Monday, September 15, 2008

On What Everyone Should Read A Little Bit Of, and Other Thoughts Ending in Dangling Prepositions

When I was young, my mother bought a set of Lucy Maude Montgomery-appearing books called McGuffey's Readers, and she taught me to read with them. I still remember coming across the poem "Try, Try Again," which basically boils down to the line, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," which is why I still hope to keep a house plant alive sometime soon.

In the midst of learning to read from these primers, my mother gave me this bit of wisdom: "if you learn to read, you can learn to do anything." Even today, I think she's still surprised sometimes how literally I took her - and still take her, now. And it's the kind of pithy statement, that, if you really reflect on it, will make you want to volunteer at literacy clinics every weekend. So when she stumbled upon me reading Shakespeare for enjoyment in my teens, she still seemed taken aback at this child my parents bred.

Reading, after all, is the great equalizer. In college I read theology texts while taking bubble baths; I read Greek texts of ancient Scripture (learning a new alphabet is like learning to read all over again); I read new recipes for mulled cider and one called "Lee's Mom's Recipe for White Bread" that Grandma handed down to Mom, who gave it to me. I have no idea who Lee is, or who his or her Mother is. When I stand in line at the grocer's, I skim fashion and gossip mags. When I was little, I thought the height of erudite thinking was Reader's Digest, and about age nine, I starting tearing out stories I liked and keeping them, especially one about a baby who was born so early he could fit in the palm of an adult's hand, or a margarine tub. He lived. I kept that story for a long time. It still doesn't seem like a bathroom without a spare Digest floating around somewhere. I've read many Agatha Christie mysteries, my parents pointed me toward "A Year in Provence," Dad introduced me to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," and Mom was the first person to know that at some point in my life, I'd appreciate "At Home in Mitford." Last winter, when the washing machine wasn't working properly, I Googled the symptoms, read the likely cause, shouted it to my husband and brother, who were working on it, and enjoyed the almost immediate repair. When my (now) husband proposed, a series of letters were found throughout the day, so that I not only heard my proposal, I read it. And I have the habit of people three times my age: I try to keep relatively up to date on my obituary reading, because I used to work in an area nursing home. Now I get paid to read: I proofread, I read books for reviews, I proofread some more, I read news and headlines, I write, and then I read.

Reading is the great, simple threshold that brings the subjective and objective together. One reads a word on a page - one cannot dispute the presence of the words, even if one engages in philosophical meanderings on language and meaning. But the objective words either take root in the reader's mind, or, like the seed cast in the parable, fall by the wayside.

It is the words that take root that end up forming the mind somehow - altering thinking, curving thought processes, challenging opinions, eliciting deep responses to beauty, coaxing forth laughter.

Some words are heavier than others. Not only in what they convey, but in how they do it. It takes discipline to read words laden with significance through the course of a whole written work.

So if you're reading these words, here's something I'd like to share: my life has been enriched most profoundly by the simplest words, and the most complexly organized, more than the ones falling somewhere in between. "Jesus wept" says more than many theologians will ever say. But Thomas Aquinas expanded the foundation of my thinking more than many fellow Protestants ever will. What I know is this: a well-balanced life and a well-balanced habit of thinking partakes, occasionally, of rich, dense sustenance. There is no substitute: you can't get your protein from alternative sources in this instance.

Some written word is so heavy, it's like lifting weights with your frontal lobe. But when you slowly become accustomed to that amount, you add a bit more, then a bit more. Then you realize
"if you learn to read, you can learn to do anything." Reading itself won't make you courageous, or holy, or humble. But the written word can inspire courage, or form holiness, or invoke humility. And you will be surprised what you can learn - in the abstract, not even how to keep house plants alive or how long to let bread dough rise - if you try. Try again.

Some of the heaviest lifting I've ever done:
Alvin Plantinga
St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica
Okay, and a biochemistry textbook.

Alvin or Thomas, the choice is yours. If you haven't challenged your mind in a while, you may find it doesn't fit into its gym shorts anymore. Get back on that cognitive treadmill. Stretch those muscles - er, synapses. If you're lucky, you will be silenced by the thought of others. That is as it should be.

Thomas Aquinas never finished his theological writing. Late in life, he had a vision of God that caused him to declare all his writings to be "straw" - a daunting statement when you've read some of it. Because his straw is better than most brick or stone.


Bob said...

Hey Sis--I was in Brian's bookstore downtown GR last weekend with Ed and I saw Strunk & White's little book "The Elements of Style", so I bought it. The clerk asked, "Is this for GRCC or GVSU or Aquinas?" (we have Aquinas College here) I said, "It's for me." She looked a bit surprised and said, "Oh", with a smile. She was probably thinking " old fart that still likes learning." And I do, and have enjoyed reading this "little book". And I will learn from it.

The original only had 43 pages. Strunk was big on brevity. E.B. White was asked to edit, (without deleting) add to and otherwise update his former Professor's work. He is also the author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little,

Cowgirl in the City said...

Bitty, Just found your blog from your comment on Pioneer Woman! Fun! I love this entry about reading, its delightful! I remember having to memorize Try, Try Again! I googled the words:

It's a lesson all should heed,
Try, try, try again;
If at first you don't succeed,
Try, try, try again;
Then your courage will appear,
If you only persevere,
You will conquer, never fear!
Try, try, try again.

Two or three times you should fail,
Try, try, try again;
If at last you would prevail,
Try, try, try again;
When you try it's no disgrace
If you fail to win the race,
Bravely, then, in such a case
Try, try, try again.

Funny, it is so much more powerful now as an adult! Thanks for the blog, I'll come back!