Thursday, February 21, 2008
The Preacher’s Corner
To read, you must stop being afraid of your books
It was Mortimer J. Adler who with Charles Lincoln Van Doren, famously wrote many years ago a small volume called “How to Read a Book.” It is the standard bestselling guide on how to read books and access information.
Most people, it seems, even if they read books, do not know how to read one properly. Now, lest you think I am about to pen a tribute to some sort of rarified literary snobbery, let me hasten to say that I believe most people are too timid with their books and their reading! What I call for is a more “muscular” kind of reading.
To do this, you must stop being afraid of your books. You have to put your hands on your book and master it. This may mean “dogearing” pages, tearing out sections, marking it up with different colored pens and markers, writing all over the margins, even ripping the volume in half if it is too bulky to hold comfortably. I have given up more than one book because its weight pressed down uncomfortably while reading in bed.
In short, you have to do whatever it is you have to do to get the book to divulge its hidden treasures. You can’t tip-toe around it. Who is the boss, you or the book?
Now, I realize this advice could get me into trouble with the library -- so let me hasten to state that I am advocating this treatment only for books that are your own personal private property. And, let me say that, as a corollary, if you can possibly own a book rather than borrow it, then labor, mortgage or sell, whatever you have to, short of your wife and children, to possess books, that you can devour and digest as you please.
One of Archbishop Cranmer’s great achievements in the Prayer Book is a collect for the occasion known as Bible Sunday, in which God is asked to grant that “we may read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the truths of holy Scripture, “that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life.”
The good archbishop understood, as few moderns do, the necessity of “active reading.” The very effort of marking or underlining in a book helps fix the content upon the memory, as well as noting for you the important places you might come back to for future reference. Working through a mystery? It helps to mark the clues!
The advent of school-owned textbooks was a great boon to the education of a wider population of students, but the unwitting byproduct of that policy was to make passive readers out of several generations of the American public. Those notices on the flyleaf of every public school textbook were engraved on my little mind, as if beaten into my flesh with a hickory stick: “THIS BOOK IS THE PROPERTY OF THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI. PUPILS MUST NOT WRITE ON OR MARK ANY PAGE OF THIS TEXTBOOK.” It is like those stickers affixed to pillows and mattresses “Do not remove this tag under penalty of law.”
My grandmother, who attended a one-room school, used hand-me-down textbooks from her older siblings. She used to remark that their markings helped her identify the essential parts of the lessons. But of course such activities must be “verboten” if the book is not your own or owned within a family circle. So if at all possible, children ought to possess their own books and learn how to read and mark them helpfully.
This has its cost, of course. If a shelf of pretty volumes is your goal, you cannot treat books this way. But people will also realize that all your pretty books are just for show, and that you probably have not read them anyway. In that case, why not go for artificial flowers or pottery instead of books upon your curio shelf?
Recently, I gathered up a few armloads of books I have “read, marked, and inwardly digested” and which I was confident I would use no more, and put them up for sale on eBay. I was amused but not offended that some potential buyers were put off by the fact that I advertised that the books had been read and marked. My honesty resulted in some lost sales and certainly in lower bids. But what is the point of having a book if you are not going to empty its contents into your head? Some depreciation of the book’s value is of necessity to be expected.
For my part, I have enjoyed getting a book that some intelligent reader has previously possessed. The markings they left behind are clues to how the book was appreciated and taken into that person’s mind and heart. Especially when I have known the previous reader, it helps me feel I know that person’s mind more intimately.
This is even and especially true with Bibles. I enjoy leafing through my grandmother’s Bible, seeing what verses were meaningful to her, and the little notes she penciled into the margins. Some people (recalling the warnings of their school books) think it irreverent to mark up a Bible, but my grandmother’s Bible (from which I read at church every Christmas Eve) would mean much less to me without these visible signs of her ownership and appreciation of the sacred text.
Paging through some of my own Bibles tells me how my own faith has (hopefully) deepened and matured. Certain verses that I thought central to correct doctrine and practice have receded as I have lived and ministered among congregations for upwards of 30 years. At one time I would have “gone to the mat” over predestination. Now, this Presbyterian is content to believe that if it is so, we shall find out in eternity, when as Ben Franklin said, he expected he could get the answer with a lot less trouble.
I hated to part with the books I sold, for books are like old friends to one who enjoys reading.
However, I am hopeful that the young minister in St. Louis who purchased the bulk of those I had to sell, will “read, mark, and inwardly digest” and form friendships also for himself with those good comrades in reading that had so long graced my homiletical shelf. For a good book, like an old friend, cannot really be loved, unless you embrace it, hold it fast, and take it into your mind and heart.
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