I love books! I love the feel of them, the smell of them, the way they look on the shelf, and, most of all, the joy of learning something that feeds my mind and soul. Before I married and acquired a mortgage, I spent a ridiculous amount of money on books. I adopted the philosophy of Erasmus: “When I get a little money I buy books;and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” I had a quote in my class- “ room by Samuel Davies, “The venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me and relieve me from the nonsense of the surviving mortals.”
Beyond my personal love for reading I am very cognizant of the central role that reading plays in education. Mortimer Adler, editor of Britannica’s Great Books, was distressed that reading for understanding is not taught in schools. “There is nothing more important that our schools could do,” he said, “if our schools have as their main function the preparation of young people to go on with a life of adult learning after they have left school.”
Neil Postman, in his famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, demonstrates the educational, social, and epistemological implications of moving from a text-based culture to an image-based culture. Text-based communication, the primary means of communication before television, requires reading. And reading requires deliberation, contemplation, reflection, and reason. It primarily engages the mind, as opposed to images, which target the emotions. Reading also requires that one be quiet and methodical. Images demand little, if anything, from us intellectually. In fact, Postman says, images are predominantly meant for entertainment and not for instruction, which is why they are literally killing us intellectually.
Reading is also educationally valuable in that it requires activity and skill from the reader. Adler says, “… the most important thing about reading, as about learning generally, is that it must be active, not passive.” To use an analogy from Adler, reading is like tunneling. Imagine yourself on one side of a mountain and the author on the other. You both work hard to meet in the middle to find understanding.
The Great Books are over everyone’s head. That is one reason why they are great. Do not expect to breeze through Milton or Dante. Reading many books is not the point. Thomas Hobbes once said “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.” Reading well is better than reading swiftly.
And there is, of course, great spiritual value in reading. Paul told Timothy that study is the path to legitimate spiritual leadership. Reading is not just about schooling. It is theological. Cultivating a love for reading in children is perhaps the most important thing one can do to induce lifelong learning. Our efforts may bloom into a love for reading that leads to a skilled, passionate ransacking of the Bible.