The Difficulty of Reading
Amidst switching between three different reading communities (undergraduate and two different graduate school settings), I have been faced with a certain kind of difficulty of reading texts. Likely, what I want to articulate in this post is self-evident to many, but for me it is only in this third reading community that the true issue-at-hand has presented itself. The difficulty of reading is that reading is always done within communities. Like our title Many Horizons, there are many horizons for reading texts and these readings are dictated both by the communities in which we have read and presently read.
Within these communities there are subdivisions where different ways of reading—i.e. lenses for reading, a hermeneutic—are present. These lenses are defined by overarching theological and philosophical frameworks, be they overtly or subversively presented. So, for instance, reading texts in my undergraduate setting was done through the overarching framework that the way God speaks is through his Word and the way for that Word to speak presently to us today is through proper exegesis of the past with a secondary step of application for the present. Here we see both the theological centrality of the Bible and a certain epistemology—way of knowing—serving as the guiding principles for the actual reading of the text.
In this post I do not wish to go into detail on how it is that we read, or the value of diverse ways of reading, or even a critique of certain kinds of reading. Instead, I want to sit in the tension of reading itself. And not just the reading of Scripture, but of any sort of reading that is both generous and honest.
I am a voracious reader of fiction. I will give any book a minimum of 50 pages to hook me, but if in those 50 pages I find the writing sub-par or the characters flat or the narrative unconvincing then I will gladly sit the book and move on to the next in the pile. I remember Maxine Hancock, Emeritus Professor at Regent College, once describing this same sort of posture with poetry. When someone asked her how to read poetry, she answered that you read the first stanza of a poem and move on to the next if it does not capture your imagination. There is nothing wrong with selective reading. I think this is solid advice, especially when I consider how many horrid pieces of fiction I might have subjected myself to if I insisted that I fully commit to every work.
But, how I read fiction recreationally is not how I read fiction or non-fiction academically. When I am assigned a book for class I, one, do not have the option to set it down if I am disinterested and, two, cannot measure the quality of thought therein on my emotive response to it. There is often great value in dry writing—though, I much prefer Chestertonian flourish over mid-century German biblical commentary.
Herein lies the difficulty of reading: how do I choose when to set a book aside as unhelpful for my studies. I see two dangers readily apparent; two dangers that I have fallen prey to. The first is an ungenerous reading, where the difficulty of reading someone with a different lens is immediately dismissed because it does not harmonize with my own. In the most extreme sort of example, this would be the Christian who refuses to read “secular” “wordly” writing because it clearly has nothing to say of value to the Christian. This is a sort of xenophobic type of reading. In an ungenerous reading, one tries to capture the argument presented by the author in her work in order to argue why it is ultimately unhelpful for the reader and her audience.
The second danger is the generously generous reading. A reader who avows to withhold any judgment or imposition on the text commits this sort of reading. This is the “scientific” reader or the “objective” reader, though often appearing not so much scientific as open-minded. This reader assumes to be reading without a lens, to be reading the text on its own term; to leave none of her fingerprints on the reading. Often, this sort of reading provides a clear summary of what has been said, but lacks evidence of actual engagement with the material.
I do not think there is a clear via media between these two dangers. I continually struggle with knowing how to read generously and honestly. That is, how to read in a way that allows room for the text to speak in the same way I hope to allow a friend to speak in a conversation over a pint. But, also a way to read that honestly deals with the fact that I am the one doing the reading. A sort of honesty, mostly with myself, that sometimes I cannot follow an argument all the way through because there is nowhere for my reading “feet” to find traction in a framing of the world that is so unlike my own. This difficulty is a difficulty that I think must be wrested with, likely over a lifetime and leads hopefully to a kind of reading that neither silences the voice of the other nor keeps the reader from honest engagement with the text. The difficulty of reading seems to be the unavoidable tension of a text and its reader.