Reading as Sacrament
Reading — real reading, that is, the kind that wakens wonder and widens time — is an exceedingly mysterious phenomenon, especially nowadays, what with the enshrinement of positivistic fact and the media’s unprecedented ability to multiply and transmit images. Can we even begin to conceive of the extent of the change that is occurring now that the locus of revelation, or of kerygma, begins less and less to be the province of nature or the carefully spoken Word and more and more the province of ads and the unspeakable things they so instantaneously convey? Suffice it to say that reading is quickly becoming a lost art. Yet even if this were the best of times, reading would still prove a difficult activity to fathom. What, in the end, is the sense of it? A year or two ago I would never have made bold to answer such a question. But since that time I chanced to read Kierkegaard, and that experience has provided me with a clue. It’s that reading is like mountaineering. Reading is the business of shouldering good weight, of placing one foot in front of the other, of giving oneself over to a gait that’s steady and measured as a postman’s.
Good books aren’t highways or avenues of mass transport. They’re foot trails, the kind that are traveled single file or not at all. Whoever takes it upon himself to read takes it upon himself to walk solitarily, word by stony word, into and onto a world whose lettered parts — vowel, consonant, word, clause — are as tightly knit as the constituent elements of matter itself. It is true that reading is premised, quite blatantly, on a withdrawal from the visible three-dimensional world that is our chief home. But it is not for this reason an escape into shadowy realms. Writers don’t rough things in any more than God does; specificity is the writer’s one stock-in-trade, and therefore the reader, assuming of course that the trail he follows is syntactically and purposefully strong and not washed out, is always assured of walking on firm ground. In fact, his footing may be surer than that of those who regularly inhabit and never stray from what is commonly called “the real world.” This is so because in order to walk at all the reader is forced to rely pretty much entirely on his sense of hearing, and as everyone knows it is primarily our vestibular or “acoustic” nerve, and not our optic nerve, that keeps us upright and balanced. Admittedly, the reader does sometimes resist entrusting himself to the voice he gives ear to. Perhaps he can’t quite suspend disbelief; perhaps he doubts the goodness of his guide’s intentions. But just as often the reader discovers himself able to trust entirely and allow himself to be led.
For me, preparing to read someone like Kierkegaard’s next book is like shouldering a familiar pack and leaving before dawn in perfect confidence that I will be taken up through gaps to tour country which is as high and rugged as it comes. It’s the kind of country a person can get lost in, and yet I know my pace need not falter, once I get underway, if ever the trail should weirdly dip or double back. The reason is that Kierkegaard’s sort of prose everywhere bears signs of a logic I can trust. This logic of which I speak is not something mathematical, or emotive, or metaphorical. It is something larger than, and inclusive of, these senses. It is trail-building logic. That’s the stuff Kierkegaard writes with, and it’s what sets him, along with a few others, apart.
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