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Exercises in Summer Reading

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... I will recommend above all practices of mere reading, in the sense of listening -- the purpose being to understand reading as a gift of self and a receptivity shown to another.


Tweets are generally 40 characters, despite the generous allowance of 140. The average word in a tweet has 5 characters: thus, about 7 words per tweet. It follows that the average reader, at 200 words per minute, will take all of 2 seconds to read a tweet. "All of 2 seconds to read a tweet" -- as much time as you took to read that.

About writing: Writing is a code for the representation of speech. Utterances vanish and continue to exist only in memory. But writing lasts as long as you wish -- assuming a means of copying, such as Irish monks -- and, as it is objective, it can correct subjective memory. The Pharisees who disagreed with Pilate might have claimed to mishear him, if he had only spoken his verdict. "Quod dixi, dixi" does not carry quite the same force. Yet for all that writing is thinly veiled speech.

Putting these ideas together, we conclude that in a tweet we listen to someone else for about two seconds. We give him only that tiny bit of our time. At the other extreme, if you sat down to listen to what Leo Tolstoy wanted to tell you in "Anna Karenina," assuming you kept listening during meals and needed regular sleep, you'd have to give him two full days of your attention. For the record, that's 64,000 times longer.

You cannot even redeem two-second utterances by interleafing them in a conversation. Just try discussing something important, or not, with someone following the rule that no one gets to use more than 7 words at a time. And if someone were to listen to 64,000 different people in a row for 2 seconds each, he wouldn't be giving his attention to anyone. He'd never be in anyone else's world except his own.

I say all this not to pick on tweets, which have their use and misuse like anything else, but rather to bring to mind what thoughtful persons recognize, namely, that there is something in our smart phone technology and associated culture that, for an adult, is at odds with interiority, our ability to concentrate, the clarity of our imagination, and our habits of listening, and, for children, is liable to keep these things from developing properly in the first place.

So, if anyone asks me for advice about summer reading, I'm not disposed to give a list of books, which would presuppose that everything is "all right" as regards interiority and all that. After checking that the smart phone is kept to a tightly constrained place (e.g. for a minor child, no phone at all, except for necessary communication; for an adult, asceticism ... and more asceticism), I will recommend above all practices of mere reading, in the sense of listening -- the purpose being to understand reading as a gift of self and a receptivity shown to another. Thus:

1. Read aloud to others. The paradigm is parents reading to children, say, every night after dinner, instead of television. Pick a book relevant to age and interest, with manageably short chapters, strong plot, and compelling dialogue ("The Chronicles of Narnia" for younger and "Lord of the Rings" for older children have been proven to work very well for this, or try a gripping history such as "Killer Angels"). Persevere and expect a commitment. Husband and wife, apart from children, can read a book together, by taking turns in reading to each other. Or if you live alone, practice reading aloud by volunteering to read for the visually impaired.

2. Read aloud to oneself. St. Augustine tells of how he was astonished to come upon St. Ambrose reading a book but not speaking the words aloud. Yes, there was a time when reading silently was essentially unknown. So rediscover the connection of print to utterance by taking the place of the author as you read. For this purpose, so as not to appear completely crazy, pick a book which has such fine, musical writing, that reading it aloud is amply rewarded -- any book by John Henry Newman, for example, or writings of our Founding Fathers, or the poetry of George Herbert, Shakespeare, or Gerard Manley Hopkins.

3. Have a third person read to you and someone else by listening to an audiobook together. A lot of families already do this in car rides over summer trips. (If you have drifted over to movies, try going back to the spoken word -- an imagined world can prove far more mesmerizing than the fantasy worlds on film.) A recommendation to get started? Try John Cleese's reading of "The Screwtape Letters."

4. "Read" a movie. This is an exercise more for the imagination than for the ear. Watch a classic movie; read its screenplay; and then watch it again. Do this together with your family or with a group, and discuss how the movie you made and imagined yourself, when you were simply reading the screenplay, compared with the actual movie. My recommendation for this exercise: try the readily available (and inexpensive) "final shooting script" of "On the Waterfront."

5. Reading is giving yourself up to an alternative world. All great novels elicit this, but none more so, perhaps, than the "Count of Monte Cristo." You won't want to leave that world, so be sure to get the unabridged version which runs to 1,200 pages. It will still end too soon.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in March 2019.

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