Is reading work? Thoughts from The Intellectual Life

“Now reading is the universal means of learning, and it is the proximate or remote preparation for every kind of production.” A.G. Sertillanges, O.P. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods

Over the course of a few posts, I want to point to some of the wisdom that I gleaned from The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges. I first encountered the book in Cal Newport’s Deep Work, but I didn’t pick it up at that time. I wished I would have. Though Deep Work was very helpful to me at a time when I was deeply distracted and needed some more structure around my work, and though I still use Cal Newport’s time blocking techniques to schedule my time, Sertillanges writes from within the Christian intellectual tradition, so his book is more than technique, more than helpful hints for “getting things done” by overcoming distraction, and, most importantly, more than a vague exhortation toward “creating value”. Rather Sertillanges offers a vision of truth, and in lifting up that vision he spurs those who read him to seek truth by enumerating the means by which we can best undertake that quest.

The book is essentially an extended commentary on a letter St. Thomas sent to a fellow Dominican entitled Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasures of Knowledge. And The Intellectual Life is Thomist through and through. It offers a vision of a world of order, a world of virtue and vice, a world where ideas like vocation are not just a modern gloss for personal passion. Through his commentary on these precepts, Sertillanges grounds the intellectual life in the spiritual and contemplative quest for truth, which for Sertillanges is the quest for God. But the book is not just for theologians, and certainly not just for academics. The book is for anyone set on acquiring knowledge, on seeking truth.

I decided to read the book when a friend of mine, Aaron Jeffrey, mentioned Sertillanges in the context of thinking about vocation in general, and specifically in the context of the intellectual vocation of the pastor/theologian. I’m very grateful to Aaron for the recommendation. The book has been deeply affirming to me, but also deeply challenging. It has especially challenged my understanding of reading, which is why I started with the quote above. Even though it comes from the middle of the book, I want to start here because his discussion of reading encouraged me to start writing through his book as a way of turning reading into production and challenged me to turn more of my reading into something, to produce as he says.

Concerning reading and the quote above, here is what I took from him, and I think it has something to say to any of us who spend a good chunk of time reading and to any of us who do intellectual work. In the intellectual life there is no possibility of real work without real reading, but reading is not the real work. As Sertillanges has it, reading is not production itself but proximate to it. To read is to prepare to produce. In other words, reading is not meant to be an end in and of itself; it is meant to be generative. Reading is meant to beget.

It may seem that he minimizes reading with this statement, but really he is reframing what reading is by saying what reading is for. There is a progression. First we learn, especially by reading, and then we produce. But learning is not itself production, and therefore reading is not itself production either. Now he is not saying that reading doesn’t involve work. If we think of work as expending effort, reading certainly costs something. Reading well is especially costly—it cost time and energy most of all, but also the opportunity cost of not doing something else instead. And for those for whom reading is especially cumbersome, it certainly feels like work. But in the context of the intellectual life and vocation, we can’t stop simply after we have read. We must ask, what might this reading beget? How might this reading be generative in the quest for truth?

What challenges me about this is that there is a real and meaningful distinction between learning and between production. For so long, I’ve thought of myself solely as a student, so learning was production, the work was to learn. But now as a pastor and as doctoral student, the task is to produce, and reading must serve that production. So now teaching becomes a means of production. Writing becomes a means of production. I read now, primarily, in order to teach and in order to write. (I’ll have something to say in a later post about what he calls reading for diversion and about pleasure in reading).

I began with this quote because this statement sets up much else of what he has to say about reading, especially why we ought to be careful of what we read and careful of how much we read. There is something in my that bristles against these prohibitions, but when I think of what he says in light of an intellectual life with the aim of producing work, I know that he is on to something. Also, thinking of reading as a means to something helps me think of my reading as moving me somewhere rather than as a destination unto itself, and so it pushes me to avoid reading that is for reading’s sake. If we think of reading as work itself, as productive in and of itself, then we can be pulled into an endless vortex of reading. If we read for the sake for reading, then reading begets more reading instead of reading begetting work.

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