Bad writing, which is composed in ready-made phrases rather than the exact words, has its counterpart in bad reading, which interprets by means of ready-made assumptions.” D.G. Myers, in a blog comment here, via Alan Jacobs’ tumblelog.
I’ve been thinking about this comment for awhile now. Here at Aslan’s Library, we’ve been thinking and writing about why our children need books that are beautiful and true. And I think this comment gets to the heart of the matter: bad writing and bad reading create bad thinking. And bad thinking results in bad living. (For confirmation, go read the book of Proverbs.)
Bad writing fails to speak precisely, to name things clearly, to describe reality as it is seen and heard. It may be full of cliché, standard tropes, catchphrases and buzzwords. Or it may simply be too vague to say anything meaningful at all. Bad reading is of two types: it may only choose to exclusively read things that confirm the reader in her previously-held beliefs; or it may read through a veil that sees only what the reader wants. That is, the reader “knows” she will disagree with this author, so she only sees wrong; she “knows” this author loves God, so she gives everything he says a free pass.
The problem with each of these – bad writing and bad reading – is that they create bad thinking. They fail to bring us into a genuine engagement with reality, into the ongoing human struggle to make sense of what has been given with dignity, grace, and humility. We forget we have to love the truth in order to understand it. Bad writing gives us the illusion of understanding without requiring anything of us; it promises truth without asking us to engage in the business of pursuing it. Bad reading shields us from anything that would challenge or enlarge our thinking. It confirms our own prejudices and leaves us self-satisfied but without having gained any wisdom.
Bad thinking, alas, frequently translates into bad living. That is, we become the sort of people who no longer care for truth in its beauty and goodness, its challenge and mystery and conviction. At worst, we can become so self-enclosed within our own vision of the world that reality – in all its glory and splendor and wonder – can no longer break in upon us. I have a hunch this is what the biblical authors are getting at when they talk about people like Pharaoh who harden their hearts. (The worst expression of this, of course, is found in wickedly ideological movements – the leadership of Nazi Germany, for example; or Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Or to take an example from the headlines: Col. Muammar Quaddafi. It’s next to impossible to imagine Heinrich Himmler or Hermann Göring being shocked out of their racial superiority had someone handed them some beautiful Hebrew poetry.)
Thankfully, the kind of poor writing and poor reading I’ve described here is primarily a besetting sin for adults. Children’s literature – theological and otherwise – is written for small people with an inordinate sense of wonder, and who are just discovering reality. The best books honor this.
But as the grownups reading to, with, and around our children, we need to attend to our own reading habits. What sort of writing are we drawn to? How do we engage with it? What heart-habits are we teaching our children as we select, share, and discuss books? Are we demonstrating a passion for seeking the truth wherever it is found? (The unofficial motto of the philosophy department at our college was “All truth is God’s truth,” a pretty radical claim if you think about it.) Or are we teaching them to fear and shun what is challenging or different?
One of my highest aspirations as a parent is to teach my children to read lovingly and well. I want them to love the truth, to passionately pursue goodness, and to create beauty in the world. Reading – the exploration of the world accompanied by brilliant, creative, wise human minds – is a marvelous initiation into the glory of God’s creation. May I teach them by example as we continue in our adventures of reading together!