It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth—
’Tis then we get the right good from a book.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh
In this, my first year of teaching great texts at the Saint Constantine School and College, I find I am repeating one “lecturette” more often than any other. It’s just this intensely ordinary principle that makes all the difference between getting the “right good from a book” and getting no good at all. It is simply this: There are three levels in the process of reading, and each must be observed for reading to save our souls.
This is one of those obvious assumptions of writers from Dante to James Joyce to C. S. Lewis (particularly in An Experiment in Criticism) which few observe, but which changes absolutely everything. It is like the buoyancy of ice. If ice sank, earth would be a frozen wasteland, and if we read in less than three levels, we become a world of either zombies, tyrants, or at best, perpetual children.
To avoid any of these truly dreadful fates, we must read stories (and watch movies!) first with humility as a child, then with patience as a literary connoisseur, then with justice as a philosopher.
Our first read of a story must be characterized by the humility of the child who asks only “Oh! What happens next?” Such readers have no useful analysis, only emotional reactions. “Aragorn is the coolest!” “I want to go to Rivendell!!” “I think this might be true?” (We recently read the Lord of the Rings for Keystone this week!) Such a reader is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s when she “plung[es] / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound.” Lewis describes this kind of reading as “an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison.” All good reading begins here, though no good reading stops here.
Humility characterizes the whole of the reading process for good readers, but at the second level, it takes the form of patience: withholding judgment and giving, instead, a constancy of attention over time. Thus, Fanny Price waits many long years before expressing a fixed opinion of her Aunt Norris for which her uncle praises her: “you have an understanding that will take in the whole of the past, … consider times, persons, and probabilities…” and not “judge partially by the event.” At this level, readers notice patterns, like the soap that Mr. Bloom carries through Joyce’s Ulysses or the crumbling decays of stories that encrust Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. After careful re-reading, these patterns crystalize into questions that yield answers within the text, turning the story into a world for adventures and conversations and friendships. Good readers stay until the answers to the questions coalesce into principles.
The final level is the judging level of the philosopher, in which the principles may be judged in the real world and applied to other texts. This theory of the levels of reading is the principle that rose from a long residence in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, where I first saw a pattern of reading, waiting, and watching. This is the philosophical level of reading. Practically speaking, advanced readers will oscillate between the second and third level, as they observe new patterns, ask new questions, and come to new philosophies. But good readers cannot neglect a single stage of this process without dire consequences.
Members of the second and third levels would do well to remember the distinction. The second level of the literary connoisseur, or “literati,” is where the English department sits. From there it reaches toward the philosophical in literary theories like this. The third level is where the Philosophy and Theology departments sit, supported by the careful textual analysis at which the literati excel. It is wise not to philosophize to a literati or to “literate” with one ready to philosophize, as it is wise to recognize that true experts are differently disciplined; some are philosophers and some are literati. We should collaborate, not control.But for most of us, the call of reading is to be broadly disciplined by all three levels, and not to neglect a single one.
For, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning warns us, “We get no good by being ungenerous, even to a book.” All three levels of reading give us three terrible points of failure. We may read only as a child, condemning ourselves to be emotional and mental pawns of the last story that caught our imagination and sadly unaware of missed stability and unwon happiness. Or perhaps we stop at the second level and become zombies, obsessed with fictional worlds to the exclusion of the real, impotent in the one, and unaware of the second. Or, most destructively, we leap the first and second level and dwell only in the philosophical, imposing foreign theories on innocent narratives, twisting them to fit our own evil or well-intentioned agendas, as do certain literary critics and bad theologians.
But these are the benefits of reading with humility, patience, and justice: Falling trustingly as a child into the narrative, we ride the story until it becomes a friend, who lifts from our shoulders the weary world’s weight only, through diversion, to make sense of it. At the end of a fantasy, we make look up and recognize that it is the truest book, and we see our own world with the wiser eyes of experience, but with yet the innocence of our childhood, until, as Wordsworth encourages us in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tinturn Abbey,”
…with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
And that, my dear literati, is how we “get the right good from a book.”