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With Whom We Read
A Review of Reading for the Common Good and Books for Living
Todd C. Ream

No trip to Missoula, Montana, is complete without a visit to Fact & Fiction. For thirty-one years, this independent bookstore has provided books and, perhaps even more important, a venue for conversation for this college town sitting at the junction of three of the West’s great trout streams—the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, and the Clark Fork.

Barbara Theroux, the driving force behind Fact & Fiction, had a vision in the store’s early years of it drawing Western writers and their readers together in a common place. Over time, noted authors such as Ivan Doig, William Kittredge, and James Welch have made visits to the Missoula store as part of their book-signing tours.

So far, Fact & Fiction has survived the challenges posed by online sales and e-books that have led to the closure of so many independent bookstores. When asked by the local newspaper on the eve of her retirement what her career meant to her, Theroux said, ʻ“I’m not a rich person in financial ways, but I’m very rich in other kinds of ways.’”1 She walked away from the store at the end of July 2017 with an impressive collection of signed first editions and an even more impressive collection of friends.             

book1While reading is often perceived of as a solitary practice, Theroux’s legacy points to the fact that the people with whom we read are just as important as what we read. C. Christopher Smith explicitly makes that point in Reading for the Common Good. Will Schwalbe sets out to celebrate the relationship individual readers have with books in Books for Living, but in the end he implicitly makes the same point as Smith.      

Smith and Schwalbe (and Theroux) clearly value reading and have spent vast amounts of their professional and personal energies to practicing it. Smith resides in Indianapolis, edits The Englewood Review of Books, and is the author of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. Schwalbe resides in New York City and is the former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books, co-author of Send: Why People E-Mail So Badly and How to Do it Better, and author of The End of Your Life Book Club. Smith and Schwalbe would undoubtedly enjoy visiting the other’s workplace—Smith’s is a workstation carved out of a dimly-lit cavern of books at Englewood Christian Church, while Schwalbe says the most prominent decorations adorning his apartment walls are—you guessed it—books.

book2At the beginning of Reading for the Common Good, Smith argues, “Reading is a vital practice that can—if done carefully and well—ultimately contribute to the health and flourishing of our communities” (p. 21). In order to do so, he recommends choosing books “intimately tied to our communities” (p. 20). While any number of communities could benefit from this reading practice, the ones Smith has in mind are “our church communities” (p. 20).

In Books for Living, Schwalbe starts in a different place from Smith. He contends, “Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life” (p. 7) and “Every book changes your life. So I like to ask: How is this book changing mine?” (p. 7). Reinforcing the essential relationship readers have with their books, Schwalbe boldly claims, “I believe that everything you need to know you can find in a book” (p. 11).

Despite Schwalbe’s absolute language and focus on the individual nature of reading, we also learn that there’s more to reading than that for him. For example, in his introduction he acknowledges that “most good books are not tackling big questions in isolation” (p. 6), and great authors whose works stand the test of time “have been engaged in dialogue with one another that stretches back for millennia” (p. 6). Books thus carry with them “traces of some hundreds or thousands of books the writer read before attempting the one at hand” (p. 6).

The bulk of Schwalbe’s book, and the manner in which he organizes it, highlights the impact that various books have had on him. In most chapters, he also sprinkles in details about writers who influenced him. As a result, his accounts of twenty-seven books that made diverse yet profound impacts on him fill the pages of Schwalbe’s larger effort.

In three short, early chapters of his book, Schwalbe mentions a range of titles that have been important to him, from Stuart Little to The Girl on the Train to The Odyssey. In terms of its enduring value, Schwalbe views Stuart Little as a narrative exploration of the importance of searching even when the “search is inconclusive” (p. 37). He appreciates The Girl on the Train because “you don’t know for sure whether you are being told, in whole or in part, the truth” (p. 47).

Finally, Schwalbe’s discussion of The Odyssey illustrates how he discovered that whom we read with is just as important as what we read. In this case, the “whom” is his high school Latin teacher, Mr. Tracy, who guided Schwalbe through The Odyssey and introduced him to a character who was “deeply fallible” yet, like Stuart Little, perseveres (p. 55). Woven into the fabric of that realization was the ability of “great teachers” to “help us see ourselves in the broadest possible perspective” (p. 59)—flawed, prone to mediocrity, yet not sentenced to lives of failure.

In contrast, the nine chapters of Smith’s book provide interlocking points in his larger, normative argument concerning the value of reading in community. The early chapters are just as much an exercise in philosophical anthropology as they are in the value of reading. Before Smith makes his claim, he works to convince us that “Our experience of life is shaped by our social imagination: the collective ordering of reality through experience, language, and culture” (p. 37). If correct, one never reads alone but only as part of the fabric woven by countless others.

While Smith could turn his attention to the value of almost any community when it comes to the practice of reading, he focuses on the church community. There, a common faith and the ongoing participation in worship practices unites people. Smith’s own community, for example, is part of the Restorationist movement and thus places a high value on the practice of baptism, weekly communion, and the rightfully preached Word of God.

By the end of chapter three, “Reading and Our Congregational Identity,” Smith has persuasively argued that the purpose of the practice of reading is to “understand our times in order that our church communities might be able to live faithfully in them” (p. 67). By the end of chapter six, “Deepening Our Roots in Our Neighborhoods,” he is able to press his point concerning how “the practice of reading will draw us deeper into the shared life of our neighborhood” (p. 107).

Smith’s text harbors a variety of philosophical and theological sources fueling what might be labeled as his post-liberal perspective. As a result, the works of Charles Taylor and Willie Jennings, among other philosophers and theologians, play important roles. In addition, Smith draws from the literature of management and, in particular, the work of Peter Senge. From Senge, Smith then offers that organizations such as churches can act as learning organizations.

Schwalbe’s primary influence in Books for Living is twentieth-century Chinese writer and translator Lin Yutang’s 1937 book, The Importance of Living. Yutang’s work, one that emphasizes “the need to slow down and enjoy life,” is the focus of Schwalbe’s first chapter and appears in subsequent chapters, as well (p. 256). For example, in the chapter about Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey around My Room, Schwalbe frames his effort around Yutang’s approach to travel that is “to open yourself to seeing what’s in front of and all around you all the time, not just when you are on a special trip” (p. 237).   

Despite their differences, both Smith and Schwalbe indicate they believe that with whom we read is just as important as what we read. Smith succeeds in persuading his audience of that point and ends his book by offering batteries of practical ways to pay attention to the “who” piece. Schwalbe implicitly comes to a comparable conclusion. By detailing books that have served as companions for him, he challenges readers to remember and articulate to their own reading genealogies.

In “A Final Word,” Schwalbe notes that he “used to say that the greatest gift you could ever give anyone is a book” (p. 255). He has since revised that logic and claims a book is the second greatest gift he could give anyone. Now he believes that “the greatest gift you can give people is to take the time to talk with them about a book you’ve shared” (p. 255). Even with earlier hints that Schwalbe might come to such a conclusion, one has to wonder who is more surprised by that understanding, Schwalbe or his readers.

If offered the chance, both Schwalbe and Smith would undoubtedly enjoy a visit to Fact & Fiction. Walking the aisles with each one of them and talking about how they sized up the offerings on Barbara Theroux’s shelves would be a rewarding way to spend an afternoon. And both authors would likely agree that store in the heart of Missoula is most valuable in the way Theroux had envisioned: as a place that brings writers and readers together for conversation and fellowship. To read the works of Ivan Doig, William Kittredge, and James Welch is of great value. To talk with them about their work and to do so in the company of others is a gift humans, by their very nature, yearn to receive.     

 

Todd C. Ream serves on the faculty at Taylor University and a distinguished fellow with Excelsia College. Most recently, he is the co-author of Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Era (InterVarsity Press, March 2017).

 

Work Cited

Walsh, Cory. “Fact & Fiction founder Barbara Theroux retires after 31 years at store,” The Missoulian, June 30, 2017.

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