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Eat Books

by Dr. Tom NealJune 15, 2018

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” (Annie Dillard)

My grandfather once wrote to me, “There is a paucity of philosophically inclined people these days, few who wish to go deep enough to see there is more to life than maximizing fleeting pleasure and avoiding pain. Though this utilitarian ethic may swell a growing economy, it shrivels the soul. Such lives lived usually in the end yield more pain than pleasure, or at least increase the consumption of pain killers. Sad to live in those shallows, missing that pain faced with courage is the only way to live life full, is the only path to lasting pleasure, is the surest needful cost of loving.”

Were it not for the intervention of extraordinary people in my life, I would have remained such a surface skimmer. Exceptional teachers, mentors, exemplars, ass-kickers—grand/parents, educators, clergy, friends, authors.

My father always said to me, “Three commitments you must make if you want depth: read, read, read.” A member of my dissertation committee said to me, “If you want to do this work seriously all your life, my advice to you is simple: Eat books.” A priest from Brooklyn I was close with many years ago told me, “Never fall asleep at night without having read for at least five minutes the thoughts of someone greater than you. Preferably from some piece of great literature. And at least thirty minutes with Sacred Scripture.”

My mom would often say to me when I was young, referring to my terrible diet habits, “Junk in, junk out.” And my dad once added, “And that applies to all of life. Friendships, music, TV. Especially reading.” My dad would also say, “You can always tell a preacher who doesn’t read. No depth, impoverished imagination, no challenge, no new, just recycled junk.” Or as Deacon Jim Keating frequently quips, “Too often pulpits sound with words drawn not from the deep wells of silence and contemplation, but from Homily Helps.”

Both my father and grandfather were corporate executives with families, swamped in lives of frenetic activity, and always managed to make time for reading. For that, I am grateful.

I have tried to remain faithful to these exhortations. I have a stack of books next to my bed. Theology, philosophy, science, literature. Joke books. I carry something with me whenever I know I will have to wait on something or someone. I listen to books on CD in the car, and particularly to any recordings by great authors reading their own works. Mostly, I love poetry. Frost, Yeats, Donne, Auden, Browning, Wilde, Dickinson. Especially, I love e.e. cummings, like this.

And I love to read aloud, as it enriches the sensual impact of the book, so I will take my free time to a lonely haunt somewhere, and read. Preferably by the water.

Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege!

About the Author

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans...

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