In my vocation with books, I devised a strategy of reading after my transformative education at St. John’s College, which facilitated an intimate encounter between reader and author, an encounter that crossed time and culture: listen for the resonant voices. The idea originates from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “The Over-Soul“:
O, believe, as thou livest, that every sound that is spoken over the round world, which thou oughtest to hear, will vibrate on thine ear! Every proverb, every book, every byword that belongs to thee for aid or comfort, shall surely come home through open or winding passages. Every friend whom not thy fantastic will, but the great and tender heart in thee craveth, shall lock thee in his embrace. And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one.
A resonant voice is “spoken over the round world” but comes “home through open or winding passages.” It is a voice that I ought to hear, that belongs to me, that vibrates on my ear, consoling me when I am downtrodden and guiding me when I am lost. It is a voice of inexhaustible pleasure and needful wisdom, never flattened by the tyranny of time or the vicissitudes of life. It is a voice that treats my dark inertia, risks my securities, heals my hidden wounds, deepens my faith, awakens my somnolent imagination, expands my imperfect sympathies, and shapes my “final vocabulary.”
I am developing another strategy to read, which dovetails with the previous one: befriend a few authors. This strategy is inspired by a favorite biblical proverb: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (18:24). Just as there are welcome but formidable challenges in knowing a human being and his story well, there are also similar challenges in knowing an author and his work well. To enjoy the fruit of a deep friendship, we must be selective, even jealous for our beloved. Ruin happens when we multiply companions, whether of the flesh-and-blood variety or the cover-and-pages variety. According to the proverb, we should distinguish between friends, whose bond runs deeper than blood, and acquaintances, who can be impressively likable but not lovable and knowable.
To get a better sense of what I have in mind when we name our friends who stick closer than a brother, consider what John Piper and Mark Jordan say below about the rewards of biblio-friendship in their theological schooling.
From John Piper, “A Personal Encounter with Jonathan Edwards” in The Reformed Journal:
When I was in seminary, a wise professor [Lewis B. Smedes] told me that besides the Bible I should choose one great theologian and apply myself throughout life to understanding and mastering his thought. This way I would sink at least one shaft deep into reality, rather than always dabbling on the surface of things. I might, in time, become this man’s peer and know at least one system with which to bring other ideas into fruitful dialogue. It was good advice. The theologian I have devoted myself to is Jonathan Edwards.
From “Formation, Exile, and Encounter: Teaching Traditions for an Open Body” by Mark Jordan in The Open Body: Essays in Anglican Ecclesiology, edited by Zachary Guiliano & Charles M. Stang:
Reading a complex theological text over decades is powerful education. I recommend to my fellow students that they apprentice themselves to a single, embracing author for as long as they can sustain the practice – for their whole lives, if possible. The aim is not to master a system for everything, but rather to relinquish the fantasy of system. A student of theology ought to treasure the capacious inherited texts, not because they contain all truth, but because they are self-critical examples of teaching and so give practice in how to open tradition, how to leave behind cramped articulations of it that set themselves up as the official story (p. 23).
When I evaluate my own personal canon, I realize it has become unwieldy. I am at risk of “always dabbling on the surface of things.” It is even more excruciating to ponder a list of works rather than authors. As much as I am loathe to cut anyone from this list, are some of them acquaintances rather than friends? Will my life afford me the time and leisure to know them all well?
If I can only be apprentices to a few authors, then for poetry, I am bonded to George Herbert, John Milton, and Robert Frost; for philosophy, Aristotle and Soren Kierkegaard; for theology, St. Augustine and C. S. Lewis; for fiction, Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, and Flannery O’Connor. Note that I have tried to follow Lewis’ sage advice to leaven our diet of reading new books with old ones:
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.
I would be remiss if I did not say that “people of the Book” – a now erstwhile epithet for Jews and Christians – ought to be apprentices of the living and active Word of God, which is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).