If you haven’t read much by James Sire, please do yourself a favor and hit your big toe with a hammer. Not a sledge hammer mind you. Just a regular sized hammer. Or maybe a ball peen hammer if that’s all you have on hand. Even a small floor lamp could do if you got the angle and speed right as you dropped it. The point is to negatively reinforce that habit you’ve gotten into.
No seriously, Habits of the Mind was a great book. Naming the Elephant was a tough read, but paid well in the end. And The Universe Next Door is the classic book that surveys various worldviews.
Right now I’m working through How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension, and it has been like a freshly brewed cup of coffee to my reading skills. Most of us don’t understand how to read (yep, even those of us reading this post…). Sire, on the other hand, knows where we miss the mark as we read and will show us how to be better readers. And some of the ways we miss are really common. Remember, frequency does not equal mastery. I eat everyday, but I’m no master at eating (I do not always eat well, or efficiently, or the right amount). Sire is here to help us to understand what we do wrong as we read, and to teach us two things: 1) How to read correctly, and 2) How to read World-viewishly.
Both of the above merit their own post. But for today, let me just give you a taste of the way Sire can capture an idea and communicate it. In a chapter where he explains how poetry works, he happens to make a side-comment about great literature. Read it yourself and see if you don’t agree with him.
What is the primary reason for reading poetry or any imaginative literature? Beyond all psychologizing as to real or apparent motives, we read literature because we enjoy it – and we enjoy it because we are grabbed by it, our attention is arrested. We say, “ha ha! Yes, that’s how it is.”
In great literature — poetry and fiction — we see ourselves, our friends, our enemies, the world around us. We see our interest portrayed in bold relief – our questions asked better than we can ask them, our problems pictured better than we can picture them by ourselves, our fantasies realized beyond our fondest dreams, our fears confirmed in horrors more horrible than our nightmares, our hopes fulfilled past our ability to yearn or desire.
In literature we catch reality in a mirror. We are not seeing life raw – all spread out in a flux which we have to bring to order. We are seeing, at least in the greatest literature, life structured, chaos ordered, the flux halted, the transient nailed down. In literature we can pass the same way twice, have the same experience over and over again, each time intensified.
Life, our life, is short, but art is long. Sophocles is dead, but Oedipus lives on and on, and is recreated hundreds of thousands of times as generation after generation brings him to life by reading Oedipus Rex or seeing it performed on stage. Each of us when we read a great piece of literature is a little more human than before, a little more able to see with meaning, “this, then, is man.”
There are many who have tackled the question of good books. What is it that makes a book good? What is it that captures our attention? Why is it that sometimes we read and come away different? Sire has a good *read* on this question (see what I did there? 😆). We would do well to listen to him.
But the bigger issue here is that sometimes a good book is more than just a bit of entertainment. It’s the sort of thing that shapes you. It sands you down in the rough places of your life, and builds you up in the creaky spots that need some attention. A good book captures something about life, but in the end, it captures us readers as well. And this changes what we see as “the good life” many times. In fact, changing one’s perception of the world, and reordering it correctly…that seems like something worth doing. Some books do this very well, and give us a worthy picture of what life should be like. Other books are akin to a 3-year-old’s drawing of a car that looks more like an Aardvark. I’m sure that was interesting to look at, but you wouldn’t want that as your vision of the good life.
Learning to fit the reading of good and helpful books into our busy lives is something every Christian should do. Of course, there’s a book that is better at this than all the rest. One that every Christian should be reading regularly to get the vision of the good life. It does better than any other book out there, and the one who reads it will gain more than a little entertainment, they will gain wisdom!
But that doesn’t surprise us since that Author has the best *read* on human nature to begin with.