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Filtering by Tag: reading

On Canons and Saints

Tom Sturch

Untitled It happened during the Q&A portion of Dr. Cairns' poetry reading. When a man at the workshop posed his question, Dr. Scott Cairns prefaced the answer by asking him if he had read The Brothers Karamazov. No, he replied. Suddenly, the bright, amiable room we sat in shuddered and darkened like a rift valley in a quake and descended into an animated, if not fiery, lecture on the essential nature of that book.

“Wow! Was that Socratics?” asked a panicky voice.

“Rhetoric, I think,” said another, catching her breath in the aftershocks.

“No,” said the voices of those who'd read the book. “He was finding the right ground for his answer.”

Of course, nobody outside my silly mind said those things and the ground falling away is a figure. But the initial incident was true and left the man's question, along with its answer, lost in a canonical chasm. And we who were exposed with poorer footing made an orderly bee line for the bookstore.

My habit is to read rather slowly for an hour a day in the early morning. So Brothers, a thick book, will take a while. (Another thick book I read, Centennial, took about a hundred years!) But someone once said that a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies so the amount of time is really no concern. What is, is the quality of choices for the lives and times I read. Dr. Cairns, knowing this, cared enough to risk his Q&A on the seismic question, Have you read...?

As Dostoevsky begins telling the story of Alyosha, the book's protagonist who would come to study under an elder, the narrator offers this picture:

What, then, is an elder? An elder is one who takes your soul, your will into his soul and into his will. Having chosen an elder, you renounce your will and give it to him under total obedience and with total self-renunciation. A man who dooms himself to this trial, this terrible school of life, does so voluntarily, in the hope that after the long trial he will achieve self-conquest, self-mastery to such a degree that he will, finally, through a whole life's obedience, attain to perfect freedom that is, freedom from himself and avoid the lot of those who live their whole lives without finding themselves in themselves.

* * * * * * * *

All Saints Day has just come. It sits on the liturgical calendar like an outpost in Ordinary Time and readies our journey into Christmastide. The Saints, like great teachers, point the direction, supply the need, and walk a distance alongside. They become fellow travelers from a different time that we do not see except by the light of words and imagination, and yet are there. In this relationship words become light and light becomes time. How small the leap, then, that word might become flesh when we see it so in the courses of other lives?

Thus, I embark on Brothers, which I should finish around Epiphany. I do it so I might ask questions grounded in the prospect of better insight, and as an act of trusting my teachers' admonitions that time spent in good reading is time being redeemed.

What time, by what light, do you read?

The Driving Force of Passion


Bonnie writes about the things that she is passionate about. Passion compels us forward into action. While there are several things I support, there are a few that I am passionate about.  I am passionate about being holistically pro-life, my personal theology, and as shallow as it comparatively sounds, reading a good book.

I love to read so when I read a really awesome book or story I am totally absorbed in the plot, the characters, and the emotion – yes, I occasionally laugh or cry as I read. I get so invested in the plot that real life fades a bit – I go through the motions but my mind is on the story. After I finish a novel I always feel a little deflated and sad that my story is over and sometimes I wonder what the characters would do next.

Passion also drives us to invest in the things that we care about, either through volunteering or giving financially. It also means that we invest our time in the things that are important to us. I would like to say that while our LoveRelief campaign is over, consider giving back to a journal that supports great stories.

Bonnie Ponce is the Director of Support Raising for Relief and lives in Huntsville, Texas with her husband and betta fish. She has a BA in English from Sam Houston State University. After work she enjoys relaxing with a good book or working on her novel.

Enjoyment, Experience, and Reading

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson, prompted by a recent colleague's sharing of the "Read a Book" rap and expressing a desire to show it to their students.  Without getting into issues of race and class, what is the problem with the "reading issue" a bit more broadly?

Nothing New...

There's nothing new about a general frustration of an older generation of educators complaining about the lack of preparation of the future generation and a fear of a disappearance of books or quality books or the right books, and so on.  It seems that every year a cycle of e-mails make the teaching rounds of century-old quotes that sound just like our feelings of today.

It's Not that I Don't Like to Read, but...

What I've noticed might be changing is that while my students (both young and old) have less experience reading things on their own, they often express a desire to read more and learn to read for pleasure.

In fact, this week, one of my lit students commented during break, "I really like how we are thinking differently about this book, but I also wish that we could take time to enjoy it.  I don't even know how to do that anymore."  At first, my hackles raised, and I wanted to reply, "Well, that's because you're learning to REALLY look into a book and figure out how it means."  Fortunately, I stopped myself and thought for a second.

Why shouldn't we take time to teach/give credit for reading just for enrichment or pleasure?

Part of it is probably because the people teaching are often the one's who already love reading and take that as a given.  As can be seen by the launch of the iPad, an understanding of contemporary society must take on the growing assumption that things should "fit me".  On a certain level, this is pure hubris and entitlement, but "it is what it is", as they say.  Like it or not, people have less time for traditional "reading" and when one is not introduced to reading very early in life (Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone advocates that an interest in books should happen in the first 3 years), then where else will you get it?

It's Important, Really, but Don't Make It Too Important.

An NEA study from 2007 found all the usual suspects.  Reading is falling, and it is becoming more important for work.  However, what really gave me pause when this student asked her question was that the immediate assumption that emerged that one must justify reading in terms of educational, and primarily economic, reasons.

Would reading really not be something to teach if it only offered another way of enjoying oneself and connecting to other people, ideas, times, and places?  Looking at the books and movies selected for awards or even just for small, local book groups, one would assume that loving books means loving stories about the deaths of young girls, loss of innocence, or big, historical epics.

In writing this, I've often devolved into a screed against the focus on quantitative educational goals, but I need to keep deleting them and move on to the bigger points.  Reading is more than enjoyment, as I teach in my literature and rhetoric classes.  Reading is also more than analysis and critique, which is not really taught or encouraged anywhere, and I think it needs to be.

Why Can't I Stop Being Serious?

I'll give you a personal example of how difficult this is for me to accomplish.  A couple weeks ago, I was meeting a friend at my favorite bar, and I brought in the genre novel that I was reading at the time (Bounty-hunter Witch Lives with Vampire and Struggles for Her Identity).  After a while of sitting at the bar, a patron asked me, "What are you reading?"  I turned the cover so that she could read the title and author.  She inquired, "What's it about?" "Well,...[confused retelling of backstory]," and I immediately felt the need to point out, "Well, I study genre narratives, especially those about detectives and detective-like characters, and especially about individual morality and ethics."

Immediately after the addendum, she smiled and said, "Cool.  That's awesome that you study something that you love."  It was to this moment that my mind jumped just this last week when the student asked about reading for pleasure.  I do love the literature that I teach, well most of it, but I've loved it for so long that I forget what it is like to learn to love something.  That "learning to love" is a slow process, just ask my wife about onions, but it is a worthwhile process to learn, just ask my wife about onions.  It is something worth putting some time, effort, and reward into sharing with others, if for society in general, then at least for individual, selfish reasons.   While I am loath to say it, learning to love something might even prove useful for one's future life and career, but don't tell anyone I said so.


Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain  aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in detective narratives.