On Reading Less – Why deep reading is about intimacy

I want to continue reflecting on The Intellectual Life by Sertillanges by further exploring what he has to say about reading. In the previous post, I looked at his notion that in the intellectual life reading is proximate to and preparation for work. So if that is true, it implies that one must be careful of ones reading.

Reading is such an important topic for anyone who does intellectual work. And because it is important, there is a lot of advice related to it, and where there is advice, there is often anxiety. PhD students harbor deep seated anxieties about many things, but there seems to be an almost universal anxiety around reading. Among PhD students anxiety about having not read enough, both in terms of breadth and in terms of depth, runs rampant. Does my reading show that I know the field? Have I read deeply and widely enough? Have I read the right people in the right way? How much do I read before I write? Take all these questions and situate them within a thinking community, within a specific department, at a specific university, where there are right and wrong people to read and right and wrong ways to read them, and the anxiety only compounds.

These are not unimportant questions, but they can paralyze more than they free one to do the work that needs to be done. To such people, what advice does Sertillanges offer? “The first rule” he says, “is to read little” (146). And why read little? Because reading is like food, and reading too much can lead to “the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort” (146).

Ah, easy familiarity, I know you well. And how often I settle for you instead of hard won intimacy. In intellectual pursuits, intimacy may not be the first or even the last concept that comes to mind, but it is important to reflect on when discussing not just reading, but the whole life of the mind. In theology in particular we don’t simply explore ideas, but apprentice ourselves to great minds, to those who have gone before, and to gain true understanding of them requires a depth of not just intellectual but emotional investment. To take on someone’s thinking, to let it in, to try it on, to consider it first on its own terms—these are intimate things.

And here I think is another reason to read little and to read wisely. In economic terms, reading is an enormous investment of time and energy, which means that in reading we must consider opportunity cost. Reading one thing means I am not reading another, or to put it in terms of the Information Age, in reading anything I am choosing not to read everything. To continue the economic metaphor, some books are worth the investment and some are not. Some are worth a little time, worth what Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book calls an inspectional read . And there are some books, some authors that reward every moment that you can give them. These are the books worth reading well, reading deeply, reading again. On the Incarnation is such a book. The Confessions is such a book. For me, Hans Urs von Balthasar has become the great mind that I am apprenticing myself to and investing deep effort into understanding. Sertillanges insists, and I have found this to be true, that the blessing of learning from great minds is that in understanding them you also come to understand so much else as well.

Reading little doesn’t simply mean reading less material, though on some level it does mean that. It means primarily reading select authors and books more and other things less or not at all. But how do I choose? This is the question that has launched a thousand book lists and has generated a million questions about what does and does not constitute a great book. I hope to get into some of these questions in later posts, but for now, I think there are some simple questions to question. The first question is who are the great minds in the field I hope to consider. This is not the question of who matters right now but rather a question of who has made a mark, not simply made a splash. There are trends, currents in every field, and we must at least be tangentially aware of them, but there are thinkers, writers, and books that are trend-proof, that endure, and I think there is wisdom in starting with these books

Our communities also help us choose, and this can be for good or for ill. It is worth thinking through what is read and what is not read in a given community and to ask why. As Sertillanges observes, “We never think alone: we think in company, in a vast collaboration; we work with the workers of the past and of the present.” This is by and large a wonderful blessing. I will admit that I have friends who do certain kinds of reading for me, meaning, I rely on them to tell me about books that might interest me but that I will never have time to read myself. I also rely on them to help direct my attention to things, to people, and to ideas that I might have missed otherwise.

But perhaps the most penetrating take away for me from this section is that reading less means starting to get ruthless about certain kinds of reading, and starting to curtail or eliminate those kinds of reading. One of the things that Sertillanges believes we could all use less of is news. I will take up his thoughts on staying “current” in the next post.

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