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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Find me at The Englewood Review of Books today

Chris Smith, editor of The Englewood Review of Books and co-author of the forthcoming book Slow Church, recently asked me to contribute to their "Writers on the Classics" series. Today they've published the short essay I wrote on reading as well as my list of five "must-read" classics. (Make sure to check out the other writers who've contributed so far. You'll find some wonderful reading recommendations!) Below you'll find the opening of the essay, and you can read the rest of the essay (and find the list) here: * * * * *

I remember learning to “read” French Rococo paintings in a graduate school course. We learned that in the paintings of Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, books were a symbol of scandal, a kind of visual innuendo. The painters had something to say about sex, but they had to rely upon concealment. So they hid their secrets in the pages of a book.

Books of course have always been synonymous with scandal. If it weren’t true that the “pen is mightier than the sword,” we wouldn’t have our incendiary history of book burnings. And while book burnings aren’t de rigueur today, we have yet something to fear: our own boredom.

The greatest scandal today may be that books interest us so little. As Neil Postman said decades ago, we’re amusing ourselves to death. And I was no more convinced of this than recently, when my child’s school sent home a note asking parents to kindly send in an electronic device with their child for the upcoming dress rehearsal of the school show. In anticipation of downtime, they (THE SCHOOL!) could sadly imagine only one solution for the crisis of unstructured time.

I sent my children to school with a book.

I shudder to imagine my life with books: my childhood without Charlotte’s Web; my college years without Anna Karenina; my adult life without the likes of Joan Didion, N.T. Wright, Madeline L’Engle, and Ian McEwan. (It’s true that I’m reading fewer literary classics these days. With the house only quiet after 9 p.m., it requires Herculean strength to stay awake.)

Or maybe, I, too, am growing undisciplined in my reading, struggling with my own desire for a quick tickle of entertainment. Reading well (by this, I mean reading broadly and attentively the books that may not immediately fascinate) is a discipline. It always has been. It’s just seems harder now to make this effort.

Especially when I have an iPhone.

* * * * *

Finish reading the rest of the essay here.

And let me know if you decide to pick up any of the books I recommend!