Recently a guest scanned my bookshelves and remarked with a grimace, “Wow, you have a lot of books. Is reading, like, your hobby?”
I replied that I do not think of reading as a hobby, but a necessity, to which she stared at me blankly and I changed the subject. Upon thinking it over, I have changed my answer. I wish that I had said yes and no. Yes, reading is a hobby in the sense that I choose to read at leisure, when it is not required of me, for my own amusement and enrichment, in the same way that I hike, garden, bake, and watch birds. I read because I love to internalize ideas, talk about ideas, and write ideas. Reading, in that sense, is, like, my hobby.
However, there is another sense in which reading is not my hobby, but my humanity in action.
From cuneiform tablets to White House press releases, the primary reason we know anything at all is because some people did stuff and other people wrote it down. Erasmus wrote, “Worth without learning will die with its possessor, unless it be commended to posterity in written works.” Reading and writing remain the fundamental vehicles of knowledge, whether it is medieval theology or your grandmother’s oatmeal cookie recipe. Without access to written words, societies and individuals stagnate. If we want to mature in mind and spirit, we must read the record of humanity and apply its knowledge. Therefore, reading is far more than a hobby, but an imperative in the human pilgrimage from ignorance to knowledge, knowledge to action in our lives.
Those of us in the classical education movement, however, already recognize the link between the written word and the good life. Most classical educators I know are voracious readers of the best of books. This is a great strength. However, there are many of us for whom reading remains merely a hobby rather than a mighty link between knowledge and action. My temptation is not that I will fail to read, but that I will fail to act because I am so busy reading. Reading should move us from ignorance to knowledge, from knowledge to action. Reading is not enough. We must act on what we read. If reading is merely a pleasure then it is merely a hobby, and a hobby does not justly serve the Great Tradition that is the classical educator’s sacred trust.
Reading is not my hobby, but my humanity in action
If reading even the best books does not produce redemptive action, both internal and external, we have failed to read as we should. Reading that goes beyond a hobby is reading with the purpose and the result of internal and external action. When I say that reading should produce action, I do not mean in the utilitarian sense of producing trophies such as money, success, or prestige. I do not mean that in the practical sense of producing better results from our efforts, such as growing healthy tomatoes after reading an organic gardening manual. These results may come; we pray they do, but I do not mean that. I mean that reading should produce holiness.
The redemptive action of reading is first an internal experience. Internal movement is indeed action, often the most significant action because an inner shift in thought, affections, or memory impacts everything. Written words express ideas, and ideas have consequences. The ideas we encounter while reading contribute to the internal work of expanding and refining the inner life for the purpose of holy living.
Reading with the goal of internal action is a contemplative experience. As I read, am I cultivating a rich new perception of God and his world? Is there any change of belief or refining of affections? Should I repent or rejoice? What shall I share with others and what shall I assimilate in silent meditation? In reading, we experience the world in a way that is unique to the work at hand for the purpose of becoming prepared for the kingdom of God. This is sometimes light-hearted and sometimes painful, but always intentional and never self-indulgent. Hobby reading focuses on how reading increases pleasure or prestige, both of which may naturally occur, but holy reading remembers that we encounter the record of human knowledge as fallen creatures longing for wisdom and truth. Thus reading can be a vehicle of grace.
Reading should also motivate external redemptive action. When we read practical books or essays, the application is clear. To that end, I am reading Towards A Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason. As I read this masterful work, my choice is obvious: how shall I develop these principles and habits in the various spheres of my life? I am also reading Pinocchio aloud to my children. The external action is less conspicuous, but equally delightful. So far, action motivated by Pinocchio has included cuddles, chuckles, cringes, conversations, and comments like, “Wait, what?,” and, “Pinocchio, NO!” These external actions may not (yet) be utilitarian or practical, but they are redemptive. They deepen relationships, character, freedom, habits, affections, knowledge and responsibility. When my son pores over chess strategy upon finishing Through the Looking Glass and my daughter searches in the woods for spring crocuses as she reads Anne of Green Gables, we perceive evidences of the manifestations of grace through reading. Whether external action is straightforward or mysterious, an essential purpose of reading is to embody what we read.
Robert Frost wrote, “way leads on to way.” Thus it is with reading. The way of reading leads to the way of action. We read because, as Dante wrote, “beauty awakens the soul to act.” The beauty of the written word awakens human souls to internal and external action in wisdom and virtue, which is the telos, or purpose, of classical education. When we read with this in mind, reading can transform from a pleasurable hobby into an instrument of grace.