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peace through reading

Some educators are beginning to worry that the wired generation is going to give up serious reading altogether. Judging from our experience here at St. John’s, the future of reading is not at risk. Our students prove every day that it’s perfectly possible to be fully plugged in and at the same time to be absorbed by the greatest books ever written. And that’s a good thing, because the art of reading is critical to our freedom and our happiness.

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass explains how he came to understand the key to the slaveholders’ power over their slaves. At the age or seven or eight, he was sent by his master in rural Maryland to become a house slave for the family of a relative. Soon after arriving, the mistress of the house began to teach him the alphabet, and then the spelling of simple three- and four-letter words. At this point, her husband discovered what she was doing. He forbade his wife to continue. It was illegal and unsafe, he said, and moreover it would only do harm to the boy. Indeed, learning would ruin him.

It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.

This outburst was a revelation to Douglass.

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it.

The ability to read was the secret of slavery. The minds of slaves must be kept in darkness. They must not know the thoughts of others, must not understand the arguments by which their masters establish and hold power over them, must never be able to entertain the idea that slavery could be unjust. They must not be able to partake of the free flow of thought that passes from person to person in print. For who knows what insubordinate notions might be put into their minds by some far-off philosopher or political agitator?

readingDouglass ingeniously taught himself to read. Through reading, he discovered that there is no justification for slavery, made his escape from the South, and began to fight for abolition.

Douglass’s story is just one example of the power of reading to enlighten both the head and the heart. Recent research has shown that the ability to identify and understand the subjective states of other people is enhanced by reading literary fiction. (See David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano’s 2013 article “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” in Science.) Through an ingenious series of tests, the authors were able to show that reading fiction is the cause of increased aptitude at understanding others, and not that those who were good at understanding others preferred reading fiction.

Even larger claims have been made for the enlightening power of reading. Both Stephen Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and Michael Shermer in his book The Moral Arc show how violence has decreased significantly among human beings, especially in the centuries since the beginning of the Enlightenment, when the possibility of widespread literacy came into being. Serious reading of all types of difficult material seems to be correlated with facility at abstract reasoning, which is in turn correlated with a propensity for less violence. And one would think that those who spend less time fighting have more time to devote to reading. This seems like an exceedingly propitious positive feedback loop.

So it is a very good thing that the wired generation seems to be retaining its love of reading, maintaining the advantages that are gained from understanding well the minds of others, and continuing the virtuous circle that has been spiraling toward greater peace for centuries.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared on SignPosts for Liberal Education (March 2016) and is republished here with gracious permission.

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Published: Apr 20, 2016
Christopher Nelson
Christopher B. Nelson is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He is president of St. John's College in Annapolis. St. John's College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Students and faculty engage directly -- not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion -- with original texts and ideas that are the foundation of Western thought.
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15 replies to this post
  1. Just a side note. Reading may be understood as a gift, the gift of getting out of your own head and into someone else’s. One’s head , or mind, can be a pretty lonely and rather small, confined to one’s thoughts. The Christ told a few stories and the world has been filling libraries ever since Little did the Apostle John know how we would fill the world so that it could not contain all the stories the Christ would tell through us. Could the process of getting out of own head lead us to open our head to the story He wants us to write, by word or deed?

  2. This is an excellent article, and I’d like to make two points:

    “Fiction is the cause of increased aptitude at understanding others.” That’s good information, since there’s an uncommonly held belief that reading fiction is bad, since it lets someone else drag you into their belief system too easily. Some ancient Greeks held this belief, if I remember it right. And there’s a more contemporary expression of this, but I’ll leave the name out due to Christian charity.

    I read once that the fall of the Soviet Union coincided with the invention of the fax machine.

  3. I would add that there are two threats to serious reading faced by all of us by being wired: the ease of reading what’s there and the ease at which our appetites for entertainment can be met.

    Having retired from teaching, I’ve seen a drop in students’ desire and ability to read. But along with that, I’ve seen the growing inability of students to use what was taught to make decisions when working with new problems. These students knew how to imitate, but not think. And not only that, these student would complain if the tests they had to take asked them to do more than imitate what they saw in class.

    Thank you for this article.

  4. There’s one problem with the idea that reading can make you better, it can also make you worse. How many people had their minds polluted by the likes of “The Communist Manifesto” or “Mein Kampf”?

    • How could it be otherwise?

      Any gift can be abused.

      But, in fact, even reading a bad book can make one better–if one reads with a critical mind, one can often see the flaws behind a certain argument or certain ideology. Nothing helped me understand how hollow certain strains of contemporary mainline Protestantism actually were than reading some of Bishop Spong’s work, for example. It was not the effect that the person who recommended the book had in mind (and presumably not the effect that the author had in mind). But it was very real.

      • Good point re: Spong. But I also think there’s a big difference between someone peddling bad theology vs someone writing something that is diabolically evil and which would “Inspire” movements that would then lead to mass murder and attempted worldwide conquest.

      • Also, speaking of Spong, I have read one of his books (at the library) and then posted the following review on

        The braying of a jackass?
        By Eric G – February 4, 2006

        I’ll give the author credit for this much: one, he seems sincere in his opinions and isn’t just stirring up controversy for the sake of picking a fight; two, he does have a few good points to make, and, three, reading a book like this is, for a religious person, a sort of spiritual “resistance training” in much the same way that weightlifting is for an athlete, i.e., it helps build and tone the “muscles” of one’s own belief system. That said, this book also has a number of serious flaws, perhaps the most obvious being a sense of general arrogance that pervades it, starting with the title.

        It goes without saying that Spong believes that Christianity, as it has been understood and practiced for the past 2,000 years, is on the verge of becoming obsolete and that it must make radical changes if it is to “evolve” and remain relevant into the 21st century and beyond. For starters, it would have helped greatly if, as an Episcopal Bishop (now retired, I believe) he had confined his comments to his own Church and left the rest of us out of it. His attempts to offer “advice” are thus likely to come across to a lot of folks, most especially Catholics, Orthodox, and conservative Protestants, as being smug, smarmy, and elitist. His “I know better than you” attitude grates, especially since he seems quite dismissive of those who prefer a more traditional view of Christianity.


But the biggest problem with this book isn’t the author’s arrogance, but rather his relevance. He apparently hasn’t noticed that the biggest growth in the religious world is with those who take their religion’s founding principles seriously, and that, in contrast, those churches that have neutered their message in an effort to conform to modern, secular sensibilities are the ones with declining memberships. Far from “liberating” Christianity from outdated ideas, what Spong does instead is encase it in the constraining straitjacket of present day “postmodern” thought, and in the process he strips it of much of much of its beauty, power, and mystery. The end result is that his watered down, “progressive”, politically correct Christianity is to the real thing what 3.2 beer is to a fine wine.

      • Have you read “Mein Kampf”? You seem to imply that you can’t identify the Nazi regime as evil unless you’ve read that book cover to cover.

      • Oh, and speaking of the devil (Marx), here’s my review of the Commie Manifesto that I posted on a while back:

        How could one little book spawn so much evil?
        By Eric G – October 2, 2003

        That is the question historians looking back on the 20th century will have to answer. This book, along with “Mein Kampf”, spawned ideas that were ultimately responsible for the murder of millions of innocent people, yet we still have no clear cut explanation as to why. After all, communism, according to its supporters, was supposed to be the “perfect” way to organize society, and yet, everywhere it was tried, the result was tyranny, oppression, and misery. How could this be?

There are numerous explanations, perhaps the most popular being the notion that it simply didn’t conform to human nature. People aspire to achievement and success, these critics claim, and communism squashes these desires in its quest to create a society of social and material equality. But I think it goes much deeper. One of the most obvious flaws of communism was its arrogance. It basically took everything that had gone into Western Civilization, dating back to Athens and Jerusalem, and tossed it in the trash bin. Democracy, individual liberty, human dignity, belief in God, it all had to go. The Communist Party was all that mattered; it set itself up as the supreme authority, and demanded absolute loyalty from its subjects. Communism has been called an economic system, but in truth it was much more. It was, in fact, a religion in every aspect except belief in a Supreme Being, a belief system that was, in essence, based on the worship of itself.

And that, at the core, was its fatal flaw. From a religious point of view, it was nothing less than a form of blasphemy, with Marx and Engels shaking their puny fists at God as if to say “We don’t need You. We don’t want You. We can create our paradise here on Earth without You!” Is it any wonder then, that communism worked out as badly as it did? That, far from creating heaven on Earth, it created hell instead?

        • Eric,
          First, can you tell me which edition you read and are responding to?

          Second, can you provide quotes from the Manifesto that support your views here?

          Third, can you show which parts of the Manifest are responsible for the deaths of so many people?

          • Sorry, Curt, but you don’t get to dictate terms around here. I’m talking about the book *as a whole*, and, more important, Communism/Marxism *as a whole*. You did not address anything in my review, and especially not my central point, which is the arrogance which is at the core of this evil ideology.

        • Eric,
          I would add the following, just because Marx was an atheist, doesn’t mean all socialists are. While Marx’s weaknesses were his emphasis on materialism and the proletariat dictatorship, not all followed him there. Martin Luther King, for example, emphasized the community in his version of socialism while Gutierrez emphasized liberty and human development. And in neither case were they declaring the independence from God. Both approached Socialism from a theistic point of view.

          This points to a problem with some conservative criticisms of Socialism. For they tend to treat socialism and Marxism as monoliths and they use Lenin’s Bolshevism as the definition of Socialism. Such an approach shows a less than full reading of the spectrum of Socialism which exists.

          But something else needs to be said. An economic system that depends on treating workers as objects and denying their intrinsic value is just as godless as Marx was regardless of what its adherents confess about faith in God. This follows a point from Romans 2 where Paul compares the religious person who claims to know God but commits all kinds of sins with those who do not know God, but, because of their consciences, they treat others the way they should. Paul uses Romans 2 to help build his case in Romans 3 that all are sinners.

          This takes us back to the parable of the two men praying. Those who claim to be righteous and look down on others are imitating pharisee. And those who deny that they sin not only do they also imitate the pharisee, they call God a liar. A bipolar view that sanctifies either Capitalism or Socialism and that externalizes evil is a practice that is not biblical for obvious reasons.

          • “This points to a problem with some conservative criticisms of Socialism. For they tend to treat socialism and Marxism as monoliths and they use Lenin’s Bolshevism as the definition of Socialism. Such an approach shows a less than full reading of the spectrum of Socialism which exists.”

            You might have a point if Lenin’s reign was an outlier, one cruel regime among many benign ones. But it was merely typical. ALL Communist regimes were brutal and repressive, the only difference was in degree. Taken as a whole, Communism was obviously one of humanity’s great evils, but if it ever acknowledged that fact, the Left would probably fall apart.

  5. I certainly hope that Christopher Nelson is correct. Yet, I would question just how representative the students at St. John’s College are of their generation. There aren’t that many young people of any time period, who are both desirous and capable of engaging with the original texts of Western thought. My sneaking and pessimistic suspicion is that as the high tech revolution marches along, there will be even fewer of them.

    Then again, I bet $100 on John McCain in 2008. So I certainly could be wrong.

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