The Reading Option

How Good Literature Saves Me From Rigid Ideology

Thomas and I were on our way to a church to read a book for four hours in April of 2018. Our professor called it a “reading retreat,” an evening dedicated to silent reading in an Anglican sanctuary. I was the sophomore without a car, Thomas the senior art studio major who offered me a ride over. The song “A World at Large” by Modest Mouse announced itself crisply on his audio as we turned onto Gary Avenue just outside of Wheaton, Illinois. I believe it was springtime, too. Nearing the end of the semester, the marshes cusped with green. Easter come and gone, that wet smell of something new and raw in the air. I can’t recall any words from the song except for the lines “went to the porch to have a thought” and “how come I always get caught in the undertow?” The two phrases joined forces with the melancholy electric guitar rift, the Anglican atmosphere where we were about to commit four hours to reading Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and the feeling of relief that the past year was coming to a expectant ending. Something about the song and the moment and the night, its sad thoughtfulness, and the dusky world outside, told me things were going to get better from here on out. That I didn’t have to understand or come to definite conclusions. College at a premier evangelical school brought with it unforetold episodes of isolation, loss of identity, deep doubt. Looking back on it now, I hesitate to dramatize it any more than necessary. But things were changing. Modestly, largely.

That was two years ago. In March of 2020, I made another retreat, not to a church sanctuary, but my old house in Oklahoma. Thousands of others did the same. Back then it was easy to romanticize the desperate exodus of those fleeing major cities like Chicago or New York City. It was easy to see it as a “time for reflection” in which we would all stand in our windows with cups of coffee dwelling on the fragility of life. It didn’t take long for me to realize the shortsightedness of this silver lining. It obviously applied to the privileged few who could keep working online and remained untouched by the virus. Sure, the pandemic would compel a more raw perspective on life for many, but while I was on my “retreat,” the gears of America still ground for everyone else: nurses, truckers, blue collar workers at meat factories, construction workers on highways. These people’s lives, if anything, became radically intensified by COVID-19. It was an uncomfortable truth to sit with. But every day, the authorities told us to social distance and self-quarantine. At one point I was tormented by the thought of accidentally spreading the disease to my parents unwittingly. How can you know for sure? How are you supposed to help people when you’re being advised to run away from them? My family brought groceries to a nearby hospice, but we weren’t even allowed to go inside for fear of spreading the virus. I wanted to help, but isolation almost seemed morally stringent.

So, I did what I could, and accepted where I was at. I kept working online for my internship in Chicago, helped out around the house, and started reading novels.

It has been some seventy years or so since C.S. Lewis wrote in defense of reading and education during “wartime.” In his defense, he argued that “mankind has always existed on the edge of a precipice.” I take it he meant that there has never been a moment when the world was not in crisis. Getting a liberal arts education amidst a raging war, or reading books during a pandemic, is something like going to a church for a reading retreat when you could be doing something else–a session for perspective, lamentation, rest in God, and wisdom. Evidence suggests that people started depending on the arts like never before at the onset of the pandemic. Spotify streaming increased exponentially, and I would assume Amazon was sending out books by the thousands, along with the Clorox wipe and medical masks. However, along with a newfound appreciation for the arts, gaming websites reported vast increases in use, and worst of all, pornography sites saw incomparably high traffic. Porn Hub even offered free subscriptions to countries suffering the worst of the pandemic. New York sent out a sexual health memo encouraging masturbation and pornography as healthy sexual outlets.

The addictive response to the pandemic certainly shows the fundamental hunger for human connection and a sense of meaning, even if acted out in unhealthy ways. When the pandemic first began, I thought it might be an occasion for the United States to abandon their political divisions and hypothetically “come together,” sort of like we did in the aftermath of 9/11. But it seems like the isolation merely forced us even deeper into our digital echo chambers and fantasy worlds, so that by the time George Floyd died at the hands of a policeman two months into quarantine, political, passionate protests easily outweighed medical caution and reasonable discourse.  

I am not saying reading good novels is the healing balm for our nation, but in my experience, literature has certainly saved me from political fanaticism and pushed against addiction to pleasure, especially this year. In our ideological warfare, nothing is complex, multifaceted, or up for debate. Standing in allegiance to the kingdom of God over and above a political party is not really seen as an option either. And pleasure is an easy substitute for meaning, but it bears no meaningful content to sustain the soul. Read David Copperfield, however, and you’ll find the emotional devastation of growing up without a father, the beauty of adoption, the corruption of the social systems, and the need for personal responsibility in an unfair world all intwined into one narrative. Read Crime and Punishment and watch how maniacal guilt can transform into joyous love. Redemption is possible in these books, and mystery and ambiguity are welcomed as necessary friends on life’s quest. Death, loss, and disease are taken for granted, but not as the last words to our condition. If anything, retreating to read Home by Marilynne Robinson in 2018, and retreating every day to read other novels in my inner room, is not escapism from reality. Maybe it is a withdrawal from “real life,” but it may be a necessary one at that.  Among other things, it is an attempt to escape political ideology and easy but empty pleasure, to reclaim beauty as real and attainable, and learn a little bit more how to love my neighbor as myself, knowing there will never be anything in our world quite so complex, terrifying, and wonderful as an individual human being. Gratitude and humility become second nature.

It is hard to know how to use solitude, especially when it is “mandated.” It seems now that the psychological need for human contact is compelling people to spend time together again despite the potential for spreading the virus. The mystics and early church fathers saw solitude as an indispensable good in connecting with the transcendent and disentangling oneself from the factions and distractions of the world. I do not really know how to have solitude when our factions, distractions, and access to the world exists in a piece of silicon in our pocket. We take it all with us now. But I do know that being willing to acknowledge complexity and revel in gratitude at the wonder of it all can start to clear the cobwebs. And clarity makes it obvious how we can serve. We see ourselves in relation to the whole and begin to act accordingly.

Thomas and I headed back to campus after the reading retreat. I think we were in silence the whole ride home.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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