Friday, January 29, 2016

How to Read a Book

"How to Read a Book" by Alan Jacobs in Liberal Arts for the Christian Life edited by Jeffry C. Davis & Philip G. Ryken. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4335-2394-6

This essay is out of a book on Christian Liberal Arts Education dedicated to Leland Ryken. The authors of the essays are professors at Wheaton college from various disciplines. The whole book is worth reading, but I want to highlight some of the essays in it. I wanted to start with this one because it stood out to me. Of course, the title, "How to Read a Book" probably brings to mind Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book. This essay is somewhat since it emphasizes practices for the Christian reader. The virtues highlighted by Jacobs are discernment, attentiveness, responsiveness, charity, and whim.

Jacobs begins the essay with discernment: "The first point we will want to note is that not all books deserve the same attention from us. Readers must be discerning in this matter" (124). Francis Bacon said, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention" (123). These are words of wisdom that all readers need to take to heart. This is why my goal is not to read the most books possible. I do want to read many books, but more I want to read a few books over and over till I cannot retrieve any more nourishment from it. For example, the Bible is a perfect example. We do not read the Bible through once and put it down to never be picked up again. That would be plain foolishness. Why is it so hard to recognize there are books that can be called greats and that it takes a life-time to read them. These books might be different books for different people. Some of these books for me have been Saint Augustine's Confessions, Sermons, On Teaching, and the City of God. Others have been Plato's Dialogues, Aristotle's Ethics, Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. How do you know if a book is worth reading? One of the best ways is by skimming it or reading portions of it.

A second practice mentioned by the author is attentiveness. This is a very important practice for the reader. I do this by keeping a pen and pencil in hand while reading. I underline key parts, circle words, writ comments in the margin, and so on. It is like we are having a conversation with the author. Jacobs says we should treat a book as our neighbor: "What do you have to say to Me?--and then stay for an answer" (127).

Responsiveness is the third practice that the reader need to practice. Jacobs says we practice responsiveness by responding to the author. That could be by writing notes in the text. Or it could be by asking the text questions. The last practice is charity. better known as love. The author kind of hinted at this when he said we should think of a book as a neighbor. The idea follows from the love commandment--we should love our neighbor as ourselves. The author says charity begins with two traits already mentioned: attentiveness and responsiveness. Jacobs notes, "We show our willingness to love by our active, alert awareness of what's going in a book" (130). I think another idea that this could be associated with charity is hospitality. Showing hospitality is welcoming the stranger. It is making room for them.