At the end of college, my life was a long ledger of incomplete reading reports. I viewed these reports not only as a judgment on my academic ability but on my character. After all, Christians should be academically excellent, manage time well, and work with all their hearts. When I commenced with a B- average and left the reading reports behind, I felt very little like a graduate. I felt like an escapee.
After that I had to relearn the art of rest: how to read a magazine from front to back, how to take guilt-free naps, and, most of all, how to read books without a palpitating heart and feverish eye on the clock.
I am remembering this all over again now that I’m watching my husband finish his senior year at the same college in the same major. He, too, is wrestling with his reading reports. Unlike me, he finishes them all and doesn’t whine.
This week, on a very rainy Virginia day, Jonathan sat at the coffee table peering over the tiny print of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. He lifted a forkful of cherry pie to his lips as solace for the fact that he would do absolutely nothing all day except schoolwork. I sat in the opposite chair nursing a head cold and reading Middlemarch for pleasure.
Jonathan began reading aloud to me from Franklin’s life, the episode where Franklin walks up the street with a large puffy roll in each armpit and one in his mouth. He bought the three rolls by mistake and had to carry them somehow. He walked past the house of his future wife, who espied him and thought he looked ridiculous.
We laughed. This passage was a bright spot in a mountain of assigned text—all of which could have been bright if there wasn’t so much to read in such a short time. I’ve always felt that the trouble with academic reading is that students are expected to plow into it like so much unliftable snow—no pictures of the authors, as though they weren’t real people with real faces. For me, reading assignments often lacked an access point from which I could take the tales into my being in a way that helped complete big pictures. They were just mountains of immovable text I could never seem to finish.
I timidly interrupted Jonathan’s study to ask him to imagine what it would be like if Benjamin Franklin came to our house right then and looked at all the books on our shelves. Maybe he would sit down with some cherry pie and start reading right at the beginning of the alphabet. He would start with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, then move on to Louisa May Alcott and Go Ask Alice and the Brontë sisters. Next would come John Bunyan, Camus, Pat Conroy, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, Stephen King, Blue Like Jazz.
Which would Franklin find worth his time? We didn’t know. But we did know how curious he would be, and the thought tickled us. Franklin would know nothing of Alcott’s Civil War and transcendentalism or Einstein’s theories and wild hair.
“Of making books there is no end,” says Solomon, “and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” It is the truth—unless somehow, sometimes, we can teach ourselves to participate in the tales.