I’ve always been a reader. My love affair with books began when my grandmother read to me from a tattered first edition of Aesop’s Fables. Sunlight pouring through the windows of her high-ceilinged bedroom, fan turning lazily overhead, she read with the poised delivery of a professionally-trained actress, enunciating every syllable, her elocution, flawless. She knew how to pause for effect, how to perform different character’s voices, a skill she had perfected over decades as a school teacher. As her wrinkled hands delicately turned the soft pages, I leaned forward, desperate to find out what happened next.
My love for books continued into my later childhood years. When I was ten, paradise was perusing the bookshelves of my local Borders. “Go look around. You can get whatever you want,” my dad said. As he roamed the history section for books on World War II and Mt. Everest, the rich smell of roasted coffee beans drifting from Seattle’s Finest, I strolled through the chapter books: My Side of the Mountain, The Boxcar Children, The Babysitter’s Club. By the time we made our way to the cash register, I had a stack of books as tall and precarious as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Today I continue to devour books, fifty, sometimes one hundred a year. But though I’m an avid reader, I sometimes worry I amass very little of what I read. Yes, I have a voracious appetite for books; and yes, my conception of bliss is limitless hours in a library’s main stacks; and yes, I read widely but do I really absorb what I read? Do the countless hours with a book and tea in hand actually enlarge my narrow mind? make me more empathetic? Does reading enrich my life and mold me into a better person? Or do I just consume books as mindlessly as others might gorge themselves on reality television? Maybe, I shuddered, reading was simply an aimless way to pass the time, yet another form of superficial entertainment.
How, I wondered, could I instill the act of reading with more significance? how could I retain more of what I read?
In her elegiac Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, Jane Brox offers a solution, “divine reading”— a way of engaging with books borrowed from the monasteries of medieval times. Rather than read passively without thinking or asking questions or read hurriedly for the sake of checking another book off their to-read list, monks were masters of divine reading, what Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren termed “critical reading” in their seminal How to Read a Book. Like Adler and Doren, who believed what we get from books is directly proportional to the effort we put in, medieval monks asserted books had much to teach us if we were willing to actively engage with them.
According to Brox, at the beginning of Lent, monks who could read were assigned a single text to study throughout the year. After studying their text, they’d reflect on what they read throughout the day: while plowing the fields, while peeling potatoes, while kneading bread. Reading wasn’t merely the act of deciphering symbols as their eyes moved left to right across the page, limited to the few hours when they buried their heads between covers— it was pondering and puzzling, musing and mulling over what they read long afterwards.
Because he spent such vast quantities of time with so few books, the medieval monk’s relationship with what he read— to paraphrase William of St. Thierry— was an intimate bond between life-long friends instead of frivolous small-talk with a passing guest. In medieval monasteries, a book was a cherished companion, someone you came to know well after passing many hours together. Unlike an acquaintance who you only knew superficially (“So how are things?” you’d ask politely, never crossing the boundaries into true intimacy”), a book— like a close friend— was someone you felt comfortable asking the tough questions, the one person with whom you could drop all charade and pretense.
Though we usually imagine reading as a one-sided lecture in which the writer is speaker and the reader is listener (“Many people think that, as compared with writing and speaking, which are obviously active undertakings, reading and listening are entirely passive. Reading and listening are thought of as receiving communication from someone who is actively engaged in giving or sending it,” Adler and Doren noted), reading is ideally a never-ending two-sided conversation. Whether they challenge our long-held prejudices and preconceptions or inspire us to see a topic in a new way, books—as Franz Kafka once said— can be an axe for the frozen sea within. But it is only when we read closely—deconstructing a text, analyzing a writer’s rhetorical, stylistic choices, reading between the lines, beneath what the text explicitly says to what it implies— that we can access the profound power of books to move us. Otherwise, we’re just shifting our eyes left to right, ingesting information without digesting it, unquestioningly accepting an author’s ideas without formulating our own. As Brox describes:
“Several hours of each monastic day were given over to lectio divina— divine reading— but such reading wasn’t confined to the time spent bent to the pages. It was expansive and ongoing, linked to all other activities of the monastery, to be contemplated while a monk or nun tended bees, hoed the garden…and then recalled again and again during the vast silence of the day. Their reading worked its way into their prayers, their thoughts, their recollections. ‘Some part of your daily reading should also each day be committed to memory,’ William of St. Thierry instructed the novices at Mont Dieu, ‘taken as it were into the stomach, to be more carefully digested and brought up again for frequent rumination. He also counseled: ‘You will never enter into Paul’s meaning until by constant application you have imbibed his spirit. You will never understand David until by experience you have made the very sentiments of the psalms your own.”
If we want to amass more of what we read, Brox asserts, we must remember reading is an active, not a passive, enterprise. Just as students learn better when teachers relay information through different access points— a lecture, a visual, a Socratic seminar, a hands-on activity— readers retain more of what they read when reading involves other cognitive skills such as speaking and thinking:
“And surely the slow pace of reading, as well as reading aloud, helped with memory, as did the continual engagement with only a few books. But, most essentially for monastics, as Jean Leclercq explained, ‘to speak, to think, to remember are three necessary phases of the same activity. To express what one is thinking and to repeat it enables one to imprint it on one’s mind…What results is a muscular memory of the words pronounced and an aural memory of the words heard…It is what inscribes, so to speak, the sacred text in the body and in the soul.'”
Brox’s Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives makes an elegant case for the preservation of silence in a chatty world. Not only are silence, stillness and solitude prerequisites to a contemplative life, they make it possible for books to become the marrow in our bones. Only then can books transform us and how we view the world.