C.S. Lewis once said, “You really lose a lot by never reading books again.” It might also be observed that you stand to lose a lot by never reading a book in the first place. And depending on the book in question, you may indeed spare yourself some wasting time. I’ll take my Nobel Peace Prize now.
That you should read a lot of books is given. But the premise today is a simple one. Part of becoming a good Reader is going back and re-reading many of the books on your shelf. This implies, of course, that you’ve read them in first place. They aren’t there just to give nice aesthetic to your Instagram selfies.
An Autobiographical Shortcut To Mushrooms
Parents––and fathers in particular––should be mindful of the books they give their children to read. Take me for an example. As part of my homeschool curriculum, my mom made me read a worldview book called Persuasions by a fellow named Douglas Wilson. Look where that got me. Forewarned is forearmed. To borrow from that wonderful theologian from Arkansas, Johnny Cash, mama’s don’t let your boys grow up to be readers.
Fathers you are the curators of your family library. The books you give to your children to read are the literary friends you are allowing to accompany them. The question you should ask in regards to both human friends and various media “friends” is: “What companions do I want for my children?” A companion of foolish books suffers harm.
Two things stand out to me from my upbringing. First, the advantage that came from a Biblically based education. It teaches you to read, examine, re-read a text in order to understand and apply. This is a Christian practice which we shouldn’t take for granted. This gives your children a leg up on the poor, illiterate victims of our public indoctrination institutions. One need only to venture into the bowels of a YouTube comment section to see that illiteracy in action.
Secondly, my folks gave me a steady diet of good books. These are books I’ve found myself returning to repeatedly in adulthood. Whether it be in the godly courage found in the biographies of great Christians like Jim Elliot, Hudson Taylor, and Brother Andrew, or wandering the woods of Lothlorien and Lantern Waste with Tolkien & Lewis, or witnessing the foibles and follies of Victorian London alongside Austen and Dickens, or staring in terror as Beowulf faces off against Grendel. Not to mention good ol’ fashioned rock-ribbed fundamentalist theologians. You know the sort who knew the difference between boys and girls, and had far more horse-sense than the professors over at Bloated Pig Theological Seminary in Southern Michigan, the discernment bloggers, and most pastors on the Big Eva conference circuit.
These books made the soil rich and fertile. This isn’t to say that it couldn’t be improved upon. But they gave me a truckload of thick, dark literary compost. A father’s job is to read Scripture to his family, and thus begin the formation of great literary soil for his children, and then work in all variety of other worthwhile literature.
In part, this talk is a case for a classical education. We’ve automated everything, for better or worse, including the education of our children. If you’ve walked through the Walmart toy aisle recently, you’ll notice it stocked with toys that do the playing, instead of toys with which you play. The children end up playing with the cardboard box the toys came in, instead of the toy, and for good reason. Imagination and wonder cannot be automated, no matter how many D batteries the toy runs on.
Our approach to child-rearing and education, by and large, has become appeasement, mollifying, and medicating any rambunctiousness, especially in boys. Anything but hard work, anything but discipline, anything but imagination. You see this in the tediousness of modern story-telling in both books and movies. Instead of being drawn into the story and being made to feel what the author intends, we are told what to feel and when. Look, an old, straight, white man…boo, hiss. No one had to tell you, as a child, to be afraid of Sauron, or the White Witch, or the child-catcher from Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang.
It should be apparent to us that something has failed in our nation’s education efforts. For Exhibit A just listen to Kamala Harris giving a speech about space exploration. Then consider that there were numerous speechwriters, aides, and managers who all signed off on it. From draft to delivery someone signed off on this as worthwhile communication, and expect it to be persuasive. And sadly, it is persuasive to a populace that aren’t Readers.
There’s low-hanging fruit, gentlemen. Teaching your kids to read and write has never been such a force to be reckoned with. If you’re really bold, you might even teach them some arithmetic. But let’s not get carried away. A Christian Education, done classically, forces children to read and then return over the course of their education to various books which matter (Plato, The Iliad, Dante, Beowulf, Shakespeare, etc.). It also trains them to be Readers, not just to be able to read. To rip-off a saying of Mark Twain, the difference between being a Reader and just being able to read is the difference between lightning and lightning bugs.
Some Observations of Wiser Men
Spurgeon gave this advice to men preparing for ministry, “Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them…digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride comes from hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be ‘much not many.’”
Lewis, along the same vein offers this insight, “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
The lesson in both of these is to cultivate being a Reader more than just reading. You don’t come to a book as if you were a paying customer, expecting to be dazzled by the chef; rather, the Reader comes humbly, to be shown, to be taught, to be fed. Being a Reader is an art form, a discipline, and lifestyle. Learning to smoke brisket requires you to get some smoke in your eyes. There’s no canonical list of books you must read before you die. Far better to cultivate the important character quality of being a hungry Reader, willing to learn and be shown glory from the pen of another, than to simply have a lot of notches on your literary belt.
Read Until It Hurts
The modern man reads––if you can call scrolling social media “reading”––only for the sake of finding what Lewis calls, “the next Event.” The Christian doesn’t read with an end to find the next amusing tidbit.
To adopt this cultural habit is like buying a party size bag of Doritos, and then after sampling the obligatory first chip, settle into an afternoon of habitual snacking, only later discovering that you’ve consumed the whole bag, spoiled your appetite for dinner, and left cheesy fingerprints over the whole house. The Word brings us to a feast, after all.
The Christian reads to know Christ. As Paul intimates, the whole of the Christian life should be one of seeking out and reaching for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phi. 3:14).
We begin with Scripture reading, of course. But as history has demonstrated, wherever the Word goes, words explode. Both literacy and publishing burst to life wherever the seed of the Word takes root. The Word is a vivifying word. As David declares in his “hymn to the Word”: “I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil (Ps. 119:162). […] I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried: I hoped in thy word. Mine eyes prevent the [night] watches, that I might meditate in thy word (Ps. 119:147-148). […] Thy word [is] very pure: therefore thy servant loveth it (Ps. 119:140).”
So we don’t read just for the next “hmm”, “gee”, “wow”, or “yikes.” We don’t just read for the dopamine hit. We read to know and understand the One true God. A good book, then, becomes a helpful reference point for our growth in grace. And bad books become an exercise in spotting the cancer early.
I remember being given a Brian McClaren book when I was just out of high-school and beginning my early steps toward ministry. This was my first encounter with what was the “emergent movement” which has now morphed into the “exvangelical/deconstructionist” movement. I remember thinking during the book group that was reading that, “what a bunch of poppy-cock.” I was a Southern Baptist at the time, so that was the closest to an expletive I was allowed.
Lewis, in Experiment in Criticism, makes the case that while there are objectively bad books, the problem is more often found in the reader, not the books. It is only by regular reading, and re-reading that we come to understand the matter of the thing. “Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.”
In other words, the Reader’s character matters more than the books which he reads. Lewis refers to this sort of reader as “those who read to understand.” A good reader will be able to sift through any book for meat, while spitting out the bones. A bad reader will simply consume whatever steaming pile of mass-produced dung comes off the printing press of Bamboozle U Publishing House, Inc. A good book, according to Lewis, is one that incites in you an awe for the true myth. This can happen in some unexpected places. The Lord spoke through a donkey once, after all.
Books that Boomerang for Me
Perhaps there was a book you read in college, and some line has stuck with you. On a later re-reading of the book, you might find the book, on the whole wasn’t that good or even had some wobbly points of doctrine. But what you ought to notice is that the Spirit of the Word can pick up and use whatever tool is lying nearby to open our hearts to God’s grace and glory.
The Word goes forth to perform what it was sent forth to accomplish. This is true for the Scripture itself; but Scripture reading equips you to find words of biblical wisdom in each book read, as well as spot devious errors. In this way of reading, you find beloved passages to return to, like a favorite lookout point in the Rocky Mountains. Wide reading ensures that you come across hidden game trails, leading to glorious vistas. Put simply, the books that boomerang can be just about any book. By becoming a good reader, you simultaneously become a magnet for good books.
Let me close with the three books that seem to return to me time and time again. Ironically, they’re all outside my current theological affiliation. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy was handed to me at my high school graduation party, and those first lines were like my first shot of Gospel bourbon.While C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce found a way to become a seemingly endless supply for sermon & counseling illustrations, as well as assisting in learning to read people. Finally, Andrew Murray’s Humility became a sweet fountain of devotional conviction, “the holiest,” he says, “is always the humblest.” That is a good way to conclude. A good reader is a humble reader. As such, God has promised to raise up such a reader into glory.