Arts and Culture

Reading Helps Us Tap into Literary Treasures

When I first started writing this weekly column many years ago, my mother often would say to me, “I don’t know why you are writing all of these columns. No one understands what you’re writing.”

I hope my mother was wrong. One of the reasons I am writing this week’s column is to share my ideas about reading and perhaps stimulate some readers of this column to think about what I see as an exceptionally serious problem.

The problem is that reading as an enjoyable way of passing time but also as a unique way of learning seems to be disappearing among high school and college students and perhaps among others. Though I have neither conducted formal research on this nor read any studies about it, I have found that many teachers on both the high school and college level have experienced the same problem among the students with whom they work. But does the problem extend beyond students to the rest of us? Are all of us too busy? Are there too many demands on our time?

I have been thinking about this issue for several years, but a few events have happened in the last year or so that have impressed upon me the seriousness of the problem. I was amazed that a novel that everyone seems to admit is pornography was read by so many and was on The New York Times bestseller list for months. With all the great novels that are available, why spend time reading junk?

During the last four months, I did more reading of great books than I have done in any previous time period that I can recall. This was partly due to commitments that I had made in relation to courses I have to present but also due to my resolve to read some new books that seemed important to me. I read two very lengthy novels that are considered classics and two new theology books that I think really are exceptionally good. The experience of reading these four books has provoked me to reflect on how I can help others to tap into the literary treasures that are available.


Too Busy to Read?

A friend of mine who is always busy, perhaps too busy, told me during the summer that she was determined to read more. She was going to make a schedule that would allow her to read for at least 15 or 20 minutes each day – something other than the daily newspaper.

I gave her a paperback copy of Shusaku Endo’s “Deep River,” which I consider a great novel. If she follows up on her resolution, I will be interested to hear what difference reading such a novel makes in her day.

Years ago, the great teacher of literature, Mark Van Doren, suggested some questions that a reader should ask when he or she reads a poem, and I propose that the same questions might be asked about novels. Van Doren wrote the following:

“What is a given poem about? What happens in it? What exists in it? If too little of the world is in it, why is that? If all of the world is there, by what miracle has this been done? Is tragedy or comedy at work, and what is the difference between the two, and what the resemblance? Are the facts of life accounted for in the unique way that poetry accounts for them, and is this poem something therefore that any man should read? Does its author know more, not less, than most men know? Such seem to me the great questions, though they are not regularly asked by criticism.”

In the classes I teach at St. John’s University, Jamaica, I try to incorporate into the course requirements important books that I believe each student should read.

Living at the Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, the residence for college seminarians, I had the opportunity to share a literary experience with one of the seminarians last semester. He and I worked our way through Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” Even though he received no academic credit for the reading, the seminarian thought it was a great experience. So did I.

A plan that I have is to invite seminarians to form a book club and read with them novels about priests or novels that raise issues that should interest young men moving toward the priesthood. The first novel I will recommend is Morris West’s “The Devil’s Advocate.” Membership in the club will be voluntary, and the reading should not interfere with the seminarians’ regular studies. The novels might even serve as a motivation toward study.

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