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Reading as Moral Formation

Stephen Lamb

I am sometimes embarrassed when I remember how important a certain book was to me five years ago. Amplify that embarrassment exponentially for each year closer to high school. The embarrassment comes partly, I think, from what the earth-shattering import I gave to this or that book says about what I had read up to that point in my life. 

A recent retreat to an 80-year-old cabin in a state park two hours outside of Nashville afforded me the chance to read Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and in a chapter centered on the 20th-century French artist Yves Klein, Solnit describes Cosmogonie, the bible of the Rosicrucian Order, as one of his two great influences. She writes that “[Klein’s] fascination with this one book seems to have in it something of the insularity of the underexposed who can be struck so forcefully by one source, one version.”

These words help explain my own reading history—the way some books have been so important, and the embarrassment comes when I realize that one source, one version, that had so captured me were part of a wider tradition, hundreds and thousands of other articulations of ideas that were connected by so many tangled roots in a shared soil, and I hadn’t known any of it. So there’s a lesson, a resolution: always dig deeper. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states so succinctly in her widely viewed and excellent TED Talk, there is a danger in summing up people or ideas with a single story.

Another source of the embarrassment? The dawning realization when I re-read an old favorite of what didn’t even register the first time around, an awareness of my blind spots (my privilege, if you will) and a curiosity about what I might see differently the next time around.

Recently, after hearing Eugene Peterson tell Krista Tippett in an On Being interview that Wallace Stegner is one of his favorite novelists—he and his wife have read aloud through Stegner’s entire oeuvre together several times over the decades, he said—and knowing that Wendell Berry was studying with Stegner when he was writing his first novel, Nathan Coulter (which I love), I decided to dive into Stegner’s work, starting with his debut, Remembering Laughter, published in 1937.

Most of the fiction I’ve read recently was written in the last half century, a fact I hadn’t thought about much until I kept being jolted out of Stegner’s story, set on a farm in the midwest maybe a hundred years ago, with the frequent jokes about having needed to buy a bigger wagon to transport the piles of dead Indians they were slaughtering every week. Or how, when they first settled that land, they kept a shotgun by the back door and were able to pick off 10 Indians a day that were intruding upon their land. Right from their back porch! (Alec, the husband of Margaret, loves to tell jokes of this nature to Margaret’s sister Elspeth to try and scare her, and these jokes are treated as a source of high humor throughout.) Still jarring, although not as much of a surprise to me, was the way that nearly every time a woman spoke, Stegner wrote that their words were either delivered “hysterically,” or the men in the community were surprised that the women were not being hysterical. 

As a boy growing up in Tennessee, I loved reading tales of Daniel Boone and other American explorers, and I’m sure most of the books I came across depicted Native Americans—and women—in the same dehumanizing manner and I simply never noticed it. That I notice it now is something I am grateful for. It is a part of what I hope for from my reading life today: an ever-growing awareness of experiences that differ from mine that engenders love and compassion for my neighbors. It is, to mention just one example, why I read James Baldwin and Ta-Nahisi Coates, Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon, as I think about what it means to live in the United States of America today.

Frederick Buechner perhaps said it best: “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.”