Books, Books, Everywhere… but What on Earth to Read? (Part 1)

An underrated benefit of living in the 21st century is having access to the fullest catalog of human culture ever assembled — in particular, books. The sheer range of readily available titles from across the ages and around the world would leave the scholars and collectors of yesteryear viridescent with envy.

But every benefit has its cost, and the cost of the 21st century’s plundering of the past can be a paralyzing indecision about how to unload the loot in the present. Should you start at the end and work your way backward, detective-style? Should you start at the beginning and work your way forward, narrative-like? Or should you dive in at random and hope for the best?

Past a certain threshold of complexity, information is indistinguishable from noise. Culture interprets noise through a variety of filters. One filter, and possibly the most important, is education, which, like a master chef (to use a different metaphor), not only pares information into digestible portions, but arranges them in courses that highlight the flavor and texture of each ingredient. 

But plundering the past as we’ve done undermines the primacy of any one set of cultural filters. Once you become aware of the alternatives, culture becomes a choice — and a culture once chosen can be rejected; it ceases to be a constant in the existential equation. Even people who actively preserve traditional cultures tacitly acknowledge this truth. If they weren’t unconsciously haunted by the fragility of their “way of life,” why would they be so consciously committed to shoring it up against the leveling wind?

But even if we had an undisputed monoculture and an educational consensus, most potential readers are out of school, beyond the reach of such direct filtration. And as long as we’re compounding aporias, even for those who are in school, curricula are inherently limited. Formal education may point you in the right direction and hold your hand for the first few steps into the dark wood, but it must eventually depart with an avuncular pat on the shoulder, leaving you feeling like Dante without Virgil.

For Christians, of course, it needn’t seem so desolate… right? Faith gives us access to “the consolation of the truth,” but never in a cultural vacuum. Wherever it animates souls, the faith animates cultures. Even the Church’s theological tradition owes itself to “the encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought,” as Pope Benedict XVI remarked in his 2006 Regensburg Address. But if that’s the case, discovering alternative cultures raises as many questions for Christians as for anyone else — and for distinctly Christian reasons.

When they confess Jesus as the Incarnate Word, for instance, or affiliate with a visible Church, Christians entangle the articles of faith with the mess of historical accident. It’s not an insoluble imbroglio, as St. John Henry Newman shows in his magnificent Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. But Newman’s solution is to be deep in history, attentive to variations in theological language and devotional practice, so as to sift the essentials from the inessentials of the faith — which is to say, Newman searches for patterns in noise. No one escapes complexity.

If we can’t decide which book to pull off the shelf, therefore, we might as well give up on transforming the culture. For selecting what to read from an ocean of options is an exercise of the same mental muscles by which saints and scholars have wrestled with the problem of complexity — and defined whole civilizations in the process. Without presuming to be either a saint or a scholar, I’d like to suggest some rules of thumb which I’ve found useful when facing an overcrowded bookshelf.

Let’s start with the don’ts

First, I think it’s wrongheaded to replicate the experience of studying a curriculum. I know a few people who have tried to do exactly this, and it hasn’t worked. A curriculum is like a training regimen: it’s designed to stimulate and strengthen specific muscles. But by definition, a training regimen doesn’t last forever. At some point, your muscles are yours to flex with the spontaneous freedom for excellence à la Servais Pinckaers. Studying a rigorous curriculum, likewise, frees you to choose books well and wisely.

But those free choices, however good and wise, should never be made with urgency. Urgency focuses your attention exclusively on what seems essential — the operative word being “seems”. I’ve heard some people say that, because their reading time is scarce, they only want to read what’s ‘great.’ That’s well-intentioned nonsense. The “great books” weren’t always great, nor the classics always classic: people, and not always professional critics, took time and a chance on each of them. You will enrich your reading if you risk spending at least some of your time exploring unfamiliar titles.

But urgency isn’t the only culprit behind inaudacious reading. Even when the scales of urgency have fallen from our eyes, many of us persist in hoeing fallow rows (e.g. chronically rereading The Lord of the Rings) because we contemn both secular and popular acclaim on principle. Assuming it’s not rooted in short-lived political zeal, such contempt stems, I suspect, from a simplistic dedication to “the transcendentals”, above all to Beauty with a capital “b”. 

Love Beauty, by all means, but love it with some caveats. First, I’m skeptical of a steady diet of superlatives, because the perfect can all too easily become the enemy of the good. We have an intuitive sense of what’s good, at least in general, but what’s best is a matter of opinion. If you fixate on what’s best, you risk enslaving yourself to others’ opinions. The situation is otherwise in matters of doctrine, but in “felicitous reading,” to use Gaston Bachelard’s phrase, this posture is fatal. If we constantly compare a book we’re reading to some ideal “best,” our minds and hearts are not at rest; and reading, in my experience, is only felicitous as a form of rest.

But there’s another, more important caveat. Superficial beauty — what we seem to mean by the chilly word “appropriate” — is a patina which does as little to offend our sensibilities as it does to inflame our souls. For some things, and under some circumstances, that’s sufficient: décor and clothes, for instance, should rarely be more than appropriate in this sense. But I think it’s a mistake to look for this kind of beauty in art.

Real beauty lives in, not on, things. Its presence isn’t always obvious; you need to linger with a book for a bit before you decide whether beauty lives in its pages, and sometimes you’ll realize it doesn’t. But the lingering is key: if you truly want to encounter transcendent beauty, you have to be willing to live with ambiguities which may strike you as “inappropriate.” Only then can you successfully unearth the fabled semina verbi; only then can you cultivate the wide-ranging taste that distinguishes the thoughtful reader from the dilettante.

That’s enough don’ts. In part two, I’ll ruminate on what to do when facing those crowded shelves.

Essay previously published as one piece in Sostenuto

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