By request, I am beginning a series of posts exploring how I read. I don’t pretend to be a great authority on how others ought to read, but I will offer humble insights into my own practice and hope it provides something of interest.
There is no canon of books that ought to be read. While there may be certain books that a man in my position, that is the English profession, ought to be familiar with, these are not what I prioritise in my reading. For reading is something intensely individual. What will delight and benefit me, may prove dull or futile reading for the next man. I can not say with assuredness whether a book is something I should be reading until I pick it up, and nor can anyone else. Given that there exists no external guide to what we should read, I join, Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College, in positing only ‘one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim’.
We should read what we feel like reading.
However, although my reading is guided by whim more than anything else, there are strategies that I have in planning my future reading. The primary intention in this is to put in my path those books which will delight and benefit, but are unlikely to land there on the unpredictable tides of whim. So, I may emphasise a particular field, say Australian fiction or missiology, for a time. And generally I will try to include both contemporary and classic books and maintain an equal balance of fiction, Christian non-fiction, and secular non-fiction. I don’t always alternate between these three categories, but in the long run I continue to read roughly equivalent amounts of each. Amongst all this I will try to have regular interludes into poetry and periodicals (though this is really an independent pastime to my mind).
The shape of my reading plan can change sharply, but on the whole it is represented by two reading ‘lists’. My shortlist is essentially those books stacked along my desk – often items newly acquired or borrowed or simply selected for imminent reading from the shelf (though items are not infrequently relegated back to the ‘unread’ section of the bookshelf when another item of a higher priority arrives). Below is a photo of my current shortlist. The primary reference for my long list is the hundred or so items on my Book Depository wishlist. I don’t necessarily intend to ever buy the books from this source, it just serves as a convenient place to keep track of them (one could just as well use Amazon, Goodreads or any number of other websites).
As to the bases for selecting particular books for my reading list, there are many and I’ll try to identify some of them, though in many cases I probably can’t articulate just what they are. While I would hope that everything I read is both enjoyable and edifying, I think I can make a distinction between books read for pleasure and those read for growth.
Reading for pleasure
When living under the cruel oppression of the Murdstones, a young David Copperfield reflects that, ‘I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance’ – a ‘small collection of books in a little room upstairs’. He would escape to these novels, losing himself in the travails and adventures of Tom Jones, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe and the like. He reflects, ‘This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life’.
Reading can be an intense experience; one powerful enough to offer Dicken’s Copperfield escape and solace and, on regular occasions, to so engross me that I remain oblivious as my train rolls past my stop (and the one after that). And it is an intensely pleasing experience which is justifiable as an end in itself. Let me dwell for a time on some of the pleasures of reading.
The pleasure of words
Reading something by a true wordsmith is a delight not easily rivalled. A familiar and commonplace action becomes exciting for the novelty of how it is told. Feelings that can only be expressed by mawkish clichés by lesser writers are told with uncanny accuracy, capturing what we always felt but showing a dimension to it that we never saw. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mastery of metaphor and timing gives his writing a striking vividness. In spite of his great bulk, G. K. Chesterton’s prose skips nimbly down the street. And Thomas Hardy’s prose is as full and fresh as the rural landscapes they describe.
The pleasure of character
When I think of my favourite novels, often what stands out is their ability to take me deep into the life of another. I am able to understand the rhythm of their life, to know their flaws without losing sympathy for them, to feel the burden of decisions they must make. This was the great pleasure of Home by Marilynne Robinson and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Chosen by Chaim Potok.
The pleasure of story
In the books mentioned above very little actually happens. Change comes like the tide, gradual and unhurried. But for other books the pleasure is in the rush of movement. One is drawn into the adventure of the story. At present what leaps to mind is the suspense and intensity of Spies by Michael Frayn and the journey and exoticism of Caravans by James Michener. In reading such books, it is with pain and resentment that one endures interruption, and the mind continues to travel through what has been read and imagine what lies ahead. Those two books also have a depth to them which left me digesting them for some time after. But in this category one can also place the fast food of fiction, the thrillers and fantasy novels which one can’t build a diet on, but which are undeniably tasty escapes.
The final pleasure I observe is that which comes from communal reading. In general, I have very little interest in bringing others along with me as I escape into a novel, but there are times when I can hardly bear reading something on my own. Perhaps it comes from memories of my childhood, but the experience of reading Roald Dahl, Rudyard Kipling or Lewis Carroll (be it their poetry or prose) is never quite satisfying unless there is company. Comic poetry and children’s fiction are two genres that are best served crowded around a fireplace, as laughter and chocolate-coated peanuts are shared around.
Reading for growth
In reading for pleasure, I am quite happy to remain unchanged as I leave the book behind. Its purpose was to entertain and move me in the time we spent together and to leave me with a general sense of experiencing something new. But many other books I read in the hope that they will contribute to my development. Non-fiction in particular I read in order to let it extend or shape me.
Knowledge and skills
Some books are instructive. I read them to learn about a particular area or develop new skills, particularly ones that will develop me as an English teacher. Aside from the dozens of books I went through last year as part of my research I also read books like Literature: A Student’s Guide by Louis Markos, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, edited by Leland Ryken and Take the Mic, a guide to slam poetry by Marc Kelly Smith, for professional development (though I say again the distinction between pleasure and growth is never absolute).
What I intend to learn from a book is not always as straightforward as the skills or new knowledge that the previous category suggests. Often it is a recognition that the writer has a clear understanding of the world that I can take wisdom from. It is this which brings me back to the works of Theodore Dalrymple, a conservative essayist, the novelist/poet/farmer Wendell Berry and Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton. As much as I may enjoy their writing craft, my purpose in reading them is to learn from how they look at the world.
The other major kind of growth I pursue in my reading is spiritual growth. I want to read books that will help me to know God, to share his priorities in life and to initiate personal change. Books that I have found particularly helpful for this last year were You Can Change by Tim Chester (and everything else I read by him), Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Day’s Crying for Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us About Mercy and Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism. The Bible is also a perpetual feature of my reading list for this reason.
A few years ago when I decided I would read all of the books on TIME’s list of the hundred best English-language novels published since 1923. I think I’d read less than a dozen when I gave up on the project. More recently I read a book called The Hundred Best English Poems, which didn’t particular impress me. The point I come back to again is that we can’t rely on another to tell us what to read, because no-one possesses sufficient insight into our tastes and character. I love taking book recommendations, particularly from those with similar tastes, and when I truly enjoy a book I normally lend it or recommend it to others. But I think in determining what to read we need to cast a wide net and let whim carry us to what is most pleasing and edifying.