The Joy of Reading

G.W. CarlsonI don’t know anyone who loves books as much as my colleague G.W. Carlson (previously the subject of a post on Pietism in the Baptist General Conference), whom I had the pleasure of interviewing this May, just a couple of weeks before he retired from full-time teaching after having been at Bethel since 1968. (Here’s my own retirement tribute to GW.) With cameras rolling, surrounded by his incomparable office library, he answered a set of prepared questions about history, education, and Bethel.

What GW didn’t know is that most of the interview was a ploy: first, to get him to say the word that would become the “Rosebud” of the Citizen Kane spoof we produced for his retirement party; and second, to let me close by going off script and asking this:

What do books mean to you?

Now, if you don’t know GW, you first need to click this link to see a picture of his office, since the YouTube clip below is shot in close-up and only has videotapes in the background… Or watch this portion of Citizen Carlson (featuring some wonderfully naturalistic acting from yours truly) for a tour of GW’s library.

All done? Okay, now watch and learn why GW collects and reads all those books:

Hearing GW talk about reading was one of the highlights of my spring 2012 semester. His collection of books is so large (“How large is it?” I spent two hours last Friday trying to assimilate the selection of 19th and 20th century European history books he gifted me, yet you’d never know that they were missing from the larger set) that it’s become something of a campus joke. So it was truly a joy to be reminded that all those books were more than props, that they bore witness to a life spent reading the words of others.

He gave three reasons (a typically trinitarian response from my favorite Baptist) for his love of reading. The first is my favorite — and the one that I didn’t expect to hear:

It gives me the opportunity, in a reflective manner, to think about what the author has thought about as important. You do it alone. You do it slowly. And you do it with the capacity to go back if you have some understanding and you missed something.

There’s a lot here to reflect on. The first sentence reveals GW to be a person of considerable empathy — desiring to connect with the mind of another, as E.H. Carr said was the historian’s imperative. And treating as an “opportunity” the chance to reflect on what someone else “has thought about as important” is also profoundly hospitable: the intellectual equivalent of allowing in a couple of [insert whatever evangelistic religious group annoys you] door-to-door missionaries and paying full attention as they speak their piece.

The second should surprise anyone who knows GW, a social animal if there ever was one. Perhaps the solitude of reading is the one aspect of the activity with which he struggles, or maybe he too just needs some peace and quiet.

But it’s the third sentence that most surprised me. After all, the GW legend is that he reads at least a book a day, maybe three or four on the weekend. While I didn’t doubt that he read effectively, I assumed that he did so quickly. Yet here he was emphasizing a more deliberate pace: “You do it slowly.”

Before I go further… Do you read slowly? Do you speed read? Does it depend on the type of reading material, or whether you’re holding a book or a Kindle?

Altogether, GW’s answer reminded me of one of the many memorable passages in Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. It starts with Jacobs grumbling about a website called bkkeepr, which provides the (dubious, in Jacobs’ mind) service of keeping track of how fast you read your books. Argues Jacobs:

Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionI think this is a bad idea. It’s what you’re reading that matters, and how you’re reading it, not the speed with which you’re getting through it. Reading is supposed to be about the encounter with other minds, not an opportunity to return to the endlessly appealing subject of Me. Americans have enough encouragements to narcissism; let’s try to do without this one. (p. 67)

Why do Americans (myself included — I rarely take time to savor a book) read as fast as they can? Jacobs starts with the scarcity of time: “We don’t want to miss something special, especially if we miss it because we simply run out of years. This is understandable, and when such thoughts pass through my mind I can feel a brief rush of panic” (p. 70). Though he wonders why we don’t reread books out of the same sense of time trickling away…

In the end, he suspects a different reason for our pace of reading: “…all things considered, I believe that most people read quickly because they want not to read but to have read.” The notion of having to show that you’ve read certain books is a recurring bugaboo for Jacobs, who encourages his readers to read “at whim,” for the sheer pleasure of the act. He continues,

But why do they want to have read? Because, I think, they conceive of reading simply as a means of uploading information to their brains….

But if you think of reading in this way… then reading will always seem too slow. If I can transfer the complete contents of a book to my computer in ten seconds, why does it take me a week to transfer it to my brain? And why is that latter form of uploading so error-prone and so often incomplete? (pp. 71-72)

For some kinds of reading, information upload is entirely appropriate. (For cookbooks and software manuals, Jacobs suggests.) The problem is that many of us apply the same method to works that require deliberation. Jacobs first notes philosophy and literature as examples, but later adds that historical works (he discusses Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire) also demand closer attention: “Careful writers of narrative, whether that narrative is fictional or historical or journalistic, will, like composers, work with themes and variations on those themes” (p. 74).

And here Jacobs (as he does at a couple of points) suggests that he and I and other college professors are partly to blame: while we assign books hoping students will savor them and emerge changed by the encounter with the author’s mind, we also engage in evaluation,

and therefore by our actions are virtually demanding that students read instrumentally, that is, for some good completely external to the pleasures and values of reading itself: in other words, we are telling them to read for a grade. And any student who has a grade in the forefront, or perhaps even in the background, of his or her mind is likely to read in that uploading style, so the necessary data will be available when it’s needed. (p. 73)

So let me close this post about one book-loving teacher (and featuring the insights of another) by asking any teachers in the audience:

How do convey a joy of reading to your students? Do you agree with Jacobs that assigning reading can lead to the wrong kind of reading? If so, how do you try to get around that problem?


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