The Sweet Serenity of Books

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The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I love books! I love the feel of them, the smell of them, the way they look on the shelf, and most of all, the joy of learning something that feeds my mind and soul. Before I married my wife and acquired a mortgage I spent a ridiculous amount of money on books (about $300 per month). I adopted the philosophy of Desiderius Erasmus, who said, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” When I was single I would come home from teaching and study for hours, many times well into the night. I had a quote in my classroom by Samuel Davies, “The venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals.” Last year, I was very excited over Christmas to receive the fifty-one volume “Harvard Classics” series. It contains most of the great literary works of Western civilization. It should provide years of rich reading and studying.

Beyond my personal love for reading I am very cognizant of the central role that reading plays in education. Mortimer Adler also understood this, perhaps as well as anyone. He spent much of his career researching and teaching about the Great Books of Western civilization. He spent eight years of his life creating a reference work called the Synopticon: An Index to the Great Ideas, which allows one to research the great works of Western culture topically. He advocated what he called “reading for enlightenment,” by which he meant reading for understanding. Adler was distressed that this type of reading was not taught in schools. He said, in reference to teaching skillful reading, “…there is nothing more important that our schools could do if our schools have as their main function the preparation of young people to go on with a life of adult learning after they have left school.”

The educational value of reading is not overestimated by Adler. Reading sharpens the mind in a way that other means of communication cannot. Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, ably demonstrates the educational, social, and epistemological implications of moving from a text-based culture to an image-based culture. Text-based communication, the primary means of communication before television, requires reading. And reading requires deliberation, contemplation, reflection, and reason. It primarily engages the mind, as opposed to images, which target the emotions. Reading also requires that one be still, quiet, and methodical. Images demand little, if anything, from us intellectually. In fact, Postman says, images are predominantly meant for entertainment and not for instruction, which is why they are literally killing us intellectually. Francis Bacon was right, “reading maketh a full man….”

Reading is also a valuable educational tool because it requires activity and skill from the reader (especially when reading the Great Books). Adler says, “… the most important thing about reading as about learning generally is that it must be active, not passive.” My four year old daughter is definitely an active reader, even though she actually cannot read yet. She collects a large stack of books, positions her legs straight out in front of her and with all the confidence she can muster begins talking endlessly about what she sees on the pages. Obviously she cannot read the words, but the process is very engaging for her, and entertaining for us. This illustrates what reading, and learning generally, should be like. When you read, ask questions, take notes, underline, highlight, define words, annotate. You should be tired when you finish reading a great book. The reader is like an outfielder. He is in a ready position, actively engaged to receive the ball. He is not passive simply because he is not pitching. Or, to use another analogy from Adler, reading is like tunneling. Imagine yourself on one side of a mountain and the author on the other. You both work hard to meet in the middle to find understanding.

The Great Books are over everyone’s head. That is one reason why they are great. Do not expect to breeze through Milton or Dante. Reading many books is not the point. Thomas Hobbes once said “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.” Reading well is better than reading swiftly. You will find deep satisfaction and stimulation from giving careful consideration to the Great Books.

If you have never partaken of the “love of learning, the sequestered nook, and all the sweet serenity of books,” go find a great book, a quiet spot, and start tunneling!

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