In the last Soul Gardening Journal issue, I wrote an article about something I think fairly important: reading hard books. I will copy and paste the full article below. But I thought it’d be interesting to see if the handful of readers here would be interested in doing a Summer Reading Challenge. The goal is simple: read a hard book. If you are a super-biblio-zealot, read one of each three types of hard books I defined! My personal goal is to hit each of these categories every year and I’m exactly halfway there. For the wildly curious, my “hard” reads for 2019 are:
The Long Book: The Lord of the Rings. I’m counting this as one book, as it should be counted. 1008 pages, not including appendixes. (I’ve linked to my aesthetically favorite edition of the first volume.) I read this in high school but it was about time for a revisit, and I am a better person because of it.
The Intellectual Book: Basic Economics. I’m actually listening to this book on Audible, which makes it more difficult for me since I’m not an auditory learner; I prefer ink on paper. But, bits here and there in the car or while folding laundry has been so incredibly eye-opening. I can’t emphasize the importance of this book enough. Sowell is an unparalleled thinker/writer in his calm, dispassionate nature. Now, while this book is written for the lay person and is pretty darn reader friendly, things like the stock exchange and regulatory bodies and rates of employment are just slightly beyond my intellectual comfort zone, which is what makes this book perfect for a bit of brain stretching. If I was still a homeschooler, this would be mandatory reading for my high-schoolers.
The Unwelcome Book: This isn’t set in stone, but I’m thinking I’ll be reading Harry Potter this year. Now, my aversion to this book isn’t entirely due to classic-literature-snobbery. It’s simply that my “to-do” list of books to read has so many other wonderful books on it that I don’t feel compelled in any way whatsoever to prioritize this contemporary piece of fiction. This, and morally ambivalent feelings aside, I feel like I have to read this book in order to at least have some sort of cultural literacy. Like it or not, Potterisms are everywhere and I really ought to have some context for things like Dumbledore and Hogwarts and Quidditch that I hear in the average American lexicon nowadays. So there’s that. Notice that I’m not linking it… because I don’t necessarily recommend it!
Here is the original Soul Gardening Article. Read something hard this summer! I’d absolutely be thrilled to see your choices!
Hashtag it #hardbookschallenge on Facebook, Instagram and whatever other e-life you live!
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On Reading Hard Books
Early into motherhood, I ran to books for diversion and interest. Any bibliophile reading this knows what I’m talking about: laundry piles and temper tantrums can be handled with grace so long as you have the salve of Pride and Prejudice or an inspirational Brené Brown book waiting for you offstage. In those initial, isolating years of limited adult contact, books become a woman’s best friend. This is good.
The past few years though, have forced me to reconsider my reading habits. When I began keeping a reading journal (and this is as fancy as a $2 spiral notebook where I write down the title of what I read and 2-3 sentences of my impressions of the book), I noticed the uneven distribution of types of books I read. So often, I was a consumer for the sake of consuming and binged on mind candy. And while I fully support the idea that motherhood is an important, sacrificial, all-consuming gift-of-self… I rather resented that my mind seemed to be increasingly unable to focus on anything more dense than memes and HuffPo articles. There were diapers to change, homeschooling lessons to write, and food sensitivities to research; who in the world has time for metaphysics?! But my reading journal has now developed into a personal challenge for myself in that it inspires (taunts) me to be more proactive in using my brain, developing my whole self. Because if any one of us thinks we’ve mastered the art of being educated—or even fully human— once we get a college degree or successfully raise a child to age 18, we are sorely mistaken.
So I seek now to graze from a more diverse literary palate and hard books is part of this. To me, there are three kinds of “hard.” My personal goal is to read one of each kind each year, along with liberal quantities of fun or purely interest-driven books.
- A hard book is a long book. With such technology-centered lives, our brains are literally rewiring themselves to skim and sort and turn away after 30 seconds of interest. We are Generation Click Bait. I once read somewhere about a study which predicted that the next generation of college graduates will be unable to read/comprehend something like Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Their brains just won’t have the processing power. I hope this is a dire, false prophecy, of course, but it does give me pause. This year I finally began and completed The Brothers Karamazov which has been on my list for over a decade. I faltered in and out of interest as I was knee deep in mandatory textbook reading at the time, but finally completed it as an audiobook on a long road trip— hearing the Russian pronunciations was quite helpful. What is considered a long book? Maybe something north of 500 pages…?
- A hard book is an unwelcome book. Sometimes, I think it is a good practice to read things that we don’t want to read. Yes! We risk living in a closed-off world of self if we only read things that confirm our own religious biases or lifestyle choices. Not interested in changing up your diet? No problem. But consider reading Michael Pollan’s books anyway. This year I read Primal Loss: The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak, even though I already have firm convictions on the devastation of divorce. It’s a book I didn’t want to read, but did so anyway, just to be familiar with the experiences of this demographic (I recommend it for all people by the way, in troubled marriages or not). In a totally different vein, I think my next unwelcome book will be Harry Potter. I have zero interest in this series, but Potter-isms have become such a part of our cultural fabric now (what with rides at Disneyland, references to Hogwarts… even my college professor quotes somebody named Dumbledore!) that I honestly feel a resigned sort of obligation to get a basic understanding of what the heck people are talking about.
- A hard book is an intellectual book. This is the type of book where you have to read the same paragraph three times just to understand what’s being said… when passages have your mind wandering to grocery lists or Facebook updates. Not everyone needs to read the Summa Theologica, but everyone should be challenging their own intellect wherever it happens to be, by reading something that requires discipline and focus. It can be theology, philosophy, history, foreign affairs. Whatever. The point is to push yourself to learn something from someone smarter than you and create new pathways in your brain to think. The book I wrestled with and conquered this year in this category was A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. I think it may have been the most difficult book I’ve ever read. Thomas Sowell’s language in this one is extremely academic. However, this book may also have been one of the most rewarding books I’ve ever read because it made me understand why there is such a gaping chasm between people’s political values. I feel far more understanding toward people who have differing views from mine because of this book and am so grateful for this.
I love excellent fiction as much as any booklover. And I have read some works of enjoyable fiction that have taught me more about my faith than the catechism did (thank you, Elizabeth Goudge)! Similarly, I love reading little bits from Malcolm Gladwell and regularly dip into the self-help genre. So don’t get the idea that I’m trying to take away all the wonderful parts of reading. I’m just here to suggest that hard books are important. They challenge us. They inspire us. They sharpen our intellects. And they remind us that God gave each of us a beautiful brain to nourish and stimulate insofar as we’re able. So that after you read Plato’s Republic… you can cozy up to watching The Office reruns without any guilt.