A New Way to Think about Reading

To reclaim the great Western cultural tradition and live our Christian faith more fully, we need to relearn reading habits that helped shape that tradition.

AS THE POWERFUL OF THIS WORLD go about trying to achieve their Great Reset—to erase our history, our culture, and all the wisdom of the past, so that they can Build Back Better—I would like to propose quite the opposite: to restore what has already been discarded and to build on that. If we want to rebuild and renew our broken world, we cannot do better than to reclaim what has been lost so that we can profit from the wisdom of those who have gone before us. 

In much the same way as we have become malnourished from eating manufactured “food-like substances” and have forgotten what real, nutritious food tastes like, so I believe that we have forgotten how best to read the great works of our vast cultural treasury, so that we can derive the greatest pleasure and benefit from a tradition that helped our culture become robust.  But, like those who are just beginning to cultivate better dietary habits and to prefer nutritious homemade meals over fast food and manufactured snacks, as readers we need to retrain our tastes and our habits. How? I have some ideas about that, which I will unfold here on The Compleat Catholic Reader.

A (Re-)New(ed) Approach

Back in 2010, when I began a blog called A Catholic Reader on Google’s free Blogger platform, I did not intend by the word “Catholic” to mean simply “reading Catholic things written by or for Catholics”; rather I meant “reading things from a Catholic perspective” as well as “reading all sorts of things” (“catholic” with a lowercase “c,” in the sense of all-encompassing). For a variety of reasons (some of which I may allude to later), I got busy with other things and let the blog fall into disuse—although it was never my intention to abandon it altogether. Sometimes, though, a field must lie fallow for a season or two before it can regain its fertility, and I think that has been true of this blog.

By “this blog,” I mean not the old one on Google’s platform, but the one you are reading right now, which is a revitalized version of the original (you can find most of the old blog posts here, under the Legacy category). I’m calling this revitalized version The Compleat Catholic Reader because it will go farther in exploring what it means to read as a Catholic (see the Catholic Reader category) and also because I hope to interest my readers in learning the ancient art of reading as a Catholic (in the Read Like a Catholic category).

To do that, I intend to spend quite a bit of time discussing not only great works of literature from the earlier the pre-Christian (or “gentile”) tradition (what we now think of the early Western cultural tradition), but also the literature of Christendom and, even more especially, that most Christian of all written works, the Bible. As I hope to make clear over time, the Christian Bible is not only the most important book ever written, but the greatest story ever told, and it is the key to appreciating our entire Western literary tradition, including ancient classical works produced by pre-Christian Gentile cultures. (In my next few posts, I’ll begin to explain why I make this claim.)

Better Readers, Better Christians, Better World

Besides discussing books and stories themselves—and occasionally expanding on some of the old “legacy” posts from the original blog—I also want to branch out a little to discuss the lights that reading books can shed on our lives and how we ought to live them. In the past, I’ve written the quite a bit about the “moral imagination,” and the way stories help to shape how we think about the consequences of our actions and choices in life. Now I’d like to go a bit further and bring in books written explicitly to help us live as we ought, both in the life of virtue and in our spiritual lives. You’ll find these sorts of posts under the categories called Learning God (the spiritual life) and No Abiding City (how to live in the world).

Recent developments (or should I say “devolutions”?) in our common life have made it clear to me, as well as to many others, that, if we want to resist the increasing darkness and chaos brought on by those who propose a “Great Reset” (a new world in which God has no role), we need to get busy rebuilding the kind of culture that others are so busy abandoning, burying, “erasing” and “cancelling.” What those people are rejecting is the whole great fund of accumulated wisdom that we call tradition. The word “tradition” means “what is handed on” to succeeding generations; we need to reclaim it and relearn it, or we will have nothing to hand on and our children, thoroughly indoctrinated by the Great Resetters, won’t want it anyway.

So, one of the things I hope my writing about these things will do is to help teachers, homeschoolers, and adult learners of all ages learn to read classic works with greater understanding and appreciation, so that they can pass on our literary tradition with greater insight and enthusiasm. I also hope to inspire some to see reading as an art that one perfects over a lifetime, rather than a simple skill that one learns in primary school. As Saint Paul might have said, “When I was a child I read as a child; now that I am an adult, I have put away childish ways and learned to read with depth of understanding.”

Musings and Meanderings

IF YOU ARE WONDERING why I have spelled “complete” in what may seem a rather eccentric way, there are two reasons. First, it’s eye-catching. It will make people pause and ask what kind of blog this is. I don’t want anyone to make the mistake of thinking that this is one of those “bookie” blogs that talk about the latest books, or something situated in the “Catholic ghetto,” of interest only to Catholics. I will seldom, if ever, do book reviews and, when I do, I will always be discussing them in the light of the peculiar focuses I mentioned above. (Catholic writers can send me their books if they think they will be of interest to me, but not for the purpose of getting a free book review.)

The second reason for calling the blog “compleat” has to do with a book I was introduced to as a college freshman. Written in the mid-seventeenth century by Englishman Izaac Walton, The Compleat Angler is ostensibly about fishing. Both the spelling of “compleat” and the term angler are old fashioned but have been retained in every edition (there have been many) published in the past three hundred and fifty years. As you’ll know if you’ve ever done any fishing, this pastime involves very little actual activity and plenty of time to muse about life, and The Compleat Angler reflects that, providing not only practical advice about finding the best fishing hole, etc., but also plenty of the kind of musings about the world and its ways that might occur to a thoughtful man during the hours he spends knee-deep in a river with a fishing rod in his hand. This combination of the practical and the contemplative is what makes Walton’s book so memorable.

As the book’s subtitle, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation, suggests, Walton’s musings are a big part of why he loves fishing. We moderns have cheapened the idea of recreation to mean little more than “goofing off,” but Walton means more than that. He means that using our leisure time not only to relax but also to reflect is not merely goofing off but is in fact restorative — it refashions or “recreates” us so that we can be more than we would be otherwise, unreflective workaday drones.

Reading can also recreate us, but only if we read widely, attentively, and with understanding as well as enjoyment, and reflect on what we have read. Learning to do so does not have to be the painful or frustrating exercise it may have been in high school or college English class, as I hope to demonstrate, but it does take some practice. One of the ways reading can enlarge (as well as entertain) us is in helping us to gain new perspectives on our lives and the world we live in. This doesn’t necessarily happen deliberately–some of the most enlightening insights arise through a mysterious process of our imaginations–or at least it does when these are well-furnished with good stories and memorable characters. That is why, like Walton in The Compleat Angler, I intend to give myself the freedom occasionally to follow the trains of thought sparked by my reading, without any particular agenda. Allowing our reading to spark apparently unrelated thoughts is one of the great benefits of reading widely and well; after a while you come to see that, in truth, everything really is connected one way or another, and even the occasional bad book can lead us to good and worthwhile thoughts.

After a blog-silence of several years, I find that I have lots and lots of book-sparked thoughts to share with you, along the plan outlined above, and I can’t wait to get started. If you’d like to follow along, you can use the subscription box in the sidebar to receive email notices of new posts as they are published. Don’t worry, you won’t get more than one or two notices per week. But if you want to help rebuild our culture, you won’ want to miss a single one.

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