Reading about instead of reading

You know what bugs me about my reading habits? I’ve gotten into kind of a rut in which I’m reading good books about great books.

The latest example is the Burton-Christie book The Word in the Desert which I mentioned in my previous post, which is a book about the Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. None of what Burton-Christie writes about the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is revolutionary or innovative. It’s simply stuff that’s there in the text and available to the sympathetic and attentive reader. In this sense it reminds me of Derwas Chitty’s masterpiece (much more impressive for the amount of work it evidences, which I don’t think Burton-Christie would quibble with at all) The Desert a City. But, again, these are good books, even excellent books about great books, books and writings which stand in a completely different category.

So why am I not more often reading the great books?

I see that one reason is that I don’t want to take such a book as the Philokalia into my local pub and perhaps spill something on it. And although I’ve always found the noise of a café or pub to be conducive to reading (those are what I habitually did my studying in, in university), I just don’t feel right bringing the Evergetinos or the sermons of St Gregory Palamas into a bar, to be blunt. (And I used to, and my friends found it interesting, but I seldom would get reading done, anyway.) So, don’t go to the bar, right? Read at home, right? Where I’ve got all this other stuff I should be doing, too (three books in preparation, three handritten pages of a To Do list for the summer, and a laundry pile larger than I am), right? Okay, so out on the street corner under the streetlamp reading? (Another favorite spot!) Some of these books are heavy. My hands can’t hold them up for too long before wearing out. Also, I don’t want to get any of these books, some quite expensive, dirty by spilling coffee/beer on them, or dropping them, or possibly having them swiped from my table (it’s happened), or dropped and banged up by my clutzy tired hands (that’s happened too).

But these practical matters are, I think, just excuses I’m making to avoid diving in and paying attention, getting to work, knuckling down spiritually, you might say. Is that so surprising? Don’t we tend to avoid what’s best for us sometimes just when we need it? There’s that at root, partly.

This is especially the case with the Bible. I don’t know how many books I’ve read about the Bible, using up time that would have been much, much (millions of times!) better spent in simply reading the Bible itself. Not only do we have a cacophonous pandemonium (let the reader understand!) in the commentaries and journals and just about anything Bible-related, so little of it even remotely edifying or even interesting, we have very little incentive to weed through it all. The ideal of scholarship is to be widely read and to be able to discuss all aspects of an issue from an informed perspective. That sounds noble and correct. Only the Bible is not an academic treatise, a product of Reason. It is the work of the Prophets, a product of Faith. And regarding the books under consideration, this is the dichotomy: the “good books about” are products of reason, whereas the “great books” are products of Faith. These latter, to the discerning, truly belong in a different category. This is not only because they hold a “classic” status in a religious community and are therefore honored by proxy. It is because they are ontologically different. Their words work differently than those same words work when used by others. The reasons are: Inspiration and Revelation. Is it no wonder that those who are best qualified to write about such things typically ending up simply contributing to the body of them rather than the commentary on them? Only the inspired succeed, but then as they are inspired and their own words are a sort of revelation, their works become honored as more than just “a good book about a great book” and become “a great book” on their own. In any case, to subject a work of one realm to the ministrations of the other realm always ends badly. The realms are entirely separate. The Spiritual is not accessible to the Rational, contra Scholasticism and all its legitimate and illegitimate children. The Rational is thoroughly accessible to the Spiritual, yet it is irrelevant to the Spiritual, which is a much more interesting dynamic. The quixotic (or psychotic) thing is that the Rational thrills to examining the results of the Spiritual, all the while denying the validity and authenticity of the latter. I don’t see how anyone is supposed to take that kind of behavior seriously. In any other such pairing, such as Oceanographers and French Literature, that’d be considered irrational behavior, or at the very least extremely rude. But, that’s the world we live in.

And where was I going with this? Ah, yes! I have some assigned reading that I need to get to: three small books written by the Abbot George of the Monastery of St Gregorios on Mount Athos. I am going to finish The Word in the Desert tonight (an excellent “book about”), and then start on Abbot George’s little books tomorrow. So there we go!


  1. Kevin, I hear you brother. Try reading with a wife and two kids. Don’t get me wrong I love my wife and kids to death, but I have been trying to read 1 Enoch and Jubilees for the last month and a half. Add to that my LXX translation and its a no win situation.

    I still have books on the Fourth Crusade and Super-string (now membrane) Theory sitting on my desk from 5 years ago that I haven’t cracked open. OK I am going to stop complaining now as I don’t want people to think a am a complete nerd.


  2. Your comments on reading the Bible in particular cut to the quick for me; I struggle greatly reading the Scriptures — I hang on to commentaries for dear life in an attempt to try and have the Scriptures impact me somehow, someway.

  3. That’s where audiobooks help, I think. Even if you’re doing dishes, you’ve got a little separation. And you’ve got monastic precedence (at least on the Western side).

    But maybe you need to make a little reading nook at home, even if it’s just in a closet or a corner. That way, when you’re reading, that’s all you’re doing.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Maureen! Yes the monks in the East are read to while eating, as well. I’ve not done any audiobooks, though. That sounds like an interesting experiment.

      I’ve got a pile of pillows that I regularly used to pile up on my floor or bed, which make quite a nice reading couch. But lately I’ve been trying out some new reading habits, so everything is awry. (This is mostly to draw a line separating workspace from pleasure space from sleeping space, which a friend suggested makes for better sleep — a problem with me.) I like the fresher air outdoors. Berkeley at this time of year is a delight. But the comfort and my concern at ruining good books will no doubt drive me back inside.

      Anyhow, thank you!

  4. I like reading at a university library. It’s usually so quiet I feel like I’m completely alone with the book and God.

    Glad to hear you’re finally reading Burton-Christie, even if it is a ‘book about’. If I recall correctly, that was one you picked up on my recommendation.

    1. Your memory serves you well!

      I found the emphasis on Scripture in the subtitle to be quite misleading. And too much space was spent on a too short coverage of modern semiotics — a lose/lose situation, that last. But once he hit his stride, and went directly to the Apophthegmata, I was satisfied.

  5. I like your rambling posts, Kevin. 🙂 The quote from “The Word in the Desert” in your previous post was beautiful, even if it did come from a “book about,” so I’m glad you shared it. As to the care of books, I’m a regular boor! The books I read (even Bible and Philokalia) suffer great abuse in my backpack. They are tea-stained, the covers in various tattered conditions. I highlight and mark them up. I feel like the book equivalent of the cookie monster. I just gobble them up, mentally, spiritually, and physically. But none of them are valuable in a strictly utilitarian way. If I had a really expensive book, that I had paid for, it might be different. Anyway, I’m looking forward to your continued work on the Sayings translation. Know you have an eagerly awaiting reader.

    1. When I first converted, an archimandrite commented on all my reading about prayer: “Stop reading about it, and pray!”

      The devil and his own will use every tactic to distract us from prayer, particularly from the prayer of the heart. The distractions might seem valid, like good sermon ideas, or ideas of some other beneficial thing. But if it distracts from prayer, it is not from God!

      Take the plunge! Strike out and pray, Brother Finbar!

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