Four Kinds of Reading – More thoughts from The Intellectual Life

As I keep writing through The Intellectual Life, I’m struck how positively I respond to his approach to reading, which might in some ways seem heavy handed. Why do I even need his advice? After all, I’ve done a far bit of reading in my life already, and in some ways, I should already have settled some of these questions. And I suppose if somebody would have have asked me, I could have delineated some of my own approaches to reading, and what I would have said wouldn’t have differed substantially from what he suggests, even though my thoughts would not have been as systematic or as probing as his.

What I find most helpful, I think is having a typology, having categories that I can test my own approaches and experiences with reading against. And a typology of reading is precisely what Sertillanges offers. Like all typologies, it isn’t comprehensive, and it doesn’t account for borderline cases, meaning there is reading that bleeds from one category into another, or reading that is one type in a particular season and then becomes another type in another season. In any case, I’m happy for the categories if only as a heuristic to think through what I’m reading and why, and perhaps more importantly what I’m not reading and why.

In his typology, Sertillanges delineates four kinds of reading. But before listing the four types of reading, it is important to remember his framework. He is discussing reading in terms of the intellectual life and seeking to articulate how reading can best serve the quest for truth. Reading for him is directed toward that end. Certainly there are other kinds of reading, or other reasons to read, but these four types are meant to serve the vocation of the intellectual life.

So what are the four kinds of reading? “One reads for one’s formation and to become somebody; one reads in view of a particular task; one reads to acquire a habit of work and the love of what is good; one reads for relaxation. There is fundamental reading, accidental reading, stimulating or edifying reading, recreative reading.” Additionally, each kind of reading demands different things of the reader. “Fundamental reading demands docility, accidental reading demands mental mastery, stimulating reading demands earnestness, recreative reading demands liberty” (152).

All these kinds of reading are worth exploring, but I want to discuss fundamental reading in depth. One way to distinguish fundamental reading from accidental reading is that while accidental reading demands our mastery, fundamental reading demands that we be mastered by the reading itself. This is what he means by docility, for in fundamental reading we submit ourselves to the intellectual masters of a given field. In fundamental reading we apprentice ourselves to great minds, in order to learn the craft of thinking. In fundamental reading we learn way finding in the quest for truth. And for these reasons, “the choice of intellectual father is always a serious thing” (153).

He argues that for a given topic there are probably 3 or 4 such authors to be concerned with, who will most fundamentally form our thought on a given topic. Although I wonder how true this outside of disciplines like theology and philosophy, I do think that there are authors that provide the intellectual scaffolding for the rest of your reading in a topic, so that when you turn to accidental reading, we read through the lens of the masters. When we apprentice ourselves to a great mind, we are not just learning to read but also how to think.

Sertillanges’ master is clearly Thomas Aquinas, and with even a passing acquaintance with Thomas, one can see how Sertillanges has absorbed pithiness and clarity from him. And yet he is not simply parroting his master. His own voice emerges as he seeks to think Thomas’s thoughts after him in his present circumstances. And that is what becomes his original contribution, to bring Thomas’s way of thinking, his way of questing for truth to bear on his own moment.

I’m again left reacting as I did before. When I read these prescriptive guidelines, at first I bristle. I bristle at the idea of docility, but then I recognize that whether I want that to be true or not, it has been true. Those thinkers that I first submitted myself to have for better or worse become my masters. There is imminent wisdom here. First, because time is limited, we have to make choices, we have to decide who and what matters most. We can’t read everything, so the question becomes who will we submit our minds to. Who will we allow to form us?

Second, when I think of every important thinker I know of, they each have an intellectual master. Each have apprenticed themselves to a master craftsman. Even if they have moved beyond their master. Even if they have rejected their master, they never the less have been formed by their master. Without Socrates, no Plato. Without Plato, no Aristotle. Without Aristotle, no Aquinas. Without MacDonald and Chesterton, no Lewis. And so on and so on.

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