The Best Way to Read a Book

The great books are our primary means of encountering great people.

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A friend recently told me that one of the things he enjoyed most about reading one of my books was that he could hear my voice as he read it. I think he meant more that he enjoyed the novelty of it rather than that he thinks I have a such a nice voice, but since the ambiguity was not made clear, I am happy to receive the complement either way. Just this past weekend I heard someone else say the same thing to my friend, Brother François, CFR, who did the illustrations for my book The Wise Guy and the Fool, and who has written a couple of children’s books of his own. His voice is much nicer to hear, audibly or mentally, since he has a beautiful, thick French accent. Accent or not, though, the ability to hear the author is close to the key to really reading a book.

In his preface to I and Thou, Walter Kaufmann claims that “modern man is a voracious reader who has never learned to read well.” He knows that I and Thouis a book worth reading well, so he takes the time to explain what he means. “We must feel addressed by a book, by the human being behind it, as if a person spoke directly to us. A good book or essay or poem is not primarily an object of experience: it is the voice of You speaking to me, requiring a response.” In Buber’s words, “Let them try, as best they can, to receive this saying with their ears — as if the speaker had said it in their presence, addressing them. To this end they must turn with their whole being toward the speaker, who is not at hand, of the saying that is at hand.”

I have had the sense when reading some dystopian science fiction novels that the author was grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me as hard as they can, saying, “Listen to me! I have something very important to tell you! You are in great danger unless something changes!” Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in particular comes to mind. There are some books that demand to be read that way for those who are open to it. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. When I read the novels of Flannery O’Connor, I feel like I am in the middle of a bad dream. I think she would take that as a compliment, and that is how I mean it. 

Books and other written works are not the kinds of things that come about by chance or the natural processes of nature, but can only be produced as a result of the intellectual nature of a person. Each book is made by a person, intentionally, and has some purpose behind it: entertainment, warning, encouragement, instruction, provocation. We approach a personal message every time we pick up a book. Books are not mere objects; they are means of an encounter between, in the words of Martin Buber, an I and a You.

The opposite approach would be to use a book only as a means of psychoanalyzing the author or evaluating the social and ideological trends of some other society. This is not to say that academic pursuits in psychology and history are not valid, but those are merely academic pursuits and don’t take into account the full meaning of the work or the person behind it. Using a book only as a means of measuring the mental climate of the author is like reducing the Mona Lisa to a chemical and spectral analysis.

The best way to read a book is to imagine that the author is in front of you, directly addressing the book to you. It is not so much a matter of creating an accurate mental rendering of the appearance of the face and the sound of the voice, but to imagine that the words are an exchange between two persons. We cannot spend time in the physical presence of the great minds of the past, but we can spend time with them. The great books are our primary means of encountering great people. This is why the joy practically drips off the pages of books by and about the saints; the saints themselves were drenched in joy.

Are there some books not really worth our time? Yes. Of course, as Christians we know that the proper response is pity and compassion for their authors, not condemnatory criticism and judgment.

And what is the most important book to read? What is the word above all words which we must hear? “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The Cross is the address of the Eternal Thou, requiring a response. Rather, requiring the response, the only response that really matters in this life when all is said and done. The Cross is an address from the Creator of the universe to each of us, individually, intimately, face to face and heart to heart. God says to you, yes you, the reader of this blog, “See how I love you,” from the Cross. Unlike other authors though, we can also spend time in the physical presence of the Author of that Word: in adoration and in the Mass. May we never forget.