Why Do We Read? On Choosing On Reading Well & Book Girl



I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn't either being read to or after I had learned how that I read to myself. My most constant companions throughout my life have been books. Great literature has been foundational in shaping and forming me in ways that I cannot imagine my life without having read these works. Never did my mother dissuade me from reading a book because it was too difficult and I am grateful to her for this. From a young age, I began to explore the works of Twain, Dickens, Stevenson, and Verne. She read to me from classic authors like John Bunyan, whose Pilgrim's Progress I heard chapter by chapter each night before I went to bed. 

At school, I was part of a Junior Great Books program where we read and discussed works by Kenneth Grahame, Oscar Wilde, Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen and others. These works raised me up to think critically, to love language and the formation of sentences, to cherish character development and the arc of a story. They helped me to think more expansively and see the world beyond the street where I lived. My childhood was filled with characters like Johnny Tremain, Stuart Little, Sara Crewes, Long John Silver, Jody Baxter, and Huck and Jim. My life was so much fuller for the experiences. I was like Matilda from Roald Dahl's book, "The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She traveled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village."

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong." That is the power and beauty of great literature. It is why I have championed reading and have nurtured and fostered this in both of my sons. It's why I have read to them when they are young and opened them up to the writing of E.B. White, J.K. Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones, and Kate DiCamillo. That is why they have spent time in Wonderland, Neverland, Narnia, the Shire, the Catskill Mountains, the Hundred-Acre Woods, the Lands Beyond, and the Secret Garden. It is also why I have taken them to productions of Shakespearean plays or Dickens' A Christmas Carol. A closed mind shows open ignorance and nothing opens one's mind like great literature. 

As I have mentioned before, this blog is not a review of books. Too often book reviews complain about what a book is not rather than what the author has actually offered. I saw first-hand this approach while reading Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night. When I am reading a book for this blog, I do not look at book reviews because I do not want my thoughts to be influenced by others thoughts. When I was researching Sayers' life, I did come across a book review of Gaudy Night by George Orwell. Normally, Orwell is a perceptive and insightful reviewer and essayist, but I wasn't even sure he had actually read Gaudy Night from his review. He spent most of it complaining about the character of Lord Peter Wimsey, who is barely in this novel. Either he had simply read previous mystery novels by Sayers and didn't read this one or he skimmed it. 

No, what I want to do with this blog is to read and spend time (inhabit) a piece of writing. I write about passages that speak to me and I write about my life as I am spending time with a work. It is about digging more deeply into a thought or idea and finding where it leads me. It is about asking questions and discovering new ones to ask. It is about opening oneself up to an author and what they are saying and how they are saying it. It is about appreciating the beauty and language of the writing. I am not one who believes in rushing through books in order to raise my total from last year on Goodreads, as if reading is a marathon. That is no way to approach literature, to my way of thinking. It is not about quantity but the quality of reading. It's about catching nuance and meaning in what an author is saying. It is pausing to reflect and meditate on a passage or a sentence that strikes one.  

That is why reading, to me, is a spiritual act. It is about being present and giving one's full attention to a book. It is about savoring a turn of phrase or lovely prose. So often, I stop because I want to talk to someone else about what I have just read and ask, "What do you think?" 

Each book will be approached and written about differently because each book I read is different. Each work speaks to me in a different way, leads me down different paths, and makes me think and see the world in a way that only that author can. This blog is meant to be a celebration of that. 

Books matter to me. Like the French author Stendhal, "A good book is an event in my life." They truly are. And I can look back at my life and think of where I was and of that time period by the books I most dearly loved. My house is crammed full of books, those I have loved and reread most often and are more like close friends than mere objects on a shelf. My house is filled with Anne Shirley, Pip, Jay Gatsby, Lizzie Bennett, Jane Eyre, Cassandra Mortmain, Katherine Blackwood, Atticus Finch, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Frodo Baggins, Jeeves, and Hamlet.

Reading is a joyous thing for me. I love to hold a book in my hands: to feel the cover, open its pages and, yes, enjoy the smell of a book (both old and new alike). There is a pleasure to a physical book that cannot be matched.  In the case of both these books (On Reading Well and Book Girl), alas, I only have ebook copies of them. But such is my desire to read them, I am overcoming my dislike of reading off a screen until the time comes when I can get a physical copy of each one to add to my bookshelves so that I can take it down whenever I want to return to them. 

This will be the first time that I have chosen to write about both books I put on a readers poll on social media. Normally, in the past, I only read the one that has garnered the most votes. This time, however, I decided that both books, which are about a love of reading literature, should be celebrated and championed. I adore the writing of both authors and I want to disappear into their use of language and ideas. I want to spend time with them and to hear what they have to say and how they say it. 

Great authors help us to interpret the world. Karen Swallow Prior and Sarah Clarkson are both thoughtful interpreters of literature. To read them is to enter into the life of the mind and of ideas and about the breadth and depth of the human experience. They think more expansively about what literature has to offer: bravery, courage, moral character, love, goodness, beauty, and the human condition. They help readers to appreciate fine writing. Both books are about how we can be transformed by what we read and why what we choose to read is so important. We must ask: How is this shaping me? Does this work deepen one's faith and strengthen one's character? How does this work fashion how I see myself and the world around me? That is also why I chose to write about both of these books. What they are offering in both books is critical and important to our culture and to how we read. What are we allowing to mold and form our ideas? So much these days is lost in a pop culture of quick scanning and hurried thought. Too few reflect upon the importance of words and language and thoughts. Ideas and language matter. But reading properly requires patience and attention. That is part of why I even began this blog. It is also why I am so looking forward to delving into both On Reading Well and Book Girl.




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