But a life spent reading—that is a good life.
Maybe you’ve heard this before. If we take “reading” in a broader sense, to expand our worldview through education and the arts, then perhaps you’ve even looked to this quote to rally your efforts of enlarging your worldview and expanding your understanding of people, cultures and our world. I know I have.
When I was in college I remember walking into our university library, complete with an 18th century interior that echoed the majestic, scholastic libraries of the Old World. The aroma of countless books, the ambient noise of students shuffling papers and typing on laptops, the domed ceilings that could hold captive your imagination for hours with their ornate displays—all of it cultivated my love for learning. Thinking back to that quote, imagining a life spent learning and reading like some inquisitive scholar didn’t seem like a bad life at all.
I love reading. Obviously, reading is great. Reading can sharpen our critical thinking skills, give us greater empathy for others (especially fiction), expand our knowledge and creativity and foster our spiritual, intellectual and emotional development. And it can also serve as a form of entertainment and relaxation, which is always nice.
Reading is a great good that can help us become fruitful, faithful and engaged citizens of our society.
Still, I disagree with Dillard’s quote. Or at least I do without some clarification. Ultimately, we’re called to love. We’re called to form relationships, encourage and inspire others with our lives. If we never stray from the safe walls of our libraries and rooms, then how can we proclaim the Gospel to all of creation? How can we, as Pope Francis says, “touch the suffering flesh of others,” or “take on the smell of the sheep?” And, maybe most importantly, how can we allow others to love and guide us if we don’t leave the worlds of our own imagination?
There is a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where Sean (Robin Williams) asks Will (Matt Damon) if he has a soul mate: someone who challenges him, opens things up for him and touches his soul. Will arrogantly responds, “I got plenty,” ratting off the names of famous authors and thinkers in his Southie accent: Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O’Connor, Kant, Pope, Locke. Of course, we know, just as Sean does, that his answer isn’t satisfying—it lacks substance. There is a difference; there’s no substitute for real people in our lives who can change us, who can “touch our souls.” We can’t touch the flesh of others in a book.
If you’re a writer, it’s tempting to convince ourselves that our reading aids our writing (which it undoubtedly does), and ultimately helps, educates and serves others (which it definitely can). But what do we have to write about if we never encounter the lives of others? How can we capture some truth about God or our humanity if we’ve shut ourselves off to his people and our brothers and sisters?
We can read thousands of books about the marginalized of our country, the poverty of Calcutta or the injustice of tyrannical regimes of both yesterday and today. Now we can even access scripture, writings from the saints and Church Fathers, texts from Church councils, theology books and more all on a single device. These things can form us into better people and inspire us to do great things, but we can’t limit ourselves to a life of only reading. Our best writing will come from real experiences, from what we see and hear with our own eyes and then give life to in our own words.
And you may not be a writer at all, but just a fan of books and ideas. Again, this is great. Keep reading, augmenting your perception and deepening your understanding, but this affinity for words must be tempered with real life. Obviously, we don’t all have to serve the sick in Rwanda or weather the urban streets of poor neighborhoods, but we need to have real relationships that offer the chance to ease the suffering of others—to love and be loved. We must gift others with our time and presence.
Whatever it is we’re called to do, I believe it must involve reaching out to people. No calling is beyond the messiness and beauty of human relationships. I suppose if you’re a hermit monk then this might be the exception, but let’s be honest, you’re not. And if you are, you probably should be doing something else, like praying, or offering up your fast on only bread and water for the good of the human race.
So yes, read. Read a lot. But that’s not all there is to living well.
But a life spent only reading—that is a wasted life.
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