Reading with our whole might
Marilyn McEntyre on engaging texts receptively
“I've come to believe that good reading is not possible without investment of the whole self. If this is what is given us to do — to be readers, writers, and speakers — then to ‘do it with our whole might,’ in William Robinson Clark’s phrase, means doing it with all our faculties — mind, heart, and gut. To read well is to enter into living relationship with another whole self. Even the most insufferable pedant comes to his or her work as a whole human being with investments, passions, defenses, and desires. As we read, we do well to remember the ‘who’ behind the ‘what.’ If we maintain that focus, dimensions of reading open up that don’t get much press in classrooms. . . .
“There are three very basic questions I like to ask students as they embark on a new novel. What does this work invite you to do? What does it require of you? What does it not let you do? Because the nature of literary engagement is not, finally, detached. We will be addressed and changed, if we read well. We will be challenged and confronted and convicted and offended, bothered, unsettled, and sometimes bored — and even boredom has its uses as preparation for a deeper level of engagement — though more often it’s a sign of sloth.
“All this is to say that the act of reading itself is not only intellectually and emotionally engaging, but morally consequential. How we choose to read, how we submit to or question or resist the terms set by the writer, are choices that shape the habits of our minds and the habits of our hearts. Those habits determine the degree to which we are open to truth in its various guises, and capable of discerning the difference between the ring of truth and the metallic clang of lies.
“Over the past few years, since I began teaching a course called ‘Contemplative Reading,’ I have found that the ancient Benedictine discipline of lectio divina offers an approach to many texts that may allow us to harvest their gifts in a way that frees us from what may have become deadening in classrooms, institutional schedules, and syllabi. Lectio, above all other approaches to reading I know, teaches us to take words personally.
“In lectio, which Benedictines practice in the daily reading of Scripture, you read the text slowly, listening for a word or phrase that speaks to you with particular emphasis. Then you re-read the passage, allowing the key word or phrase to be a point of contact, considering how it addresses the particular circumstances of your life. On the third reading you meditate on the text and on the words it has brought to your attention as gifts peculiar to the moment, considering what response it invites. Finally, on the fourth reading you rest in words as you hear them once more. As a devotional practice, lectio is reserved for sacred texts and sacred time. I recommended it on those terms to anyone seeking nourishment from sacred reading.
“On the other hand, what lectio can teach us about how to read responsibly, receptively, and fruitfully need not be reserved only for the reading of sacred texts. Poems, stories, personal memoirs, even news analysis and feature articles can be read with the prayer that in them we may be personally addressed and from them receive what Kenneth Burke calls ‘equipment for living.’ I have begun to tell my students — many of them victims of twelve years of schooling in which many have learned to resent ten-pound anthologies with unimaginative study guides and the overburdened teachers who ask plodding content questions — to ‘take it personally.’ Not simply to find what they can (to use their favorite verb) ‘relate to,’ but rather to read with an eye and ear out for words, images, scenes, sentences, and rhythms that evoke a felt response. To put a check in the margin when they are bothered or amused or offended or delighted or simply when something makes them think ‘Hmm.’ And then to go back to those places and ask what happened there. What associations were triggered? What reactions might they take time to articulate? What part of their comfort zone was invaded? To listen for direct address is to listen for an invitation and to make ready to receive precisely the gift one needs in precisely this moment of reading. On this particular reading of Moby-Dick it may lurk in the chapter on the whiteness of the whale. Next time, though, it may be in the little colloquy on Ahab’s pipe that one of my students decided was ‘the key chapter in Moby-Dick.’”
— from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, 2009). A second edition of this book will be released in May 2021. An interview with McEntyre about the original edition is included in The Worth of Words, one of many Anthologies available in our catalog.