Monday, June 08, 2015

Reading like a monk

I'm in Horrible Old Rome for a few days running errands and getting a few big city things done. It's horrible. 30+ degrees all weekend (and of course, for the rest of the summer) and the centro is filled with filthy, skanky, party-animal tourists..."I have a right to listen to my music..." ugh...

And I just checked weather in Norcia and it's a lovely 24, with exciting and cooling thundershowers on the way. Sigh... Home again on Wednesday...

Anyway, at least we're off to the seaside for a day, which, for various reasons, I was unable to accomplish last month. And it is always nice to visit the gang.

Meanwhile, I'm finding that the City Desert blog is becoming my daily transport into the better world of monastic thought.

"Reading like Monks"

While scholastic “lectio” (reading) was typically oriented towards “quaestio” (inquiry) and “disputatio” (discussion), or knowledge and science, monastic reading aspired to “meditation” and “oratio” (prayer), or wisdom and appreciation. The relation of the monastic reader to the text was not detached and analytic, but close and rather physical, even muscular. It is often described with the word rumination: “It meant assimilating the content of a text by means of kind of mastication which releases its full flavour”.

In pulling back from news reporting, I'm finding I have to completely reorient the way my brain works. I've become so used to a reductionist way of reading, and even thinking... scanning for the basic facts for reporting purposes, digging under these facts to find other facts. All for the purpose of translating it into journalese, quick declarative sentences that convey these facts with no more depth than a dictionary entry. With my brain having spent 15 years of reading and thinking like a reporter it is going to be difficult to retrain it to go back to the old way of reading.

I remember it. I remember reading books to let whatever it said, whether it was information or a novel or poetry, catch my imagination, and allow me to be absorbed into the thoughts of the writer and in a sense mentally exit this world. To forget I was sitting reading, and to float into another person's thoughts.

More from a (rather overly optimistic) scholarly essay on the history of reading:

A striking example is the antagonism between the scholastic way of read- ing and monastic reading in the Late Middle Ages. Scholars and students in the scholastic universities that were developing the Late Middle Ages – from the beginning of the second millennium onwards – typically read compilations, i.e., collections of text snippets from the church fathers, Aristotle and other authoritative authors. Reading whole texts from beginning to end was rare in the scholarly world. There was no need for a love of reading; the important thing was to analyse the text and use it for critical discussions. (Hamesse 1999)

But the love of reading existed elsewhere, in the monasteries. Monks, often hermits, were engrossed in the reading of the Bible, the writings of the church fathers, and other spiritual books. They chewed, swallowed, digested, and recited the texts. They had an emotional relationship with the texts, and they had a love of reading.

Jacqueline Hamesse says, “In the Age of Scholasticism, the acquisition of knowledge became more important than the spiritual dimension of reading.” (Hamesse 1999, 118). One could rephrase this as follows: The strictly utilitarian aspect of reading was preferred to more adventurous reading styles. If one only reads to find exactly what one is seeking, there is no need for a love of reading. In fact, the goal of rational reading is to read as little as possible. Once you have found what you’re looking for, you can stop reading.

"In this case, reading is a function of information retrieval. The important thing is what we do with the acquired information in discussions and social media."

It is precisely this utilitarian, information-retrieval, kind of reading (and subsequent writing) that I think is harming us right now, restricting our ability to understand deeply what we do read, and discouraging further efforts to delve deeply into the written word.


1 comment:

James C. said...

You know what helps me? Reading in another language. I'm currently going through St François de Sales's "Introduction à la vie dévote" in French, and I simply can't skim over it like I would a blog. Because of the language, I have to savour the words. Fortunately St François's 17th-century French prose is clean and spare, so it's not so difficult that it becomes a slog!

Perhaps some reading in simple Italian might be helpful for you? In English, I find poetry also helps me detach from news/blog skimming mode.

At least you have the consolation of a day by the sea during your Rome sojourn. If only it were easier for you to get to the coast of Le Marché, thereby not having to deal with Rome at all! I think there may be a bus to Ascoli Piceno from Norcia, but its not convenient to cross the Monti Sibillini. Of course, there's an upside to that as well. Imagine if Norcia were easier to reach from the outside.