Work is the curse of the reading class, or the virtue of reading

Work is the curse of the reading class.

How many books did you read last year? According to some reports, one in four Americans did not read a single book in the last twelve months. Three out of the four who did read in the last year read only one book. But the reports are even more dismal when a distinction is made between any books and books of literature. For example, books on business, cooking, gardening or self-help are in a different category from books of literature. Further, books on business and marketing by Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin or Simon Sinek are not considered literary works. Books by Dante, Plato and Shakespeare are works of high literature. Books of literature by American authors include Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost and Thornton Wilder.

My own reading pattern shadows the national trend. This discourages me. Years ago I read more than 50 books a year. In addition to that, I used to read several literary journals, magazines and newspapers on the bus ride to the office each day. It was a delicious and robust period of time. But life interrupted this reading regimen. A dream job, mega commute, cross-country move, career change, new job at a legacy media organization, and more commuting disrupted my reading habits.

It is a struggle for me to completely read one single book from cover to cover. The desk in front of the window holds eight books. I may have to return all these to the public library partially read. Or renew them. The library must be weary of me renewing a copy of a theological book. I must have renewed it several times over the last few months. One report I read stated the reason people do not read books is due to their busy work/life balance.

Great disruption.

The interruption to the reading habit is due in part to the daily commute. 90 minutes a day spent traveling from home to work. Public transit would be nice. However, no public transit system services the rural communities surrounded by cultivated fields and farmland. Travel accounts for more than 15 days of my time each year. And then there are the long hours of production work. The job is mentally demanding. My fatigued mind only desires to turn on the record player and go to sleep when I return home.

Solution.

Most Americans spend more than two hours each day on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. That equals more than 40 days a year. From an economic stand point that seems like a lot of wasted productivity. What that means in practical terms is that my social media feeds are on life support. I do not spend time on Facebook or Twitter at all. LinkedIn occasionally. And I deleted my Instagram account. Eliminating social media activity allowed me to reclaim some of the time lost to commuting and work.

Great books.

A second action put into practice during the last few years included reading great books of literature. Mostly. Plato’s The Republic, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglas, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are some of the books read during the last year and a half. The classical education curriculum of my children helped me form a list of great books to read. I added a few books to the list to include Asian and Near Eastern studies. I explored Basho’s The Narrow Road, an anthology of Rumi, Hafix and Lalla, and Ryokan’s Sky Above, Great Wind. Most recently I attempted to read and compare three different translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. An ambitious task that I failed. Ended up focusing on selected cantos for comparison before the books were shuffled back to the public library.

The virtue of reading.

Why is reading books, especially, great books, important? The virtue of being well-read is the goal. Do not leave it up to the academics and professionals to read great books. C. S. Lewis wrote that “the simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” He continued by encouraging readers to acquire firsthand knowledge of the source material rather than to rely on secondhand commentary. Being a well-read individual has the potential to foster a civilized society. But you must be vigilant, designate time, pick up a book and read it cover to cover.

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From the office in the oak grove

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Two full moons ago, I shared a glimpse at my outdoor office. Yesterday, I asked the boss if I might share few details about the location and the unique job I enjoyed under the shade of red and white oak trees. And he said yes.

The adventure started with a phone call and brisk interview. It was a working interview. The interviewer wore a leather flat cap and showed me wooden shields and signs.

“Can you paint?” he said.

“Yes, I can,” I said. “I brought my own brushes. Should I have brought my own paint?”

He didn’t answer. He was sorting through a stack of shields piled on a wooden table. He explained that some shields required touch up work due to weathering and use while other shields need to be painted — originals, as he put it.

“If I like your work, I can keep you busy all summer,” he said as he produced cans of paint and assigned a place to work. “If I don’t like your work…” Well, suffice it to say he related that my working interview would be concluded and I should not return.

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” he said and assigned two projects for me to complete. Then he got in his truck and drove down a service road to do something somewhere else on the property.

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It took a few moments for me to gauge what to start with. I picked up each shield and sign and weighed where to start. After I opened a couple of paint cans, I searched for a water bucket or anything to keep the brushes clean and for mixing colors. I salvaged a water bottle for a trash bin and began to paint. Long story short, he liked the work I did and told me I should show up the next day. That routine continued for most of the summer.

One, of many, comments he shared with me continues to intrigue me. It involved the idea of hand-painted art versus computer-generated, printed signs.

“There is juju with these things,” he said inspecting one of the shields I painted. “People connect with this stuff, because it was created with human hands. Not some computer.”

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I listened to him. I examined the source material that he shared with me. He sketched bestiary on a wood panel and I watched. He asked for my brush and corrected a shadow and I learned.

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As I drew the typography of a sign for the ring, it became clear to me what he had been telling me and showing me this summer. The clean, manufactured sterility of our culture separates the element of human touch. When I painted the “y” from the word “only” it was similar but not an exact facsimile of the “y” in “beyond” on the line below. Yes. Precision could have improved the exactness of the two letters. My lettering and painting captures my technique as well as foibles. 

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During this summer, I read several books by Ryōkan and Bashō. The historical footnotes and commentary on the calligraphy of the poets were as exciting as the literary work itself. The fact that scholars continue to examine the brushstrokes hundreds of years after the poets passed from this earth testify to the essence of human connectivity. The falter of a stroke — a brush loaded with ink that lacks the energy to complete a long stroke remains a signature of the poet. Was it intentional? Or accidental?

As I examined a finished sign with him one afternoon, I said, “It’s not perfect.”

“Only God is perfect,” he said. “These are magic. When people see these signs, they will know that this is real. This is the real thing. Not a duplicate. This is OS. Original standard. Good stuff. See you tomorrow.”