Reading as a lover

Woman reading a letter by Johannes Vermeer ca 1662
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter by Johannes Vermeer ca 1662

In an address to a recent seminar on teaching RE and Christianity in schools Professor David Ford draws attention to the importance of “reading religiously” by referring to these words from Paul Griffiths:

So far as I can recall, I have always been able to read, to make sense of and be excited by written things. I know, of course, that there was a time when I could not read; it’s just that I cannot remember it. But I was never taught, and have still not properly learned, how to read with careful, slow attentiveness; it is difficult for me to read with the goal of incorporating what I read, of writing it upon the pages of my memory; I find it hard to read as a lover, to caress, lick, smell, and savor the words on the page, and to return to them ever and again.

I read, instead, mostly as a consumer, someone who wants to extract what is useful or exciting or entertaining from what is read, preferably with dispatch, and then move on to something else… I’m not alone in this condition. Most academic readers are consumerist in their reading habits, and this is because they, like me, have been taught to be so and rewarded for being so.

But I’ve also spent a good portion of my life trying to understand what it means to be a Christian, as well as much time studying literary works composed by Indian Buddhists. Both of these practices have gradually led me to see that consumerist reading isn’t the only kind there is. It’s also possible to read religiously, as a lover reads, with a tensile attentiveness that wishes to linger, to prolong, to savor, and has no interest at all in the quick orgasm of consumption.

Reading religiously, I’ve come to think, is central to being religious. Losing, or never having, the ability so to read is tantamount to losing, or never having, the ability to offer a religious account of things.

Paul J Griffiths. Religious Reading. The place of reading in the practice of religion (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) pp.ix-x.