The Transformative Power of Reading

Chad Wellmon has recently written about a shift in reading which has come about as a result of the technological age and the digitization of books. Essentially, the purpose of reading, for most people, has diverted from seeking to know God through reading to seeking knowledge itself.

St Augustine, according to Wellmon, has had much influence on the tradition of Western reading. From him comes the idea of the transformative power of reading, which causes one to encounter the divine. Wellmon states:

Augustine’s autobiography is also a bibliography. He recounts his conversion through a series of bibliographic events: He cried over Dido while reading Virgil’s Aeneid, fell for philosophy while immersed in Cicero’s Hortensius, attained new intellectual heights while perusing the Neo-Platonists, and, finally, became a Christian by reading the Bible. Augustine understands reading to be a process of identification, in which readers witness their own actions in the events of a story, in the life of another, and are compelled to change their lives. Narrative is a divinely inspired activity that makes a self possible. When Augustine finally reaches for his Bible in the Milan garden, reading has already transformed him, many times over. And this is why he intends the Confessions to be a similar site of transformation for his readers.

The Augustinian way of reading continued into the mediaeval period, and most notably through the influence of teachers such as Hugh of Saint Victor.

Augustine’s model of reading had a lasting impact in the West. In twelfth-century Paris, Hugh of Saint Victor wrote a manual for students of the Paris cathedral schools on the rules of proper learning. In it, he describes reading as both a technical method governed by rules and a teleological activity aimed at the restoration of the human’s “divine likeness.” Practiced properly, he writes, reading “takes the soul away from the noise of earthly business” and offers in this life a “foretaste of the sweetness of the eternal life.” Reading exercises the mind and prepares it for meditation, or what Hugh describes as concentrated and sustained thought “upon the wonders of God.”

Reading Wellmon’s article has caused me to wonder how educators can instruct students to read in the way that St. Augustine or Hugh of St. Victor read. One possible way would be to dialectically lead the students to the deeper things of the text, namely the truth found in the work, and to then show that these truths can only come from Truth itself, which encourages the students to contemplate the divine Logos—Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.

The great books, or, more appropriately, the great conversation, seem to be the right vehicle for the job. In these tomes the wisdom of the past, sorely needed in this modern world, is found. Today there is so much to read, and it is impossible to read everything, but if students do carefully read and devour good things, they will be better suited to transformed by the power of reading.

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