I don’t want to sound like I am on an anti-technology soapbox, but I am deeply concerned that as a culture we are losing an appreciation for deep, close, and sustained reading. We are losing the attention that it requires to read carefully, and we are failing to derive the benefits that come from it. We are growing more and more accustomed to reading, if at all, short tweets, Facebook posts, and at best blog posts or links to short articles. Hey, don’t get me wrong. I am grateful to have readers. And I am not without sin either. And I would rather people read thoughtful blogs or interesting news links that nothing at all. But reading quickly, scanning for content and information, and obsessing over opinion, right or wrong, among those we read—this is the equivalent of reducing all food to calorie content, to eating functionally rather than for pleasure, and to rewarding a system that prioritizes quantity and speed over quality of experience. It’s as if we are headed to the point where we might as well get our calories intravenously and all our understanding of the world as data.
When a believer reads scripture, this has a tendency to heighten the sensitivities to what is read, a bit like the way a lover absorbs, enjoys, and accepts everything and anything the beloved might say or do. This is a wonderful state to be in. I remember the first time I opened the Book of Mormon and the Bible as a thirsty, hungry soul who wanted to be fed. And I relished every bite. I repeated words out loud. I read and reread. I felt the power of language penetrate me to the core and I could feel an emerging desire in me to change my life. I have felt the same way, perhaps with different results and maybe to different degrees, when I have read a great writer with reverence, someone like Dostoevsky or Derek Walcott or Wordsworth or Marilynne Robinson. I have treated such books with reverence. I drank deeply from the fountains of wisdom I imagined were there. And I was rewarded, reworded.
I suppose it took me some time before I was willing to give any book I was assigned to read in college the same kind of attention or any book I have read since. I owe it to a book to give it a chance to change me. I don’t always succeed, but at least now I understand it is a discipline, a practice, a commitment. It is no longer enough to read waiting for the feeling to come to want to read. There comes a time when such feelings simply are no longer there. To read romantically, just as it is to love romantically, is simply not enough. A deeper love than what we experience when we are caught in the romantic aura of another, would be charity, a kind of sustained and sustaining love that acknowledges fault, hurt, disappointment and that fights through boredom, fatigue, and our own weakness as readers but that does not condemn. Instead it acts as a way to redeem and magnify, both ourselves and the text.
I am in the middle of a two week workshop devoted to the loving act of reading the entirety of one chapter of scripture, 1 Nephi 1, from the Book of Mormon, along with seven formal participants and a handful of other informal participants. Two weeks. To read a total of twenty verses. We are spending approximately eight hours a day in this endeavor. It is fair to wonder, how in the world in this done? We are from different disciplines: philosophy, literature, theology, mathematics, and communications (we had hoped to have a sociologist with us who was unable to come at the last moment). I am amazed at what is transpiring.We spend our morning hours alone, mulling over 3-4 verses at a time, thinking and writing down ideas about language—diction, syntax, grammar—and connections to related scriptures and ideas. We then compose roughly a 1000-word respond to what we have read. We then join each other and spend a good hour sharing our initial thoughts that emerged from our close textual analysis. We then listen to and discuss each other’s formal written responses. We then spend some time reflecting on the theological implications of what we have read. We have also enjoyed inspiring lectures and presentations by local British scholars (did I mention we are in London?) who have addressed questions related to our chosen focus. We can scarcely stop talking to each other and find our evenings filled with informal discussion too.
It is stunning to me to realize the range and diversity of thoughts that emerge from such an exercise so narrowly focused on so little text. But the text becomes more and more alive, more complex, more elusive even as it feels as if we are extracting wisdom and understanding. The text is like a tree from which we can extract sap to make syrup but it will remain a living thing, irreducible to what we make of it. Texts are often as interesting as the people who read them. There is no doubt that book clubs, classrooms, families, and other collective settings are perhaps ideally suited for the reading experience. There should be time and occasion for reading out loud. For discussion. For questions and shared insights and reactions. Reading is an act of building community, even though such community is built on the paradox of our inevitable differing reactions and interpretations. Sure, we come to some consensus but we also see our differences in clearer relief. That helps us to know who we are dealing with when we interact with others or, for that matter, when we look ourselves in the mirror. It also strengthens our ability to live as a community that includes and accepts difference, something every believing community needs to learn. Books are mirrors, in this sense. I don’t mean that they can be reduced to what we think they mean, but when we really wrestle with them, we learn far more about ourselves than we can in the rushed and instrumental way we normally read, if we read at all. And usually sacred books tell us to repent, so this is good too before we rush to judgment about others.
It hardly seems right that a religious community that takes seriously the claim of sacred literature would treat reading shabbily, with little thought or care, or with any degree of neglect. Religion in its root meaning means to reread. So get some religion. Take up a book. Take a paragraph. Chew on it for a good long while. Watch and listen to what language does. What it doesn’t do. Watch what you do and don’t do when you read. Forget about the world for a moment and just experience what language facilitates, especially language that has a long and deep evolutionary history, that carries with it memories of the ages, and that has been carefully and lovingly crafted by a wordsmith. You will treat language with greater reverence, both what comes in the ear and what comes out of the mouth. This is your stewardship.