Who reads anymore? I just finished an article that explored the reality of a new generation who do not read for pleasure, who have lost the habit of reading books. I admit to my own guilt, since I do not read nearly as much as I used to; too much time on the internet. That, and I watch baseball now. Though I have pretty high standards for what I read online, such as one can, I readily confess that those things are not of the same level of substance as the books that I have read and could be reading.
My college years were filled with excellent books, presented by excellent teachers. The first week of freshman year I took to heart what my advisor told me: what makes you a serious student is that when you encounter the mention of a significant book, you take it upon yourself to read that book. In the course of that conversation, Voltaire’s Candide was mentioned; so, later that week, I read it. This was a good way to go through college, if demanding.
But even before that, some of the books that I still find most helpful to have read, I took up in high school. Public school, in Alabama, in the 1970’s – who knew anything was to be learned? But reading one book a week for a year in my “Modern Novel” seminar got my juices flowing, and provided touchstones I still use today, the best of which I have since re-read.
Evaluating now the books that shaped my understanding, I am amazed how many of them I took up after I had finished college but before entering seminary. I was clearly discerning my identity and my vocation, but before I even spoke to a vocation director about priesthood, I had a time of voracious reading.
In my homilies and in these columns, I will share with you this or that book I have read and what it has to offer. But those are simply grace notes on the real project of reading that you and I share; we read the revelation of the living God, the Word made flesh whose life comes to us in privileged words that convey the truth.
Clearly, the sacred scriptures are the books that open before us the knowledge and understanding we need to live life and to give life. The lectionary is the Church’s selected program of reading from the scriptures that provides the readings we hear at Mass, laid out in a three-year cycle built on a working through of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. You would think that being in my fourth time through this program just since becoming Pastor here, it might get …old. But no! Every time I open the scripture for a Sunday or a weekday, I find new insight or nuance or instruction or help or even a burning question for me that I had never noted before. And the “frequent flyers” – passages that recur at weddings and funerals – grow in depth and complexity each time they are juxtaposed to another life and situation.
But so much of this understanding that God offers us, of Himself and of us, is laid out in literary form. How are we to make sense of it if we are not in the habit of reading? How can we picture a scene, understand a statement, relate to a protagonist, catch an allusion, follow a trajectory, or grasp a parallel, if we are not in the habit of reading?
Who reads anymore? It had better be us, and it had better be our children. Because the reading of books, good books of literature and history and biography and serious thought, help us to read the writings of God, especially but not only in “the Good Book.” This, and this alone, will keep us free from the thrall of salesmen, madmen, and experts, with all their scribblings. God has revealed Himself in the Eternal Word, Jesus, whom Peter recognized as the only one who has “the words of eternal life,” and has made Himself not a hidden God, but an open book. And to know Him, to love and understand Him, we have to keep reading.