Saturday, June 23, 2012

`A Book is a Cradle, Not a Tomb'

Electronics have been proscribed yet again in our house except, of course, for grownups. Unregulated, electrons exert an irresistible gravitational tug. The boys were neglecting chores, books and hygiene for the sake of staring at their screens, so we conducted an unannounced digital shakedown, changed passwords and seized contraband. They whined, of course, but submitted. I hid the hardware, just to be certain.

The schools don’t help. My middle son, soon to turn twelve, has read Homer, bits of Dante and Darwin, and relaxes with math and physics texts. Not to give you the wrong idea, he has also read all of Harry Potter. For mandatory summer reading, his middle school has assigned Old Yeller (1956), Fred Gipson’s sob fest turned even more lachrymose the following year by Walt Disney. My fifth-grade teacher read it aloud to us, and half a century later I’m still bitter. Schools seem to be in the business of under-estimating the intelligence, savvy and taste of children. Bill Vallicella, in a post about reading, led me to Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges (1863-1948) and his book The Intellectual Life:  Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (The Newman Press, 1952). Sertillanges distinguishes four types of reading:

“One reads for one’s formation and to become somebody; one reads in view of a particular task; one reads to acquire a habit of work and the love of what is good; one reads for relaxation. There is fundamental reading, accidental reading, stimulating or edifying reading, recreative reading.”

For dedicated readers, those for whom books are as vital as oxygen, the categories blur. What is reading Shakespeare but a melding of all four? Of course, it’s possible to read in the spirit of categories two and/or four, and remain illiterate in the essential sense. And we all know indiscriminate readers of, say, science fiction, whose reading lives remain stunted. And passive readers, ruminants who chew text like cud. Sertillanges writes:

“A book is a signal, a stimulant, a helper, an initiator,--it is not a substitute and not a chain. Our thought must be what we ourselves are. When we read, our masters must not be a goal for us, but a starting-point. A book is a cradle, not a tomb.”

1 comment:

Jonathan Chant said...

I think I brought a mixture of all four to this piece. Very thought provoking, thank you.