SANTE FE, NEW MEXICO – “The dear, good people don’t know how long it takes to read. I’ve been at it 80 years.” –Goethe
I’m here in America’s oldest capital city for some brief studies, standing in the bookstore of St. John’s College, surrounded by the likes of Melville and Poe and Steinbeck in a kind of everyman’s library.
Behind the counter is Conor Cote, a 23-year-old with a scruffy beard. He tells me with joy of what he has finished: a four-year bungee-jump into St. John’s Great Books program, a deep dive into liberal arts and classical studies while the zeitgeist says no, be safe, study the market, find a job.
So-called “Johnnies,” in fact, often go where they want from this school: maybe one way, past El Pecos Trail and the Jemez Mountains, past Los Alamos, birthplace of the A- bomb; maybe another way, past the Sangre de Cristo, the southerly tip of the Rockies, named this, the Blood of Christ Mountains, because sunsets in Santa Fe are that red.
Yes, Johnnies eventually enter medicine and business and publishing, if not the artisan community, to become truth-tellers, explorers who find how we’re all children of the same Story. That’s what you can get for $50,000 a year in tuition and board.
The lesson is that true learning is about learning to learn forever. Yes, forever. It’s about questions, not answers. It’s about examining our own lives, a process that’s often done best while wrestling in the written page. It’s what our culture doesn’t encourage, with techno-infotainment and other distractions that keep many of us from asking or exploring much.
Like me, you’ve likely been reading more lately. Books, after all, are among summer’s joys. And after the season ends? Will you keep it up? What? You’d like to, but won’t have time? I’m sorry. No time to open your eyes? No time to be healed? No time for love? Or to see others travelling beside you in this mad world?
I’ve said the same. No time. What helps is a smack to the head — like illness or prison or divorce or some other calamity — to get us out of our narcissistic selves.
Many a born-again reader has experienced just this. As Malcolm X said: “You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Months passed without me even thinking about being imprisoned. I’d never been so truly free.”
Would it be easier if we lived in an era when books and reading weren’t taken for granted? Maybe.
But the 21st century also has new venues into the good life, that Club Med for the mind. For one, we now have audio books for your daily commute — interesting since humankind’s first stories were shared orally, yes, to remind us that we’re not alone.
As with love, choose carefully. Every book isn’t meant for you.
I’m currently reading Cathedral, short stories by Raymond Carver. Beautiful and disturbing, it sits beside me here on the train from where I now write, somewhere between Santa Fe and the Mississippi. America passes me in hues of greens and browns as I travel back to Canada.
Also with me is the Bible. And The Little Guide To Your Well-Read Life, by Steve Leveen, a small jewel I discovered in the Hamilton Public Library. Sitting across from me, a young lady reads Istanbul: Memories And The City, by Orhan Pahmuk.
I think of what Saint Augustine said, that: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” I believe that’s true. In days, my family and I return to our Ugandan home and work, until next summer.
But if travel is like reading, then reading is like travel. That means that falling into a story, a good story, is as real and meaningful as riding the rails and flying the skies to better understand the corners of our physical world.
Of course, you’ll never see it all. There’s just too much. It’s an ongoing journey. But it seems to me that there’s something holy in taking even a step.
So what are you reading?