Jessica Hooten Wilson, “Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice”
208 pages, $24.95 (hardcover)
In 1989, Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles published a book called, “The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination,” accounting for the place of literature in forming his own intellectual and moral life. Combining a description of his use of fiction in various Harvard courses (including in the medical, business and law schools), Coles made a compelling case for the importance of great literature for the formation of a virtuous person. Several years earlier, in 1983, Walker Percy had published “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.” Among other second-person sections of the book, Percy begins with two 20-question quizzes, “to test your knowledge of the peculiar status of the self, your self [stet] and other selves, in the Cosmos, and your knowledge of what to with your self [stet] in these, the last years of the twentieth century.”
I thought of both Coles and Percy as I read Jessica Hooten Wilson’s delightfully thoughtful new book, “Reading for the Love of God,” a worthy successor to the earlier works. While Wilson writes with the erudition of a seasoned scholar, the brevity and accessibility of the book commend it to anyone who loves literature, regardless of literary training or credentials.
Like Percy, Wilson often uses second-person voice, including in her early 10-question quiz asking, “What Kind of Reader Are You?” Answers to the quiz yield a helpful inventory of the common predispositions, prejudices and habits that we bring to a text (or even a decision about what texts to read or not read), which substantively condition the meaning of the text to each reader. Her hope, Wilson explains, “is that these questions provoked you to consider the ways you read, and the assumptions you make about how to read, without being fully aware of them.” She then outlines the book around four “Bookmarks,” marking different ways of reading: “Reading like” St. Augustine, like Julian of Norwich, like Frederick Douglass and like Dorothy Sayers. This is a wonderfully imaginative – and highly effective – device to show us how to develop good habits of reading that, in turn, make us better persons.
From my perspective the heart of the book (and the most acute application of the results of the quiz) is chapter five, “What Does the Trinity Have to Do with the ART of Reading?” Here, in accessible terms, Wilson first lays out variations on the pernicious error of separating the author from the text. Whether by placing the meaning entirely in the reader (and thus imposing meaning on the text), or treating the text as an object of (allegedly) scientific criticism, Wilson contends that we lose the interactive roles of “author,” “reader” and “text” that are all essential to good reading.
In other words, reading a text is itself a moral exercise – whether by the texts we select, the approach we take to reading them or the use to which we put them. Writing as a Christian (and thus an evangelist), Wilson is concerned with how texts shape our spiritual lives, as well.
Virtuous reading includes elements of liturgy, prayer and worship. We reflect, remember and contemplate the words on the page and the realities to which they point. We enter into the text, not merely for amusement (though that’s certainly a valuable part of reading, she explains), but also for the salutary role that careful reading of good literature has on our lives.
In “Lumen Gentium” we read that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of (the church’s) visible structure” (No. 8). “Reading for the Love of God” is an example of such an element, both in itself and in the literature to which it points the reader. As Jessica Hooten Wilson admonishes on the dedication page in the spirit of St. Augustine, “Take, read!”