Somewhere about the house, curled up, maybe, in a nursery window, or hidden in a freezing attic, a child is poring over The Three Musketeers, lost to any consciousness of his surroundings, incapable of analyzing his emotions, breathless with mingled fear and exultation over his heroes’ varying fortunes, and drinking in a host of vivid impressions that are absolutely ineffaceable from his mind. We cannot read in that fashion any longer, but we only wish we could. — Agnes Repplier, “What Children Read,” in Books and Men (1888): 64-65.
Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers.
Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence.
Read parts of a newspaper quickly or an encyclopaedia entry, or a fast-food thriller, but do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort by seeing how fast you can dispose of it. — Susan Hill, Howard’s End Is on the Landing, pp. 171-172.
The other day, I was sitting in a coffee shop and reviewing my exegetical notes on Matthew 8 and reading Gibbs’s commentary. Honest, I was. But I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation going on at another table, a man who looked ex-military rattling on and on about martial arts.
Well, not really. Martial arts, as taught in America, doesn’t use the real secret. This guy had studied under someone (in Tennessee, which, last I checked, seemed to be in America, but never mind that) who had revealed the secret to him.
Mind you, I was doing my own reading and I was some distance away, so I’m sure I missed a lot. But I gleaned that true power is not a matter of learning martial arts. It’s a matter of flipping the switch in our brains. We’re all animals and so this used to come naturally to us but now we have to learn how. But it’s not a matter of trying; it’s just natural … if we only can get our bodies to remember how. “It’s called ‘Mind over Matter,'” the man said.
It’s not punching; all you need is a touch. When you punch, you’re still trying. In fact, it’s not that your arm sends out your fist; rather, your fist pulls your arm. Everything is waves, and in fact if you do this right, you’re not breaking the board; the board is virtually tearing itself apart.
The whole thing is about speed: if you move at 60 miles an hour, then you have force. You’ve got to reach out and touch the wall and get your hand back before you’ve even touched it. That way, the guy said, and I quote, “I can hit you again before I hit you again before I hit you again.” And if a baseball, thrown at 100 miles an hour, were to hit the bat, the bat would shatter. That’s why the bat has to hit the ball instead.
There was a gnostic element to the whole thing, a secret knowledge that turned into seven secrets, of which the first were “Dilate your eyes” and “Empty your body of all air” (because that makes you move fast) and “Point your toes in the direction you want the energy to go” and “Yell” (this is a secret?) and, I think, “Practice one thing for a minute a day” …
And then I finished my work — really, I was working — and headed home, never to know the last secrets that, if I could but master them, would make me a martial arts expert — no! martial arts is about trying! — um … a dangerous animal, capable of having my fist pull my arm out at 60 miles an hour to touch someone and have him virtually tear himself apart because of my energy waves, as I hit him again before I hit him the first time.
It was tempting to stay, to finish the lesson — or was it a sales pitch? — but no. I remain a 98 pound (give or take a hundred or so) weakling, with a pretty good grasp on Matthew 8.
[Update: When I thought about it some more, this talk reminded me of the way some Christians talk about sanctification and our growth in godliness — as if you’re not suppose to be “trying,” as if it’s never right to tell anyone to “try harder,” as if it should all just flow naturally from grace without any effort on our part, as if our efforts are somehow in conflict with grace. Same sort of bushwa, different barrel.]
Most fiction for kids and young adults is reviewed as if it existed in order to deliver a useful little sermon — “Growing up is tough but you can make it.” “Popularity is not all it’s cracked up to be.” “Drugs are dangerous.” …
The notion that a story ‘has a message’ assumes that it can be reduced to a few abstract words, neatly summarized in a school or college examination paper or a brisk critical review. If that were true, why would writers go to the trouble of making up characters and relationships and plots and scenery and all that? Why not just deliver the message? Is the story a box to hide an idea in, a fancy dress to make a naked idea look pretty, a candy coating to make a bitter idea easier to swallow? Open your mouth, dear, it’s good for you. Is fiction decorate wordage concealing a rational thought, a message, which is its ultimate reality and reason for being?
A lot of teachers teach fiction, a lot of reviewers (particularly of children’s books) review it, and so a lot of people read it, in that belief. The trouble is, it’s wrong….
I wish children in school, instead of being taught to look for a message in a story, were taught to think as they open the book, “Here’s a door opening on a new world: what will I find there?” — Ursula K. LeGuin, “A Message About Messages,” Cheek by Jowl, pp. 126-127, 129.
I’ve heard sermons calling me to be bold about sharing the gospel. And sermons about being a missionary overseas because their need of the gospel over there is great. Sermons telling me I need to be a missionary here. And the all-Christians-are-missionaries-sermons I’ve heard preached could choke a horse….
And I’ve heard sermons about not worrying what other people think when I witness to them. And sermons, preached with wild eyes, calling us to a life of radical morality and missional living.
But I’ve never heard a sermon asking me to have a quiet life….
In 1 Thessalonians 4:11 (ESV), Paul urges his hearers “to aspire to live quietly.” And in 2 Thessalonians 3:12 he encourages them “in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly.” But I’ve never heard a sermon on what he means by “quiet” or “quietly.” Or what he means by “live” or “life.” I’ve heard many how-to sermons but none on how to live quietly, and what it might look like in our culture, which is so loud about everything….
Paul isn’t just suggesting this to the Thessalonians. He is urging them to live quietly. Wait a second — no, he wants these believers to aspire to live quietly. You could translate these words as “make it your ambition to live quietly.” This is no small thing. And this quiet living is important enough for him to include it in both letters to the Thessalonian Christians. And he wants Timothy to give the same instructions to his people (Matthew B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane, pp. 33-34).