I love to read. As a young boy, I can remember devouring Ellery Queen mysteries on long vacation drives; taking a hot bath and reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder; curling up in the bay window of a local library, as cascades of rain dripped down the glass, with a harrowing tale of Blackbeard the Pirate. I still have the copy of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, worn from countless readings, given to me on my 12th birthday by my grandmother.
Even now, the perfect day is one with a sky full of dark and heavy clouds, promising a furious storm or inches of snow, with a fire in the fireplace and a book waiting to be devoured by my side.
My love of reading as a boy grew into something altogether different when I became a follower of Christ in college. Reading took on an urgency that it had never held before. Attending a secular university as a new Christian was not an easy task. I was surrounded by very bright people who were not Christ-followers, and were eager to explain why.
To hold on to my faith, much less contend for it, would demand fulfilling the Bible’s clear and commanding exhortation to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (I Peter 3:15). I knew I had to out-think those who were challenging my faith; and to out-think them, I knew I had to out-read them. From this, reading moved from merely reading for pleasure to reading for purpose. No longer did it matter whether I simply enjoyed what I was reading; reading itself had become essential.
So I read the existentialist philosophers, such as Camus and Sartre. I read the great Greek thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle. I delved into history, literature and science. I read the plays of Ibsen and Beckett. I was purposeful in my approach, because I was on a mission to prepare my mind to not simply understand the ideas of the world, but to engage the ideas of the world.
I was not the first to sense this urgency. A monk in Normandy penned these words in 1170: “A monastery without a library [sine armario] is like a castle without an armory [sine armamentario]. Our library is our armory.” This was certainly the conviction of the apostle Paul, who even from his prison cell in Rome implored Timothy to be sure to bring him his books (II Timothy 4:13).
The critical importance of reading reminds me of something I read long ago – so long that the author now escapes me. It was a lament for a book never read. The loss of pages never turned, covers never opened, words never seen.
A single book can deepen your understanding, expand your vision, sensitize your spirit, deepen your soul, ignite your imagination, stir your passions, and widen your wisdom. There truly can be mourning for a book that is never read – mourning for the loss of what our lives could have held, and could have accomplished.
Yet how can we become active readers in the midst of the frantic pace of our lives? It is tempting to view the act of sitting down with a book – much less many books – as a luxury, afforded those with unique schedules or privileged positions in life. In truth, it’s available to us all. It’s simply a matter of choice.
One choice in particular.
I once heard Jim Collins, known to many as the author of bestselling business titles, comment that we do not need to make more “to do” lists, but rather a few “stop doing” lists. I know that in my life, the great opposition to reading is what I allow to fill my time instead of reading. To say we have no time to read is not really true; we have simply chosen to use our time for other things, or have allowed our time to be filled to the exclusion of reading.
So don’t add “reading” to your “to do” list. Just stop doing the things that keep you from doing it.
And particularly the great books.
Robert Maynard Hutchins observes that “until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through the great books.” And what are the great books? “There never was very much doubt in anybody’s mind about which the masterpieces were,” writes Hutchins. “They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind.” The great books are those writings that have most shaped history and culture, civilization and science, politics and economics. They prompt us to think about the great issues of life.
C.S. Lewis simply called them the “old” books.
I once suggested a list of what these books might be. It was in an appendix to a work titled A Mind for God. Our tendency, of course, is not to read the old books at all, or at least to do no more than read books about the old books. More often than not, it is because we determine in advance that they are beyond us, are irrelevant, or would be dry, dull reading. The wonderful surprise is how seldom this is true. Some might take more effort than others, but that is to the point – to exercise the mind.
And not just the mind, but the soul.
As St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote, “Be assiduous in prayer and reading. In the one you speak to God. In the other God speaks to you.”
James Emery White
This post was adapted from James Emery White’s A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press), available here.