Unheard Melodies

Why do people want to read faster? Not least because life is short: “So many books, so little time,” as the saying goes. 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. But— to anticipate a point to be treated later— it’s rather odd that I tend not to feel the same panic at the thought of not having time to reread books that I already love, even though I know that such rereading will surely be pleasurable. The possible pleasure of an unread book weighs more heavily on me than the sure pleasure of one I already know. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.”

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, pg. 70-71

Some of us Most of us need to read more than we do. Yet Jacobs warns us with the distinction between reading for the pleasure of it and reading merely to have read. Those massive lists of BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE can actually stifle our appreciation for good books. We’re too busy trying to get to the next volume.

“Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written,” wrote Thoreau, and the statement is perfect because it lets you skim the chaff. (Be warned, ye Twitter users, taking this dictum to heart will inoculate you against that beloved platform of controversy and snark.)

So go a little slower. My parents would occasionally remind me: “slow down, and chew your food— it isn’t going anywhere!”

Take Up and Read

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said…

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

~C.S. Lewis, Introduction to On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius

Literary Hedonism

One evening a month or so ago, my three oldest children were reading on the couch, each one in their own way. Maria, my second oldest, seven, was silently reading one of the Little House books to herself. In the middle of the couch sat Abraham, my oldest at nine years old. He was reading aloud one of the Hardy Boys books to Judah, five. Reading- aloud, silently, and by listening have been the trinity of my kid’s reading lives.

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I have been trying for most of my life to figure out reading. Before Rachel and I had children, we had aspirations for the kinds of educational goals that we thought would suit our children. These goals were as easy to discuss as ‘what would you do if you won the lottery,’ considering that we had no raw material to work from, no obstacles to weigh our dreams against. When we finally did have our firstborn son, we decided that above all else, we wanted our children to love and glorify God, and to love reading. We considered that a love of reading and learning would be conducive for properly shaping and equipping a young mind for the wide world and God’s purposes.

I obviously don’t know yet how many large directional mistakes we’ve made, but there are some things that have gone well. God has blessed our simple efforts to raise readers. Rachel and I wanted to expose their eyes and ears to the riches of literature, and we continued to raise our expectations just a bit higher than we thought them likely to attain.

Today, library trips are a regularly scheduled occasion. The children remind me of starving inmates awaiting daily rations. Entire series are greedily gobbled down before another trip can be arranged. Their enjoyment was something we could share together. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Abraham and Maria while they were three and four respectively. Since then, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed countless hours of shared literary experience. I can’t tell you how many Harry Potter jokes we’ve recounted to one another. Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, David Copperfield, and Narnia have provided worlds of imagination and shared culture to appreciate. Lewis, Kipling, Tolkien, Homer- our list of patrons goes ever on and on. We wanted to read with serendipity, a word that Alan Jacobs bequeathed to us that forever changed our reading habits.

So, we read for pleasure, for pure joy. Let us call it literary hedonism. If we find that we can enjoy a text that we had to work hard to appreciate, we are overjoyed for the pleasure of the thing. Lest concerns of pride arise, we pay homage to the author to receive and engage what he or she has to offer. We have nothing that we did not receive. It is all so exhilarating. I look over the lists of texts we’ve read with wonder- how many more will we share? We’ll enjoy the tales of arms and of men, of rings of power, and of the best and worst of times.

Rudyard Kipling on reading old books

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“If we pay no attention to words whatever, we may become like the isolated gentleman who invents a new perpetual-motion maching on old lines in ignorance of all previous plans, and then is surprised that it doesn’t work. If we confine our attention entirely to the slang of the day -that is to say , if we devote ourselves exclusively to modern literature- we get to think the world is progressing when it is only repeating itself…. [I]t is only when one reads what men wrote long ago that one realises how absolutely modern the best of the old things are.”

~ quoted in Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction