The Making of a Reader
For several decades I have been reading Bible alongside others and within other traditions and teaching what I have come to learn in the process. This much I have come to believe: Readers are made in the same sense that reading must be taught.
I don’t remember those very early days of looking at the scratches on paper that slowly gave way to those more meaningful markings called words. I only am aware that it took time, effort, and practice to acquire enough skills to even begin what is clearly a complex process. One reference point is my first glance at a Hebrew text, different enough from familiar western characters to simulate the strangeness a child must feel when first presented with the written page. We may be given capacity to read, it may be easier for some than for others, but it takes the community of readers to help each generation learn how to negotiate a variety of texts, understand their various meanings, challenge their interpretations, and present its own insights into them. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Recently, I discussed my thoughts about composing this series concerning the making of a reader with a professional writer. She stopped me in mid-lecture and asked a very simple question: "Why do you read?" I was actually stunned. A good question ought to have such an effect. This was a great question. I had never been asked this before nor had I been conscious of asking this of myself. Like many teachers I had been more occupied with the "making" part, the skill building than the "why" of it. At a loss for words, I thought I might be able to think my way to a reflective if not profound response by calling up some theological argument. My first thoughts carried me back through my own ancestry. Within our own Covenant pietistic tradition we have been proud to call ourselves readers, especially of Bible, pushed and prodded by the question placed by our own P.P. Waldenström: Where is it written? If, as we dare to affirm, the Old and New Testaments are the only perfect rule for faith doctrine and conduct, then we really are driven to reading the text in order to ground our lives and thoughts in it. Reading becomes a very serious business. We read in order to know how to live. We read because we have to. There it was! A good solid response to her question.
I read because I have to! A solid response, maybe, but the sound of that sentence strikes old familiar chords whose music is dissonant and frustrating to my ears, a scratchy noise that runs throughout my own childhood and into my present life. Books were not my friends. The strange thing is that I lived in a house filled, nay, dominated by books. Whole walls and rooms of books spilling out into stacks precariously balancing on radiators and anything else horizontal that offered a convenient starting place for a new pile. My father, who was always doing something, even when he was just sitting, read all the time and often with such intensity that my brothers and sister and I would try to distract him out of his "trance" by goofing off or making peculiar noises around his chair. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes he laughed. Sometimes his eyes were filled with that strange set which meant that he had been pulled out of some distant time and place and was not pleased to be back. I came to learn much later that for him that might have been a conversation with Jefferson or with Pericles, or that only a moment earlier he had been standing breathless at Cape Sunion as the Persian fleet swept beneath the lovely columns of Poseidon’s Temple on their way to Athens.
These delights of reading as time travel were a long way off for me. My experience as a kid taught me that reading was difficult. After all, where did Dick and Jane take you? I became quickly bored and frustrated. When reading a whole paragraph, I slipped easily into distraction, day dreaming, or vacant trance, usually forgetting what I had just read, sinking into despair while fanning all the pages that lie ahead, knowing that I could never make it to the end. Reading became something to be avoided which increasingly called for talent and creative enterprise. Thankfully, by the time I entered high-school there were Cliff Notes. This was perfect. A person could actually get the gist of the book or the play without ever having to read it. After all, that was the point. Reading was about getting the point, a means to an end, acquiring enough of the content and meaning in order to pass a test or answer a question. Having discovered this as the point of reading, I learned that it was much more efficient to read something written about the book, rather than the book itself. Thus began my dependence on commentaries. At the same time, reading something that was based on how others read a particular text also continued to nurture the belief that I couldn’t make it through the text anyway. Such is the nature of dependency. It was easier and even better to use the skills of those who knew what they were doing.
So things would have continued if not for the influence of two critical people, both of them consummate and passionate readers. The first was my father, the time traveler. He seemed perplexed if not perturbed at my avoidance of reading, delivering brilliant lectures and arguments on the paucity of a life without reading. But all of this was futile. I already knew that I would never be able to read well enough to tackle anything of real importance so there wasn’t much use trying. Then, one late summer evening, he seduced me with promises of a malted milk at Laurie’s if I would just read a single chapter of a book he chose. I groaned. I could tell that the offer of the treat was simply his way of sweetening what we both understood was a "have to," with a malt thrown in for creative parenting. He handed me the text and I began reading these words: "Captain Sir Horatio Hornblower sat in his bath, regarding with distaste his legs dangling over the end. They were thin and hairy, and recalled to his mind the legs of the spiders he had seen in Central America."
Say what you will, I quickly became obsessed with chasing "Boney" [Napoleon] over every inch of watery surface as he nagged away at the British fleet. I sailed with Captain Hornblower, as he slowly rose to the rank of Admiral while in hot pursuit of "Boney." It was a perfect choice and a magnificent text. I got the malt. If freshman English teachers handed out C.S. Forester in addition to Willa Cather, they might make more adolescent boys into readers. I had been led to a great discovery. Reading could be fun, full of adventure and intrigue. My imagination had been released by words spread across a few pages, words which brought me to feel the heave of the deck and the smell of the gun powder as British flack shredded French sails. I began to grasp the stakes, passion, and human story that lie beneath great historical events. More than the lovely fresh malt on my tongue, I had my first real taste in time travel, entering a world that seemed, to that point, hopelessly inaccessible. This experience did not turn me into an avid reader. I was very selective. If I liked it, if it held my attention, I would read it. If I lost interest, even midstream, it was hard to plow through. There are not many books written to carry a reader like me all the way through. Even a well-plotted mystery takes some work. My shelves are loaded with half-finished projects.
My father confessed that he struggled with the same difficulty. It surprised and delighted me to hear that. He taught me a fundamental skill of reading he had learned. First, ask the book how it would like to be read, as if each book were an individual. Not every book was meant to be read the same way. My father rarely started at the beginning. He just opened it up and jumped in, reading backward and forward until he found a place to linger for a while. He searched for something new, well written, fascinating—whatever held his attention. We were more similar than I thought. Another reading skill he had acquired was learning to search for and find the one paragraph or two worth reading in the oceans of pages in which we are asked or required to swim. These can be dispensed with quickly while other written texts call for careful savoring, a sip at a time. These are often the texts we return to again and again, each time more wonderful than the last. At the heart of it, I was beginning to learn that reading takes discernment and a belief that enjoyment is an adequate compass.
The second most significant reading influence was my high-school Latin teacher. I felt about foreign language the same way I felt about reading. It was one of those "have to" requirements. My early attempts at speaking French produced only enough sounds to raise laughter among my classmates and I was determined not to place myself in that humiliating situation again. What to do! I signed up for Latin, with the assurance that it would not be conversational. Unfortunately, Miss Leech came with the deal. She was unique among the faculty. Tall, older, gray hair tightly wound in a bun, glasses with chain rope looped around her neck, she seemed to keep to herself, avoiding the playfulness of the younger teachers. She appeared stern and humorless and intimidating to a young freshman boy. Even so, Miss Leech seemed more palatable than having to speak Spanish or French. The choice to take Latin also brought distinction. Everyone took the romantic languages. My friends thought I was crazy and impractical because no one spoke Latin. Latin was a dead language anchored in old boring texts. It was hard to argue with them. I had no idea what I was getting into, only what I was getting out of.
The class text was landscaped with pictures of old Roman archeological sites and classic paintings from mythological scenes. We were quickly pushed to translate short paragraphs from some of these old boring texts. "Vento surgente, Trojani ad insulam Cretam navigaverunt" soon transformed into "with the wind rising, the Trojans sailed to the island of Crete." This was amazing! I was unprepared for the sheer delight that rose within me as I played with those strange ancient words, carefully searching for an adequate way to bring them into English. I wonder if it is similar to an artist who fondles a lump of clay or a palate of color, working their natures to transform them onto the canvas or the wheel.
Filled with this power to bring the ancient into the modern world, and the pride that follows such initial discovery, we Latin kids loved telling our friends that while Virgil was readable in translation, the original was far superior. Like all hubris, our estimate of our capacity was presumptuous. It turned out our friends didn’t care. They were equally overcome with themselves, gesturing and conversing with each other as if they had just come from the Place de la Concorde. There is nothing quite so wonderful as listening to jocks forcing French through their noses in search of that authentic tone. For our part, under our idle boasting there was some truth to what we were discovering in Latin. I learned much later that Goethe wrote that a really good translation ought to give the reader an insatiable desire for the original.
At the time I didn’t know that this slow, careful exploration of ancient words was also reading, a kind of reading that had captured me and would eventually steer me into Greek and Hebrew. Meanwhile, the old phobia continues to hang on. To this day I am unable to speak a single word of either language in their modern idiom. I feel free and am unashamed of missing a translation but I am still afraid of mispronouncing a word. I recently tried to learn to speak Italian by listening to tapes and practicing in the privacy of my car. It turns out I embarrassed myself and had to stop. Another project for another day!
Why did I read Latin? Because for some inexplicable reason I enjoyed it immensely. It had no purpose other than enjoyment as far as I could tell. My friends were right. Though it might help build a vocabulary, a lofty and noble ambition for some, it held out little promise for modern travel or application. The enjoyment came from the careful, slow pace and all the conversation which flowed into and out of each student’s choice of words and sentence structure. We would disagree with each other and often discover that translation was a matter of choosing. It could not be undertaken if we were after the "right" version. Translation was translation, no matter how well performed and researched. But what fun to dive into the mystery of all this old stuff while surfacing what I could with my adolescent mind into some form of modern English. The fun of it carried me through the agony of learning grammar and the memorizing of vocabulary and conjugations. I have no doubt about this at all. If it wasn’t fun, I would not have stuck it out for four years. Why did I read Latin? It was fun and enjoyable. I enjoyed doing it and I enjoyed the feeling of being able to do it. In truth, I was reading and didn’t even know it.
This is not nearly as profound a response to the writer’s question as I thought it deserved. But it is the truth. Why do I read? I’m looking for a good story capable of holding my attention, composed with an artfulness that calls forth from me careful reading and an abundance of wonderful conversation with other readers. Over the years, this search for good reading material has found its most enduring and delightful home in the Biblical narrative. Elie Wiesel once recalled an old rabbinical saying. "Why did God create people? God created people because he loves a good story." Turns out we’re after the same thing.
With this in mind, how does one approach the Biblical text? One reader may take the more direct and logical path by starting with Genesis, Chapter 1 verse 1:
"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" (NRSV).
Another reader may take the lead from my father’s more indirect, "just jump in" tact and discover: "Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud" Gen. 29.11 (NRSV).
My mind reels at the contrast between these two introductions to the same book. Which one would encourage me to read on, or backward as the case may be? Is this book about God or about human beings? Does it concern the epic mystery of origins painted with the broad brush strokes of the cosmic sweep or the careful detail embedded in a single human encounter that results in a kiss.
Within a few words the reader is already sizing up the project and laying out some assumptions. It is important to know that we do this, usually without our awareness, because wherever we begin our reading we must be prepared to adjust our first impressions. A good book will challenge our assumptions and keep us on our feet. It is part of the enjoyment of reading and a quality of good writing. The text asks us to remain open to what might be coming next or what might already have happened.
While this is true for any text, it is especially critical for reading Bible because we come with many assumptions as to what the Bible is about before we even begin to read. One of my favorite Bible readers, the philosopher Martin Buber, urges readers to come to the Biblical text
as though it were something entirely unfamiliar, as though it had not been set before [us] ready-made, as though [we] had not been confronted all our lives with sham concepts and sham statements that cited the Bible as their authority. We must face the Book with a new attitude as something new. We must yield to it, withhold nothing of our being, and let whatever will occur between [us] and it. We do not know which of its sayings and images will overwhelm us and mold us, from where the spirit will ferment and enter into us, to incorporate itself anew in our body (Martin Buber, On the Bible).
In the end, each of my reading teachers encouraged this same approach. My Father asked that I be open to the possibility that Forester might just be worth the effort. Miss Leech cushioned our initial fear of learning grammar and new vocabulary by asking that we remain open to the possibility that the ancient adventure of Aeneas might actually come alive under the transforming alchemy of our own translations.
Openness allows for discovery. The discovery might actually be that reading Bible is more enjoyable and fun than we have been led to expect. This alone is a worthy reason for reading this remarkable text.