Making the most of college: learning to love good books
Books or movies? Word or image? Byron Borger doesn't think it's a case of 'either or.' Instead, Borger insists that readers can approach all of life—tasks and people, classes and socializing, parking oneself in a study carrel and taking a road trip, engaging in a class discussion and a conversation on a first date, or learning how to use a library catalogue and how to cook a first meal—by reveling in the joy and discipline of reading.
I was once interviewing a prominent author, a futurist and evangelist, who was all about the computer chip, the hi-def screen, electronics, and the internet. He made a good case that we are in the early stages of huge cultural shifts akin to the famed industrial revolution, shifts that will be far-reaching and long lasting. He believes that the church should think seriously about entering and exploiting the fast-paced, hot-wired world of images and electronic interaction, pixels and ether. Besides the inevitability of the coming mass media culture, he insists it is a good thing. "Byron," he says, over sips of grande mocha something-or-other, "the next generation whose brains are being re-wired by virtual reality, may not quite understand the linear logic of the first half of the book of Romans as my generation does, but they will understand the visions of John better than anyone." Gulp.
Well. What's a hot-wired college student like you to think? Give up linear logic and the ability to consider arguments, Pauline points, and persuasion? Just plug in the iPOD, go with the flow of flickering impressions, take in the Apostle John's dreams and visions and let it go at that? Do postmoderns no longer need books?
To swipe a line from the apostle Paul himself, "May it never be!" Despite the common dichotomies of word versus image and reading versus watching, a Christian worldview that understands 'the good givens' of God's creation should reject such polarities. In God's good world we relish logic and emotion, thinking and feeling, and understand that they are usually deeply intertwined anyway (good parts of our created human-ness that they are). We need not despise electronic culture or the popular arts to bolster our affirmation of the significance of reading. A well written book can sway even the most thoughtful reader with emotional rhetoric and can conjure images almost as easily as a streaming music video or a TV screen can clearly convey understandable truth claims. So we need not oppose "the visual" or overstate the anxiety about "amusing ourselves to death" in order to, in Wendell Berry's memorable phrase, "stand by words" (Standing By Words, 1984).
Still, it may seem nearly counter-cultural on some campuses to affirm that printed words still matter—deeply matter—and to stand by them in this media-drenched age. Even as we affirm the good gift of electronic culture and image-based technologies, to be faithful to God's call to develop your Christian mind by learning to "think Christianly," at some point you will have to put down the Xbox. Trust me: the late-night run for pizza will unravel to suck up your best quiet hours. The quality conversation about Syriana may feel like it is so very important but may have to wait. To read deeply, to read carefully, to enter into the rigors and joys and benefits of serious reading will mean setting priorities, making choices, and being disciplined. It will take curmudgeonly courage at times to see reading as a spiritual discipline and to go at it consistently and with firm intention. As in upholding our commitments to regular Bible study or prayer times, the 'busy-ness' of college life will demand that we regularly remember who we are, what our focal practices are, and why we do what we do. We will have to remember that we are people of the Book.
Ahh. Do you know the scene in Chaim Potok's wonderful novel, In The Beginning, where a strictly conservative Jewish boy and his gentile friend talk about their respective faiths? The Jewish kid is astonished that the Catholic fellow doesn't seem to love his Scriptures very much. Potok has them watching a powerful scene, a Hasidic celebration in which a dancer clutches the large Torah scrolls to his chest as he twirls in adoration and joy. "Hey, Tony," the Jewish teen asks, "Do you ever dance with your Bible?" Good question, eh? It may seem bold to say, but even in a setting designed for higher learning, we must work hard so that we learn to love the printed page; so that we can learn to take delight in standing, if not dancing, by words.
Not everyone is necessarily called to high-level academics (although some of you may even now know that you hope to pursue advanced degrees). But all collegians, insofar as they have properly discerned God's call to the vocation of learning and study, should use this season of their lives as one of academic discipleship. This comes as somewhat of a surprise to some who see their college classes as nearly peripheral to their faith—learning to love God with our minds? Learning as a holy calling? Reading textbooks as an act of spiritual formation? Yes, indeed.
Of course, student life is multi-dimensional, and even the most studious should celebrate the important opportunities for taking in live concerts, taking off on road trips, taking on risks by meeting new friends, doing new things, learning on your feet. From engaging in service projects to learning to shop and to cook in your first apartment, from experiencing new kinds of ethnic diversity to finding a new home church, good learning happens in plenty of ways, away from the study carrel or reading lamp. Intellectual development is cultivated in the most surprising places yet it seems that those who read widely possess a greater capacity to glean from life experiences than the non-reader does. Serious readers can make meaning out of their various non-classroom learning environments more easily than those who are casual about their more traditional scholarly studies. Life and learning are surely multi-dimensional, but this is no reason to minimize the importance of a steady habit of reading good books. It may be an argument in favor of reading widely-African novels and marxist aesthetics, existentialist poetry and Native folk tales, medieval theology and contemporary journalism, various kinds of scientific essays and, perhaps, continental philosophy, biography and memoir, and ethnographies of all kinds. The disciplines of reading, discovering the joys of the printed page, the acquired joys of browsing a good bookstore, or snooping a friend's library, are vital for contemporary Christian discipleship and fully human flourishing. Humans tell stories and we have a God-given instinct to want to communicate and to learn. Read, read, read.
Who hasn't longed for the experience of Olympic runner Eric Liddell, portrayed in the movie, Chariots of Fire, as saying, "When I run I feel God's pleasure?" If this isn't your experience with books—feeling God's pleasure in study, as Liddell did in athletics—you should pray for God's joy as you turn each page. Although "reading for pleasure" is often used to indicate non-compulsory reading (light novels, short stories, romances or mysteries, inspirational essays, sports or pop culture news, and the like) wouldn't it be beautiful to see a community of Christian students who take delight in their required texts, too? What a witness it would be if Christian students were glad to be serious readers fully engaged in the books they are taking up? If Christian students read extra books to supplement their typical reading to acquire a perspective rooted in a Christian worldview, wouldn't that astonish professors and classmates? In those schools where professors fret about the lack of student attentiveness, this would be an amazing contribution to the campus ethos.
Of course we can enjoy light fiction, film reviews, cookbooks, moving memoirs, travelogues, and all kinds of writing—in books, magazines, and on-line. This week I'm humouring myself by reading a wondrous and funny book about the reading of obituaries, I cried through the ending of a recent novel about an Ohio farm woman, I exchanged e-mail about a controversial collection of pieces by a New Yorker author who affirms stay-at-home-mothering but has a nanny and a maid, I plan to dip in to a collection of wildly fun rants by a nature writer I enjoy, and I can't wait to finish an old Anne Tyler novel—but naming only these as "pleasure" reading implies a disdain for great texts. This is not right. Assigned Shakespearean plays, mandatory astronomy texts, business case studies, narratives of third world history, or articles about educational theory may be more demanding and less obviously fun than Blue Like Jazz, say, or Anne Lamott, but we should pray that we "feel God's pleasure" as we approach our college studies and our reading of great books. All that we do (Eric Liddell got it just right!) is worship, so even our academic reading (as, too, our recreational reading) can be devotional, engaging the thoughts of authors in such a way as to please God and make the heart glad (even if it makes the head hurt and the eyes grow red).
Not all great books, and certainly not all college texts, are joyful, or pleasing to God. Weird ideologies, dense writing, and perverse perspectives make us work hard, and are sometimes so demanding that we must pray for insight, for discernment, reading even through tears, as we do the heavy lifting of becoming a serious learner. Even as we struggle to stay awake and alert enough to read between the lines, there can be the satisfaction of being faithful. We can know we are responding earnestly to the commands "love your God with all your mind" and "take every thought captive." Yes, we are committed to reading, to the taking up of books, to the art of standing by words. But not all words are trustworthy. Soon enough, we enter into the deeper experiences of reading, honing the skills of maturity that make for a good reader: we hold the book carefully. We learn to read generously and yet to interpret, to re-interpret, to appropriate. We ask questions, consciously and unconsciously, too, I suspect, working to determine if we truly understand an author's vision and viewpoints, and to ask if the author's views are sound and how they might impact our lives. Mortimer Adler speaks beautifully and wisely about this stage of reading in the enduring classic simply titled How to Read a Book. And then we do it again, perhaps with others, talking over coffee or lunch. Like bread for the journey we carry these ideas with us, becoming nourished and changed by what we read.
Most colleges these days do not do the best job of helping students explore connections between various courses—the relationships among the different academic disciplines. Here, extra reading, especially of good novels, can help resist the erosion of coherence and meaning that comes from pedagogical fragmentation. I know students that read specially chosen stories to supplement whatever class they are taking, and carefully choose classes so that their reading load can overlap. Further, few colleges, even Christian colleges, nurture the connection between a student's deepest convictions and her academic studies. To do this well—integrating faith and learning, some call it—the academic community must help students develop the capacities to be passionate about reading. Professors and campus pastors, resident life directors, and the sharper friends within your fellowship, can help you learn to love books. We need to have folks around us who value books, to see these bundles of print and page as allies in your journey towards a faith-filled and coherent college experience, as tools of the trade. Like the expert carpenter who prides himself in and cares for his many and diverse tools, Christian students will learn to collect and care for their books. I recall with pleasure a young Christian, a second-year student, who proudly took me to his dorm room to show off his collection of five—count 'em, five—Christian books. It was the mark of a young, integrated scholar, the beginnings of the habits of being a life-long learner.
Like the apprentice carpenter, we all need mentors who can show us the ways of the trade. We need helpers—those who can be winsome and skillful in conveying Godly excitement about the importance of books and give us guidance in our reading habits. So many bookish decisions—which titles to read first, how many to buy, which to borrow, how many to take most seriously, which to skim? Which authors are worth our time, which should be avoided? Which are funny, doctrinaire, important, daunting, foolish? Is C.S. Lewis correct about the importance of older works? Are song lyrics the same as poetry? Young Christian collegians will grow in their appreciation for certain authors, will grow in enthusiasm for hearing about new books, book reviewing, book buying, and, of course, borrowing and lending (and perhaps blogging about books). We may start to collect books about books, memoirs of other readers, learn to articulate our own joys of reading. Those extraordinary spaces we too often take for granted—the library and the bookstore (and those who work in them)—will become more honored among us. In community with other like-minded readers and, often, those who are not so like-minded, we will learn the delightful art of reading with pleasure and take up the counter-cultural practices of standing by words.
Five habits of the passionate book—lover
Make a schedule. Don't postpone your reading to the end of the day when you are most tired. Serious reading takes some serious commitments. Use the library or another favorite, quiet spot;
Carry a book with you almost all the time. You can dip in during 'down time' or during unexpected free time. You needn't be anti-social or a show-off about your bookwormish habits. Still, you'd be surprised how much reading you can do on the run;
Talk to people you trust about what they most enjoy and what they are reading. Talk about books with people you admire. Find a book-buying mentor and a bookseller who cares about you and your literacy and intellectual development. Read book reviews from a variety of sources;
Read in an interdisciplinary way. Wisely chosen novels can obviously enhance your non-fiction course work in pleasurable ways. Some good books come through serendipity and whim, but it may be helpful to have a plan, at least a list; and
- Stretch yourself occasionally by reading the more serious books. Perhaps, explore a new and unexpected topic for a year, reading several similar books or books by the same author. But don't read exclusively arcane and heavy stuff. Light fare and sweets can enhance any diet.