The Lost Art of Reading Well

By Morgan Showalter (Virginia)

Around the fireplace in the lodge, we all gathered for the awaited moment – the assignment of characters for our impromptu reenactment of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

“Who will be Hermia, Lysander, Puck?” Eventually, all the characters were decided, with our speaker Mr. Matt Anderson staking claim to Nick Bottom (the most important character in the play, he would argue). Everyone followed along with their own copy of the play while each person personified their character in due time. By the middle of the play, voices became more animated, and great moments of enjoyment and laughter ensued.

I believe we were all surprised at how much we enjoyed Shakespeare.

But why was it so much more enjoyable at this moment? Why is our initial internal impulse to instantly condemn the great classic works of literature as irrelevant to our lives?

To answer this question, I would like to ask another question: how has culture changed our approach to reading? Indeed, cultural shifts always beckon subtle yet significant consequences. To quote Mr. Anderson,

“The things we think are trivial are not. The things in our culture that seem insignificant create an atmosphere that shapes our intuition in particular ways in which we are not aware. The only way you start to note the kind of cultural air you are breathing is if you go to a foreign land and are suddenly confronted with new air.”

At Summit Semester, we have the opportunity to travel to that foreign land and breath the new air of a different culture. That night during the play, I began to breathe the new air of literature appreciation. This new air beckons the question: how then, should we approach reading?

Too often when we endeavor to read a book, we are confronted first with its size rather than its message. What if we sought to understand the message and paid no heed to the length of the book or the time it would take to read it, even in one sitting? I asked Mr. Anderson what the turning point was for him. Did he always have an immense appreciation for Shakespeare? He said he did not.

Too often Shakespeare is presented to us in the wrong order and the wrong method – the wrong order because we get caught up on the hidden meanings in the stanzas prior to gaining a broad view of the story, and the wrong method because we are often assigned to read Shakespeare when it was meant to be acted out with live characters. The turning point, he articulated, was during his junior year in college when he had an opportunity to study abroad in Oxford England. During that time he went to his first live Shakespeare play. Everything changed. Suddenly it was engaging and gripping in a way reading the play had never been.

In that discovery lies the key to our cultural crisis.

Our faulty approach to books has robbed us of a full understanding when it comes to reading. We read what should be acted; we grip the sentences when we should grasp the story.

This could also be applied to how we read a book of the Bible. Many of the New Testament books were letters written to different churches. I am sure they read the entire letter when they received them rather than reading a small section of the letter every week.

Have we made the same mistake in our theology that we have made in our study of literature?

We get caught up in the words and the sentences and fail to see the play, the letter, the book, for what it was designed to communicate.

What if we wanted to change our culture and begin to read well? How would we do this? Mr. Anderson answers that question thusly:

“You can either read extremely broadly with a surface level understanding of many books, or you can take a few great selections and read them over and over, letting their wisdom penetrate your life and forever alter the way you approach the world.”

Ideally, we would read many books and re-read the extremely rich, compelling stories – the ones where the message and motives are multilayered. But if we had to start somewhere simple – at the place where we would most likely take a course of action – then we should start with one book (maybe two), and let that story wash over our intellect time and time again. And most of all, we should read the book how it was meant to be read – a Shakespeare play in one sitting, a book of the Bible in its entirety.

Maybe then, one book at a time, we will recover the lost art of reading well.