run the ranch. I had always been a social person and loved conversation, but I had not yet learned to have conversations with myself, with books, or with music, I think, despite my long love affair with my favorite bands. I guess it was the outstanding qualities of the landscape in Teton Valley, the sincerity with which Doc treated us young counselors as his peers, and the exciting sense of possibility that conversations with Doc inspired in us about ideas, but I did something unusual with my time on my first day off. Instead of listening to my cassette tapes of my favorite rock bands and writing letters, I decided to spend the day at the Upper Bunkhouse reading The Brothers Karamazov, which my brother had given me and had insisted I read. I was wholly immersed in another world. I took occasional breaks and played a cassette tape recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on what was called back then a boom box and stared out across the valley. I was rather proud of myself. No TV, no movie theater, no letter from a girlfriend, nothing at all to satisfy my lust for entertainment. I consider that day foundational to the rest of my life because I discovered, even though I was alone, that I could converse with myself, with ideas, and with feelings of an elevated sort. I had, I think for the first time, a rich inner life with which to make all future conversations, readings, and music listening all the more richer. It is a paradox, but it seems we must guard our solitude if we are ever to expect to experience true communion.