End Notes: What Do You Read, My Lord?

The other day I went to the airport, got my seat assignment, checked my bag, and then went to the waiting room where I settled down with my book.

Some time later I looked up and found that I was alone. My plane had gone. I went back to the counter and sheepishly explained what had happened, or not happened, and they were able to put me on another flight, so no harm done. They did look at me oddly all the while. Is this how it begins? But you will wonder what I was reading.

Nicholas Nickleby. The last Dickens I read was Dombey and Son, by any account a somewhat dark story. Nicholas Nickleby is early on in the exuberant phase and it is a treasury of odd characters, comic events, heart-tugging episodes, heroes, villains, and a bit earthier than later fare, or so it seems to me. I suppose in the mountain of Dickens studies, someone has gathered together his religious references. He appears uncommonly well informed about doctrine—there is a sustained use of the four cardinal virtues at one point—although it seems to me that there are any number of scenes in churches where one is shown nothing of the rite being performed. In Dickens, this is usually a wedding, and of course he finds the audience and the pew openers and ecclesiastical supernumeraries more interesting than the clergyman and what he is or is not doing.

The better I like a novel the more slowly I read it. You never have the sense that you are going to run out of pages with Dickens, but even so I want to double the pleasure by halving the speed. Imagine speed-reading Dickens.

Actually, there was a comic audio cassette a few Christmases ago containing rapid renditions of War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, and the like. A sort of “One Hundred Great Books” on a thirty-minute tape. I suppose you could slow it down and hear it all. It seems obvious to me that there are books that should not be read swiftly.

The Bible may be inscribed on the head of a pin, leaving room over for several dancing angels perhaps, but the thought of someone zipping through the eponymous book at the rate advertised in speed-reading courses jars one’s sensibilities. The art of spiritual reading rather emphasizes slowness, long pauses when the book is closed and one ponders what has been read. Some biblical criticism seems closer to speed-reading than to spiritual reading.

Think of the Jesus Seminar getting together to vote on the authenticity of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Not much survives their cold collective eye. They are all metaphorically from Missouri and intent on not buying a pig in a poke. Lichtenberg said of Scripture that it is like a mirror: If a monkey looks in, no apostle looks out. So what can you expect from a seminar of monkeys?

More fittingly, there are editions of the Gospels that print the words of Jesus in red, like the rubrics of a missal. I can imagine someone committing those words to memory, all of them, and calling them up from time to time to hear again from the incarnate God the only wisdom that can save our souls. I am sure there are many who can do this. I envy them. It is sometimes very hard to summon an image of our Lord that isn’t influenced by calendar art and God knows what else. But the words of the Word, speaking in the recesses of the soul—what could compete with that?

Well, if I could tell you that I was deep in some edifying work when I missed my plane, your reaction would be different, I suppose. But I am only losing my grip. Still, if the light of reason grows dim over a page of Dickens, I could do worse. And, if I emulate those who memorize the words of Jesus, perhaps they will take up where Dickens leaves off. There is one plane I don’t want to miss.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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