Aside from our self-imposed Lenten reading, my wife and I have little time to read, these days. For two people educated in the liberal arts and the “great books” milieu, that is akin to lacking the time to eat and bathe regularly. The mind needs the leisure to explore new stories and ideas, and to incorporate them into its own mental landscape. One hopes to some day possess a cultivated mind that one can pleasurably roam, like St. Augustine did through the plains and caverns of his own memory.
We also have little time to write. We would both appreciate the leisure to write more poetry, fiction, essays, letters, and thank-you notes for wedding presents (ahem). The exhortation of Sirach echoes often in my ears—“Wisdom hidden is wasted, is treasure that never sees the light of day; silence is rightly used when it masks folly, not when it is the grave of wisdom.”—even if I often think I don’t have much wisdom worth offering. The purpose of an education is not only to improve oneself, but to overflow for the good of others.
Mrs. McDonald’s undergraduate studies in history complement my own studies in literature and literary criticism, even if she sometimes dashes my romanticized imaginings of the past. (I honestly don’t see why Virgil’s version of the founding of Rome can’t be taken under consideration, dear.) The history of literature is a current concern of mine, as one might tell from my occasional archeology into early Christian literary traditions. If I ever decide to write an historical novel, I will doubtless pester my wife day and night for details that I will promptly ignore in favor of dramatic development.
But our Lenten reading has revived in our home the long-lost custom of reading books aloud. One notices things about a book, then, that one might miss when reading silently in the Ambrosian tradition: the flow of sentences, the beauty or harshness of word sounds, the writer’s ability to mimic speech in dialogue, and the hypnotic quality of great writing. One also begins to appreciate more frequent sentence and paragraph breaks. Joseph Conrad’s prose digs into the soul when spoken, and Shakespeare’s verse is only truly comprehensible when given tongue. Perhaps I ought to experiment with Flannery O’Connor, soon.
Reading and writing are not absolute goods, but goods they are, and much deprived we remain without them. Beauty may or may not save the world, but she can save our minds from lethargy and our works from banality.
(Pictured above: “Writing Boy with Sister” (1875), by Albert Anker)