by Father Robert Lauder
I am trying to start a campaign among my friends and the students whom I teach at St. John’s University to encourage reading. In encouraging others, I am hoping to improve my own habits of reading. Though I do not watch a great deal of television, I wonder if I succumb to the tube too frequently. Though the path to hell is paved with good intentions, I may try to form a few new ones concerning reading.
Having talked with other college professors, I have the impression that students no longer read for pleasure. Reading is no longer one of the ways that they spend leisure time. Why not? My guess is that with computers, stereos, television sets and automobiles, there may be too many distractions.
Reading may have tough competition from more immediate pleasures. Whatever the reason, I think we have a serious problem. I suspect that in relation to being educated, as a way of shaping critical intelligence, as a practice for expanding a person’s horizon, there may be nothing as beneficial as reading. Add to that what seems to be true: people who read are often very interesting people.
My sister was a voracious reader. She devoured books, all sorts of books and she got through them quickly and seemed to have a high level of comprehension. I recall an incident that underlines for me how quickly she read and also how she seemed to easily retain what she read. I was scheduled to be one of two speakers at a communion breakfast. The day before the breakfast the other speaker called in sick. My priest friend, who had invited me, asked my sister if she would substitute for the ailing speaker. The day before the breakfast my sister speed read a book on Catholic Action and at the breakfast sounded like an expert!
I could offer many examples to indicate how a person’s knowledge and experience are increased and deepened through reading. The one I tell my students is about my friend, who was a doctor and one of the most widely read men I have ever met. He read everything and was so intelligent that he forgot little of what he read.
He was invited by an acquaintance to spend an evening watching slides of Europe that the man had taken on a recent vacation to Europe. As each slide appeared my doctor friend quickly identified what had been photographed and probably made a few comments about the history surrounding what appeared in the slide.
Eventually the man showing the slides apologized. He said “Doctor, I am sorry. Here am I showing you these slides and obviously you have been to all these places that I visited.” My friend said “I have never been to Europe. I have spent my entire life in Brooklyn.” My friend had been to all the sites depicted in the slides through his imagination having been stimulated and educated through reading!
No one can experience everything directly but through reading we can experience vicariously. Great writers can help us have new experiences through the written word and the experiences through reading are often richer and more profound than if we were having the experiences directly. The great writers help us to see truths about human persons and even about God that we might not discover on our own. A theologian, who has marvelous insights into human nature, told me that he learned most of what he knows about human nature from reading literature. Years ago in an essay in America, the Jesuit magazine, Father Andrew Greeley wrote the following:
“Human artists see things more clearly than the rest of us. They penetrate into the illumination of being more intimately than do the rest of us. They want us to see what they see so that we can share in their illumination. They are driven to duplicate that beauty in their work…The artist is a sacrament maker, a creator of emphasized, clarified beauty designed to make us see. Artists invite us into the world they see so that we can go forth from that world enchanted by the luminosity of their work and with enhanced awareness of the possibilities of life.”
Everything that Father Greeley claims about artists applies to great writers. Dante, Chaucer, Dostoyevsky and many others can take us into new worlds. They can help us to see more deeply into the mystery of person and the mystery of God.
Great literature can reveal the depth of human existence to us. In reading stories about others, we can come to a more profound understanding of ourselves. Great literature holds the mirror up to nature and in looking into that mirror we can see ourselves.