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Growing through books

We should employ a “wise passiveness” in our summer reading

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Growing through books
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The summer months provide opportunities for many people to spend more time reading. The days are longer, the weather warmer, the ice in lemonade glasses clinkier. And even for those who do not have the schedule of schoolteachers (for whom, it is said, there are three reasons to go into that profession: June, July, and August), there is often a sense of relaxation as people go on vacation trips or simply take a break from their regular work. Ironically, however, many of us have been conditioned to read with a highly active mind, which can take some of the pleasure out of pleasure reading.

In the early pages of a classic book on reading, How to Read a Book, authors Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren spend half a dozen pages on active reading, ultimately acknowledging that while reading for pleasure is acceptable at times, such a purpose for reading is the not focus of their book. Sadly, this focus on an active mind can turn most reading into a chore. Active reading becomes a kind of bridge troll, demanding that readers pay the learning toll before continuing their journey.

Leaning on C. S. Lewis for support, I’d like to promote a kind of passive reading. In his preface to The Discarded Image (posthumously published in 1964), Lewis offers his published lectures on Medieval and Renaissance literature as an alternative “method of discovery.” It is common, Lewis claims, for readers to turn to commentators, histories, and encyclopedias for help as they encounter difficult passages in their reading, but this method seems unsatisfactory to many because such scholarship “is always taking you out of the literature itself.”

Lewis’s goal for The Discarded Image is to provide those who are interested in Medieval and Renaissance literature with an “outfit” to read beforehand as a way of leading them into such literature. What this change of methodology does, ideally, is provide readers with fewer interruptions as they encounter written works. Lewis uses a negative example of a hiker’s constant consultation of a map—an intellectually “active” way of traveling, to be sure, but a practice that “shatters the ‘wise passiveness’ in which a landscape ought to be enjoyed.”

As is Lewis’s habit, he does not cite his source for the phrase “wise passiveness,” but the source is William Wordsworth’s poem “Expostulation and Reply, first printed in Lyrical Ballads, his 1798 collection of poetry that was also a collaboration with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth’s poem imagines a conversation between himself and a friend who chides him for dreaming his time away by a lake when he could be actively mining books for their wisdom.

It is a paradox of growth that we cannot fully flourish in our own lives without making an honest effort to live the lives of others vicariously.

Wordsworth’s reply is that our senses and other powers work on us without our having to force meaning from them. They work on us “of themselves,” whether we seek their influence or not: “we can feed this mind of ours / In a wise passiveness.” We should note that passiveness is not a good in itself, but it must be paired with wisdom to be beneficial. Obviously, parents should monitor their children’s (and their own) entertainment diets, and they should do so precisely because of the disarming power of well-written books, especially fiction. But a “wise passiveness” is not absolutely passive. Just as there is wisdom in a passiveness that remains open and receptive to the power and pleasure of books, there can also be a foolishness in overwrought intellectual activity that drains reading of its pleasure.

One of the problems of shouldering one’s way through books—worldview machete in hand—is that we become the kind of readers who get from a book only what we bring to it. Dreaming the time away, as Wordsworth often did by a literal lake, strikes many of us as idle or inactive, which is the immediate connotation of passive for many of us. However, Lewis’s warning to English folk in his preface to The Discarded Image can apply to people everywhere: We should not be those types of “travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.”

As Lewis writes elsewhere, it is a paradox of growth that we cannot fully flourish in our own lives without making an honest effort to live the lives of others vicariously. Ironically, a white-knuckled grip on active reading could very well trap us within a growth-stunting solipsism. Readers of all kinds, including parents as they encourage their children, should remember that employing a “wise passiveness” can prevent a shattering of the reading experience as readers dream their summertime away.

Jeremy Larson

Jeremy Larson is an assistant professor in the Humanities Department at Regent University specializing in 17th-century literature. He also teaches in the university's Honors College. He has contributed chapters to books on Paradise Lost and young adult fantasy; published book reviews for Front Porch Republic, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity & Literature, Modern Reformation, and Mythlore; and written online for American Reformer, Ad Fontes, and Christian Scholar's Review.

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