Sins of reading, by action and by omission

From what we read, says writer Henri Quantin, not only depends on what we think, but what we are. Between the possible venom of a wrongly chosen book, and the nonsense that overwhelms the mind, remember that beauty, the splendor of truth, can lurk in many unexpected corners.

What should be read? Sometimes the question does not require an answer: it refers to the confusion of the lazy in front of an imposed bibliography (“I will never have time to read all that”) or, on the contrary, to the fatigue of the poet in finding something new (“The flesh is sad, alas, and I’ve read all the books”). In these days of more or less firm resolutions and more or less pious intentions, it nevertheless allows us to question the norms that dictate our readings. Whether they come from the author’s ideas, from aesthetics or from morality, things are rarely smooth. Pray for us, poor readers? Fifty years apart, two different novelists, François Mauriac and Patrice Jean, help examine conscience, even a confectioner, for the two kinds of reading sins, one by act, the other by omission.

The labyrinth of our dreams

Every part. Mauriac, although he suffered throughout his life from the clerical anathemas thrown at his work as considered immoral, nevertheless pointed out the possible poison of a badly chosen book. At the time of the detachment that precedes the threshold of death, with the doubt that many would call Jansenist that it is better to remove it, he wonders about the part of responsibility of his readings in the dreams that he has. Tempted to see in this territory at night a zone of lawlessness where everything completely escapes the eye of his conscience, he concludes to qualify the moral neutrality of the dream:

“This comfort that is felt on waking is attributed for the Christian to the fact that sleep is confined to this guardian, which, in the life of Grace, is the fear of sin, if only through thought and desire. In reality, his vigilance is only half bound: an invisible hand sometimes binds the sleeper. In the sigh of the waking Christian: “It was only a dream…” there enters the comfort of having done no harm. But he didn’t do anything wrong? A careful person does not go down easily. The book that before going to bed he thought he had read without collusion, the movie that he did not deny himself because “you should have seen it”, he hoped that he had banished the demons: but sleep let them go at once, through the labyrinth of dreams. »

Our readings, like our dreams, are part of ourselves. The inner person they contribute to shaping is the face of our intimate library. A useful moral and spiritual standard, when it is advanced by a novelist who never draws an argument from the power of grace to overcome in silence the darkness of raging evil. From what we read depends not only what we think, but what we are: the mental landscape in which we live, the spiritual air we breathe.

There is the sin of reading by omission, in those who read only what confirms them in what they have thought or known.

However, let’s be careful not to submit aesthetics to a narrow morality and read in Mauriac a call to feed only gentle novels, heavy Manichean and with strong didacticism, “weakening the pâtés”, says Bloy, who kills the greatness of souls. more certain than the seemingly less recommended books. Moreover, Mauriac voluntarily denounced the “heresy of silliness”. There is a sin of reading by omission, in those who read only what confirms them in what they already thought or knew.

Beauty in many unexpected corners

Also the examination of conscience to which Patrice Jean invites us, who upholds a more literary than moral standard, can complete Mauriac’s. Following Cyrille Bertrand, the hero of The Pursuit of the Ideal (NRF, 2021), a beautiful novel that unites Flaubertian farce, Balzacian energy and casual Stendhalian, the narrator asks this question: “Are there any readers who love books outside of their political and religious passions? Let each one, in his soul and conscience, look within himself . Does Patrice Jean’s question mask an aesthetic idolatry of the book, in an indifference to its content? No, rather it is a reminder that beauty, the splendor of truth, can be lodged in many unexpected places corners, like the wind blowing where it wants. Systematically selecting works “on your side”, never confronting you with the possible genius of an author whose ideas annoy you, greatly diminishes your capacity for appreciating the work of the Spirit in each person. Likewise, layering a pop-praise group’s soup on top of a Bach Passion, on the grounds that the former is Catholic while the latter is Protestant, can hardly help to witness a God whose beauty gives light to the world.

Father’s advice

Because of Mauriac’s concern and Patrice Jean’s warning, the examination of the reader’s conscience can be based on a two-sided observation: some books, of course, pollute your imagination and pollute your soul, but others corrupting your thinking, narrowing your understanding. of reality, gradually train yourself to reduce beauty to sweet beauty and to reduce intellectual analysis to the stuttering of “our values”. “They have clean hands, but they have no hands,” wrote Péguy of the Kantians. One is tempted to adapt the formula to some readers, when they praise only those books which, according to the formula, “can be put into all hands”…

That it is rarely desirable to read Houellebecq at the age of eight, granted, but it can be just as dangerous for the spiritual life to read, at the age of fifteen, only novels sponsored by Let’s think of the good advice that Cristina Campo received from her father, where he asked if she could read Russian writers: “You can read them all […]. You will see many hardships there, but nothing will hurt you. To welcome the New Year, here are some important fatherly advice to guide our readings in 2023.

man reading a book

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