The Ancient Modern

The Work of Reading /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

The benefit of reading (that is, the “why should I?” of our engagement with books) is that reading can enable us to reach into and reclaim our inner lives.

A Sufi saying recommends that we enter a three-part program: emptying our hearts, renovating our hearts, hallowing our hearts. In religious terms, of course, this means clearing out all our inner clutter, restoring balance and beauty, then making the heart a temple fit for God. And perhaps everyone, ultimately, must undergo this three-part change.

Meanwhile, though, for most of us, what we find within our reach is the need and ability to simply start thinking. To train our thoughts to be more serious, more generous and more profound. We can start this process, this return, by avoiding mere entertainment and going back to the reading of good books.

Television (which is automated theatre) can only help us if the images presented deliberately require us to think. Reading is the preferred channel of inner progress, because in contrast to theatre, reading involves our immediate effort. We must translate the lines on the page into meaningful ideas, and this work of translation is itself serious and profound.

Of course, we might choose to read bad books. But the work of reading has the benefit of keeping our inner lives at least ready for something more. Someone who reads poorly is much closer to becoming a serious reader (and therefore a serious thinker) than someone who doesn’t read at all.

Many will object that there are wonderful, artistic, even “spiritual” films available to us. I agree. But the effect of theatre on us is very different from the effect of literature. Here I would recommend, rather than watching films, that we go back to the live stage as much as possible. At the live stage the performer and the audience are breathing the same air. On television, the performer is no longer even breathing. At the live stage, everyone present must concentrate because the performance is unrepeatableit will never again be this performance. On screen, no such attention is needed. The director might make cuts or digital enhancements; or, we might press “pause” and go do something else for awhile.

To be honest, many who read will not go on to do the further work of reclaiming their inner lives, just as many who go to college will not get a job in their field of study. If non-readers suddenly awaken to their need for truth, they have a lot of groundwork to do before they can build. But someone who has read broadly will be able to read even more broadly if the desire for Truth should arise.

And I should add that I believe community is absolutely necessary both for connecting us with the best books and for helping us get back to our inner lives. Many of my favorite books (and the most influential) I would not have started or finished apart from the suggestions, encouragement and discussion I received from family and friends. I also believe in re-reading as much as possible. Some books are good for the moment, some are good for a season. Some books are good for all times and seasons, and seem to change and mature as the reader changes and matures.

If you wish to be entertained, try re-training your brain to engage the written word. Then, at the very least, your entertainment will also be exercise. But if you wish to reawaken your inner life, try thoughtfully reading something challenging and maybe difficult. Then, your exercise will also be health.


All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Joshua Alan Sturgill. All rights reserved.

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