Becoming a serious and receptive reader
by Ken Myers
One of the guests on Volume 149 of the Journal was David Lyle Jeffrey, talking about his book Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (BakerAcademic, 2019). An earlier collection of essays by Jeffrey, Houses of the Interpreter: Reading Scripture, Reading Culture (Baylor, 2003), includes a chapter titled “Reading Wisely, Reading Well.” In it, Jeffrey writes that the task of reading well requires “two apparently contradictory virtues — intellectual toughness and imaginative sympathy. To put this paradox another way, the mature or faithful reader (they are the same person) is one who simultaneously employs both disciplines of the analytical mind and generosities of an open heart. That the disciplines should be as rigorous as the generosities amiable is the sine qua non of a fine reader. In lesser readers there is usually a notable imbalance to one side or another.”
The rest of the essay contains Jeffrey’s reflections on what made C. S. Lewis such a good reader, with some insights from Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism (1961) about the act(s) of reading. Jeffrey offers a summary of “Lewis’s account of the two balanced elements in mature reading. He regards both elements as essential. The first is that self-forgetful and submissive abandonment to the authority of the text which one sees in an intelligent child. The second comes later: that disciplined, informed, and discerning questioning of the text which is the work of an educated mind.
“Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism is an attempt to distinguish ‘true’ or ‘literary’ readers from ‘unliterary’ ones in this sense: his ‘true’ or ‘literary’ reader reads ‘every work seriously in the sense that he reads it wholeheartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can,’ since, as Lewis says, ‘the first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.’
“‘Bad,’ or ‘unliterary’ readers, by contrast, never get self out of the way. In practice they do not even much like reading — often for pretty much the same reason they do not like listening. They almost never read a book more than once, even a book they have thought better than most. What they prefer to the text is its information (a digest of the ‘main points’) whether in a class or in church. ‘They are,’ says Lewis, ‘like those pupils who want to have everything explained to them and do not much attend to the explanation.’ If such a person turns to the task of reading’s tough intellectual disciplines it is likely to be also at second hand; criticism or exegesis done by others which gives one the illusion of having ‘mastered’ the text, or of having been safely placed beyond its reach. ‘Especially poisonous,’ says Lewis, ‘is that kind of teaching which encourages [us] to approach every literary work with suspicion’ — that is, teaching which encourages a predisposition to aloofness so categorical as to render reading itself next to pointless.
“Among other things, what we learn from Lewis about reading, then, is that it is almost inescapably an ethical as well as an analytical activity. It obliges us to choose between acceptance and denial, trust and suspicion, self-effacement and mere selfishness. In ‘good reading,’ Lewis writes, as in mature love, ‘we escape from our self into one another,’ thus ‘transcending our own competitive particularity.’ The educational parallel is exact: ‘In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are.’ Part of the ethic is to acknowledge that there is an abundant reality which transcends our own ego and that reality is not, after all, merely self-referential.”
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If you’re interested in further reflections on the existential and ethical aspects of reading, you should know about On Books and Reading, a MARS HILL AUDIO Anthology. Seven thoughtful individuals with various vocations talk with host Ken Myers about why and how engagement with books changes our lives. The guests are poet and former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, literary critic Sven Birkerts, painter Makoto Fujimura, columnist Maggie Jackson, pastor-theologian Eugene Peterson, preacher and media ecologist Gregory Edward Reynolds, and portrait painter Catherine Prescott.
David Lyle Jeffrey’s writing is featured in God’s Patient Stet, an article about the poetry of Richard Wilbur, read aloud by Ken Myers as one of our Audio Reprint series.