I’ve just returned from one of my favorite annual events: a readers’ retreat. Once a year, a group ranging in size from five or six to a dozen or so gets together for the weekend. Ranging in age from late-20s to late-60s, everyone brings a book to share, a book that has made an impact, been helpful, or was challenging or stimulating in some way. Since we’ve not all read the same book, each presentation summarizes the book and focuses on the main ideas the reader found particularly pertinent. A free-wheeling conversation then develops around those key ideas or themes. We regularly end up a long way off from the specifics of the book itself!
One of the delights is the wide range of books that come with the readers. This year we had Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses; Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land; the Bible; Metaxas’ bio Martin Luther; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. There were books about science (The Disappearing Spoon) that point out that “science” is not always the calm, pristine, serene pursuit of truth we imagine it to be; about cutting-edge technology (Designing Reality) that offers (or threatens?) to “change the world”; (Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes) about “cassandras” who warn of impending catastrophe and are ignored (Hurricane Katrina, the stock market collapse of 2008) ; and Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life, which the author describes as a self-help book based on The Divine Comedy. And a few others I failed to recall!
One of the fascinating aspects of the retreat is discerning the connections between book and presenter: “However did you come to read a book like that?” I am exposed each year to books, ideas and perspectives that differ from my own, and which often challenge my own. Strangers in Their Own Land describes the journey, both physical and metaphorical, that the author, a noted sociologist, took from her “Berkeley bubble” to Lake Charles, LA, in an attempt to better understand how and why the people there saw and understood the world so differently than she did. Among her lessons learned: talk less, listen more; seek to make better friendships, not win arguments; try to step into someone else’s shoes and travel in them a ways. Always good advice, but embedded in her story of actually moving to Lake Charles for two years, the “advice” comes to life as you accompany the author as she learns and works things out.
We need good books—and we need to read them! There are many, many “bad” books available, and we are fortunate that we live in a time where there are in fact more “good” books than anyone could read in a lifetime.
The first thing a good book does is slow you down. You can’t reduce it to a “listicle,” a set of bullet points, a handful of “takeaways.” A good book slows you down because it simply takes time to get into the story, to acquire the backgrounding you need to really engage an author’s presentation and arguments. There is a history to learn, a vocabulary to be acquired, a point of view to look through. Perhaps there is some ignorance or misinformation to be overcome, some misplaced certainties to be challenged.
While we’re being slowed down, we are given a precious gift: the invitation to think. What got the author interested in this particular subject, in telling this story in this particular way? Where, in what ways, does this book touch and address me and my life: how do I find or meet myself in this book? What do I think about the author’s case, and why? Am I reacting emotionally to something that makes me uncomfortable? Do I see an author’s mistakes, and how do I know they are mistakes? If I could picture myself having coffee with the author, what would I want us to discuss?
One of the best aspects of reading a good book is also one of the hardest: a good book humbles me. Look at the time and effort, the research and attention to detail the author has put into this setting, this character, this argument, this writing! Look at all I did not know until I started reading! Look at how some of my sacred cows are stirring, becoming restless! And now that I’m reading, and thinking, alongside an author or even against an author, notice how I am learning and questioning, even perhaps changing and growing. Changing because I need to; growing because, even against my will, I nonetheless discover in myself a desire to.
A good book, especially if accompanied by a lively conversation about it with other interested and engaged readers, can help you to grow. The conversations that bubble up each year at our readers’ retreats quickly go beyond the book to touch on matters practical, vocational, emotional and spiritual. Revisiting Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird this year engendered a conversation about race that brought tears to more than one eye. Growth comes about through challenge and change. Books are not the only tools to challenge and change us, but they can be surprisingly powerful and effective tools, if only we will learn to use them wisely and well.
Some of us tend to dismiss all this sort of thing as egg-heady, ivory-tower-y stuff. “Who wants to just read about stuff? We want to do things!” And some of us “just aren’t readers,” (although I might push back on that one a bit). While I would never want to say that a readers’ retreat ought to be everyone’s cup of tea, I do want to insist that all of us need to read … books. Not only blogs (even this one!); not only articles and listicles; not only Twitter feeds, Facebook posts and Wikipedia pieces, but books. Because books slow you down; invite you to think, long and deep and hard; humble you; and help you to change and grow.
Every truly good book carries something of the Logos, the Divine Wisdom, the searching light of the true sun, the magnetic calling of True North. We are wise to open our eyes and ears and hearts, and impoverished, immeasurably impoverished, when we refuse.