On the Reading of Books

On Thursday, May 1, 1783, with “the young Mr. (Edmund) Burke” present, Samuel Johnson remarked: “It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world and so much writing. People in general do not willingly read if they can have anything else to amuse them.” The word “reading” here does not mean, say, the reading of e-mails, which are read immediately on reception. Rather, “reading” here means setting aside time and giving attention. Reading is an actively passive occupation. I never read without a pencil, except perhaps when reading my breviary (but this is only because, if I had a pencil over lo these many years, the whole four volumes would be underlined).

The subject of the pleasure of books was recently brought to my attention by the unexpected gift of a used book, Christopher Morley’s 1919 classic The Haunted Bookshop, a book I had never heard of before. Mr. Mifflin, the proprietor of the Haunted Bookshop, when asked by a young man whether a used book shop is not “delightfully tranquil,” replied, “Far from it. Living in a bookshop is a little like living in a warehouse of explosives. Those shelves are ranked with the most furious combustibles in the world — the brains of men.”

So it was sobering to read Johnson, who added: “No man reads a book of science from pure inclination. The books that we do read with pleasure are light compositions, which contain a quick succession of events.” Johnson then went on to admit, however, that he had recently read the complete works of Virgil with great pleasure.

So the question of reading must include, “The reading of what?” And I suppose a distinction can be found between reading for pleasure and the pleasure of reading. I can well imagine reading a scientific book with pleasure, coming across the explanation of something that had long puzzled us, now spelled out in coherent and clear form.

I was much struck by a study David Brooks cites about children who come from homes in which there are actual, physical books: They do better in school than those coming from electronic or otherwise bookless worlds. Anyone who has spent time in a used bookstore, haunted or otherwise, will understand the thrill of finding a book — perhaps one he has only heard of, perhaps one he has looked everywhere for, perhaps one that is totally new to him.

The young man in Mifflin’s shop looked over his suggested readings. He decided to make a list of 15 books he must read. You will know how interesting this list is if I tell you it included Belloc’s The Path to Rome, which may well be the greatest walk ever taken by a mere mortal man; the poems of Emily Dickinson (a collection of which a student recently gave me); the poems of George Herbert, as well as Dr. Johnson’s Prayers and Mediations; the works of Francis Thompson, in three volumes; and the General Catalogue of the Oxford University Press. I venture to say that there is no living professor or student in any university in the world today who has read such books. But they do rank with “the most furious combustibles in the world.”

In many of his works, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski brings up the question of how reading can make present to us people, times, and places that we ourselves shall never see or know. He points out too that Scripture is a written work in which we encounter the inspired words. We do not see God, but we hear Him. Yet, all hearing causes us to wonder about the source of the voice that speaks to us in words. Hearing seeks face-to-face.

Aristotle tells us that a pleasure is found in everything we do. Probably Johnson was right: Most of us come reluctantly to reading. And yet, it has its own delight. It places before us the whole world of what we have never encountered and probably never will. While I suppose there is always a priority to seeing, to being there, the fact is that we often do not really see a thing until we hear and read.

And as I look at my bookshelves now, I realize that, as we get older, we return to those books that have enlightened our way. A man from Kansas asked me the other day to name a single book that would put it all together, that would explain the essence of things, as it were. Without a moment’s hesitation, I said “Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.” He will know if he listens to what I told him. This book I willingly read again and again. Of course, it is also amusing. Johnson may have been right.

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The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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