Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Even a thousand miles inland you can smell the sea and hear the mewing of gulls if you give thought to it. You can see in your mind’s eye the living faces of people long dead or hear in the mind’s ear the United States Marine Band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” If you work at it, you can smell the smell of autumn leaves burning or taste a chocolate malted. You don’t have to be asleep to dream dreams either. There are those who can come up with dramas laid twenty thousand leagues under the sea or take a little girl through a looking glass. Imagining is perhaps as close as humans get to creating something out of nothing the way God is said to. It is a power that to one degree or another everybody has or can develop, like whistling. Like muscles, it can be strengthened through practice and exercise. Keep at it until you can actually hear your grandfather’s voice, for instance, or feel the rush of hot air when you open the 450-degree oven.

If imagination plays a major role in the creation of literature, it plays a major one also in the appreciation of it. It is essential to read imaginatively as well as to write imaginatively if you want to know what’s really going on. A good novelist helps us do this by stimulating our imaginations–sensory detail is especially useful in this regard, such as the way characters look and dress, the sounds and smells of the places they live and so on-but then we have to do our part. It is especially important to do it in reading the Bible. Be the man who trips over a suitcase of hundred-dollar bills buried in the field he’s plowing if you want to know what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about (Matthew 13:44). Listen to Jesus saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) until you canhearhim, if you want to know what faith is all about.

If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hot-air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the branches of a tree. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father’s arm. The old man staring into space in the nursing-home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak, but the words they do not speak. Feel what it’s like to be who they are–chirping like a bird because for the moment you are a bird, trying not to wobble as you move slowly into the future with all eyes upon you.

When Jesus said, “All ye that labor and are heavy laden,” he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the unlucky, the idle as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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This question—of how versus whether—has to do with the attention economy insofar as it offers a useful attitude toward despair, the very stuff the attention economy runs on. It also helps me distinguish what it is I really feel like running away from. I’ve already written that the “doing nothing” I propose is more than a weekend retreat. But that doesn’t mean I propose a permanent retreat either. Understanding the impossibility of a once-and-for-all exit—for most of us, anyway—sets the stage for a different kind of retreat, or refusal-in-place….

Here’s what I want to escape. To me, one of the most troubling ways social media has been used in recent years is to foment waves of hysteria and fear, both by news media and by users‘ themselves. Whipped into a permanent state of frenzy, people create and subject themselves to news cycles, complaining of anxiety at the same time that they check back ever more diligently. The logic of advertising and clicks dictates the media experience, which is exploitative by design, Media companies trying to keep up with each other create a kind of “arms race” of urgency that abuses our attention and leaves us no time to think. The result is something like the sleep-deprivation tactics the military uses on detainees, but on a larger scale. The years 2017 and 2018 were when I heard so many people say, “It’s just something new every day.”

But the storm is co-created. After the election, I also saw many acquaintances jumping into the melee, pouring out long, emotional, and hastily written diatribes online that inevitably got a lot of attention. I’m no exception; my most-liked Facebook post of all time was an anti-Trump screed. In my opinion, this kind of hyper-accelerated expression on social media is not exactly helpful (not to mention the huge amount of value it produces for Facebook). It’s not a form of communication driven by reflection and reason, but rather a reaction driven by fear and anger. Obviously these feelings are warranted, but their expression on social media so often feels like firecrackers setting off other firecrackers in a very small room that soon gets filled with smoke. Our aimless and desperate expressions on these platforms don’t do much for us, but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement. Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quickly outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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O’Connor had little patience for the sort of questions that students and teachers asked about her stories. She wrote of a young teacher at Macon’s Wesleyan College, “an earnest type,” who asked all the wrong questions after a reading of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”:

“Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.

— Jonathan Rogers, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor

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Practice makes perfect, but pleasure makes practice more likely, so read something enjoyable. If a book is so agonizing that you avoid reading it, put it down and pick up one that brings you pleasure. Life is too short and books are too plentiful not to. Besides, one can’t read well without enjoying reading.

On the other hand, the greatest pleasures are those born of labor and investment. A book that requires nothing from you might offer the same diversion as that of a television sitcom, but it is unlikely to provide intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritual rewards long after the cover is closed. Therefore, even as you seek books that you will enjoy reading, demand ones that make demands on you: books with sentences so exquisitely crafted that they must be reread, familiar words used in fresh ways, new words so evocative that you are compelled to look them up, and images and ideas so arresting that they return to you unbidden for days to come.

— Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

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Books are to read, but that is by no means the end of it.

The way they are bound, the paper they are printed on, the smell of them (especially if they are either very new or very old), the way the words are fitted to the page, the look of them in the bookcasesometimes lined up straight as West Point cadets, sometimes leaning against each other for support or lying flat so you have to tip your head sideways to see them properly. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, the Pleiade edition of Saint Simon, Chesterfield’s letters, the Qur’an. Even though you suspect you will probably never get around to them, it is an honor just to have them on your shelves.

Something of what they contains gets into the air you breathe. They are like money in the bank, which is a comfort even though you never spend it. They are prepared to give you all they’ve got at a moment’s notice, but are in no special hurry about it. In the meanwhile they are holding their tongues, even the most loquacious of them, even the most passionate.

They are giving you their eloquent and inexhaustible silence. They are giving you time to find your way to them. Maybe they are giving you time, with or without them, just to find your way.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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How do twenty-first-century men and women, with all their hang-ups, try to see what they were looking at and hear what it was they heard? What follows are some practical suggestions on how to read the Bible without tears. Or maybe with them.

1. Don’t start at the beginning and try to plow your way straight through to the end. At least not without help. If you do, you’re almost sure to bog down somewhere around the twenty-fifth chapter of Exodus. Concentrate on the high points at first. There is much to reward you in the valleys too, but at the outset keep to the upper elevations. There are quite a few. There is the vivid eyewitness account of the reign of King David, for instance (2 Samuel through 1 Kings 1-2), especially the remarkable chapters that deal with his last years, when the crimes and blunders of his youth have begun to catch up with him. Or the Joseph stories (Genesis 39-50). Or the book of Job. Or the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Or the seventh chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which states as lucidly as it has ever been stated the basic moral dilemma of humankind, and then leads into the eighth chapter, which contains the classic expression of Christianity’s basic hope.

2. The air in such upper altitudes is apt to be clearer and brighter than elsewhere; but if you nevertheless find yourself getting lost along the way, try a good Bible commentary that gives the date and historical background of each book, explains the special circumstances it was written to meet, and verse by verse tries to illumine the meaning of the difficult sections. Even when the meaning seems perfectly clear, a commentary can greatly enrich your understanding. The book of Jonah, for instanceonly two or three pages long and the one genuine comedy in the Old Testamenttakes on added significance when you discover its importance in advancing the idea that God’s love is extended not just to the children of Israel, but to all humankind.

3. If you have even as much as a nodding acquaintance with a foreign language, try reading the Bible in that. Then you stand a chance of hearing what the Bible is actually saying instead of what you assume it must be saying because it is the Bible. Some of it you may hear in such a new way that it is as if you had never heard it before. “Blessed are the meek” is the way the English version goes, whereas in French it comes out, “Heureux sont les debonnaires” (“Happy are the debonair”). The debonair of all things! Doors fly open. Bells ring out.

4. If you don’t know a foreign language, try some English version you’ve never tried beforethe more far-out the better. Nothing could be further out than the Bible itself. The trouble with the King James, or Authorized Version, is that it is too full of familiar quotations. The trouble with familiar quotations is that they are so familiar you don’t hear them. When Jesus was crucified, the Romans nailed over his head a sign saying “King of the Jews” so nobody would miss the joke. To get something closer to the true flavor, try translating the sign instead: “Head Jew.”

5. It may sound like fortune-telling, but don’t let that worry you: Let the Bible fall open in your lap and start there. If you don’t find something that speaks to you, let it fall open to something else. Read it as though it were as exotic as the I Ching or the tarot deck. Because it is.

6. If people claim that you have to take the Bible literally, word for word, or not at all, ask them if you have to take John the Baptist literally when he calls Jesus the Lamb of God. If people claim that no rational person can take a book seriously that assumes the world was created in six days and humankind in an afternoon, ask them if they can take Shakespeare seriously, whose scientific knowledge would send a third-grader into peals of laughter.

7. Finally this. If you look at a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond.

Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a holy bore and those who see it as the Word of God, which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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There are people who say we should read the Bible as literature. The advice has a pleasantly modern and reasonable ring to it. We are all attracted. Read the Bible for the story it tells. Read the King James Version especially for the power of its prose and the splendor of its poetry. Read it for the history it contains and for its insights into ancient ways. Don’t worry about whatever it’s supposed to mean to religious faith. Don’t bother about the hocus-pocus. Read it like any other book.

The trouble is it’s not like any other book. To read the Bible as literature is like reading Moby Dick as a whaling manual or The Brothers Karamazov for its punctuation.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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