Great books, ones that have inspired all kinds of people over a long period of time, often give a reader a good bit on the first reading, but cannot be exhausted.
“Don’t tell me. I read the Bible all the way through and I get it.” The man slammed the door of my Dad’s office and stormed off. Safe to say, he did not get it. Since then that moment has stood as an intellectual warning: if a text has inspired first-rate intellects for centuries to reflect and write, do not think you “get it” on the first read.
That does not mean great books are merely intellectual puzzles where a person cannot get anything on the first read. Even as a kid I could get an essential message from a text like III John (God is love), but knew that any great book had depth or got something right I was missing.
You can read Tale of Two Cities for the story, but there is more to the book than the plot. If you know how it ends, you can still enjoy a very great novel. In fact, in a very great book like the books of the Bible, there cannot be any spoilers, because there is always more there. I experimented with the Book of Obadiah (my favorite candidate to not be a great book in the Bible) to see if this is true and there was a good bit of “there there.” In fact, I ended up shamed at my shallow understanding of this short text!
The older I have gotten and the more great books I have read (and taught) the less patience I have with people who opine that the “Greek of the Book of Romans is poor” or that “this is a letter, stop looking for grammatical depth or structure.” How do they know this? What does it mean? Is Shakespeare using poor English when he breaks the “rules” of English grammar or follows his own poetic muse? Who wrote the Greek grammar that Paul should be using and why should a first-rate thinker follow those rules?
Plato is by any measure a first-rate Greek stylist and a very careful writer. The structure of his text is very complex and plausibly the first sentence of a masterwork such as Republic reflects on the themes of the entire book. This can be taken too far and one can see things that are not in the text. Yet perhaps this is an odd worry: a mark of a great text is that it is early enough in a train of thought that it includes a basic concept that lesser minds than those of the author can use to inspire many variations on the theme.
I always try to find out what Augustine, Plato, Paul, Austin, Douglass, or Lincoln meant at the time, though this is very hard to know. I am also interested in what good, true, and beautiful things undergird the immediate thought or can be inspired by the text.
The intellectually lazy, even those with credentials, grab their favorite view of the text and quit. “I know what it means.” Why not? A shallow text capable of only one meaning is the sort of book they write which is why their books will not inspire billions over centuries.
Instead, imagine expressing an idea for the first time in human history (the theory of Forms, a Christian view of salvation). A great writer creates a new vocabulary or uses old terms in new ways to express ideas using his training and background. If he is inspired, then like many artists, he might not even “know” all he means. Listen to a great filmmaker discuss his films! If he is divinely inspired, then he might be writing on two levels: one for the simple, pious person and the other for the spiritually mature.
From childhood my parents, then my teachers in later life, left me with three rules for reading great books. First, do not begin in a position of judgement over the text. Imagine the kid who gets nothing from Huck Finn, but worries about Twain’s language. Second, as my skills grow with the language or text do not assume the author has “made a mistake” that is so obvious I can see it. We should read a text charitably and great thinkers humbly. Third, always look for the author’s intent, but do not be afraid of being inspired by the text. Sometimes we get done with class on a book like Parmenides and we are not sure we “get” what Plato meant, but we have seen some good and true things.
Augustine is a good guide in Confessions when he discusses Genesis and different ways of reading the text:
So when one says, “Moses meant as I do”; and another, “Nay, but as I do,” I suppose that I speak more reverently, “Why not rather as both, if both be true?” And if there be a third, or a fourth, yea if any other seeth any other truth in those words, why may not he be believed to have seen all these, through whom the One God hath tempered the holy Scriptures to the senses of many, who should see therein things true but divers? For I certainly (and fearlessly I speak it from my heart), that were I to indite any thing to have supreme authority, I should prefer so to write, that whatever truth any could apprehend on those matters, might he conveyed in my words, rather than set down my own meaning so clearly as to exclude the rest, which not being false, could not offend me. I will not therefore, O my God, be so rash, as not to believe, that Thou vouchsafedst as much to that great man. He without doubt, when he wrote those words, perceived and thought on what truth soever we have been able to find, yea and whatsoever we have not been able, nor yet are, but which may be found in them.