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Summer reading: For better or worse?


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 06/12/19

"Beach reading" doesn't have to be trash.

Have you been stacking up books to read on summer vacation? Many people do. Some people pile up mounds of what could be called (charitably) “lighter fare”—some call it “beach reading.” Finally distant from the demands of work or school, we might not be inclined to take more weighty books, which may be hefty either in volume or in content. Fair enough.

Many, however, might take up reading that is not properly “recreational,” in the sense of being “re-created”—refreshed in this life for our task of preparing for the next. Many, sadly, make take up books of inferior quality (both in terms of literary and moral standards), with the excuse that such books are merely a “diversion.”

But what are these books diverting us from? The great Catholic thinker Pascal said of the greatest essayist of the preceding generation, Montaigne: “His book, not intended to lead men to piety, was not obliged to do so; but one is always obliged not to turn men away from the good.”

Will our “recreational” reading really do us more harm than good, even if it entertains us?

Will our “recreational” reading really do us more harm than good, even if it entertains us?

Couldn’t we find lighter summer reading that doesn’t leave our souls the poorer for it? And if we agreed that a book read on a beach need not be lurid or poorly written, where would we begin to look for something better?

Read more:
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A great place to start would be the latest effort from a truly Catholic man of letters, Joseph Pearce. I had the good fortune to discuss with him his book, Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know, during a recent radio interview on The Catholic Current.

Joseph Pearce is a wise and lively guide through the great treasury of Western literature that can enhance, delight, and refresh the soul of the Catholic reader. We should read great literature, he says, because these works teach us about our own humanity, as well as the humanity of those of distant times and places:

There is a very good reason for every Catholic to know the great works of literature—and that is because the great works of literature help us to know ourselves. This is the reason that we should learn the humanities—because the humanities teach us about humanity and the humanity of our neighbors.

Likewise, great literature can tell us much about the God who made us all:  

… the age of Christendom corresponds to the finest flowering of civilization. It is an age in which becoming civilized is the very goal of man’s existence because being civilized (holy) is the means of attaining the perfect civilization of Heaven … the heart of Christendom—its theology, its philosophy, its painting, its architecture, its sculpture, its music, its literature—is the very incarnation of the integrated harmony, the wholeness and oneness, of its Founder.

Pearce (rightly, I believe) contrasts the age and works of Christendom with our contemporary time and works, calling the latter the fruits of an age of “Disenchantment.”

Even during a summer holiday, we can relax, be entertained, and even be elevated by the kind of literature that Pearce recommends in his most recent tour of good literature for Catholics.


Read more:
10 Catholic novels to take to the beach this summer

At the end of his latest book, he offers a selection of “100 great works of literature that every Catholic should aspire to read.” I’ve certainly not read all of them, and I know enough of many of the authors to say that some might not be my first choice to take with me on a quiet vacation or a day at the beach. Nonetheless, the list does include some lighter fare that should be read and re-read. And, I’m happy to say, that there are some that can and should be read aloud together as a family.

In fact, setting aside some family time this summer for reading aloud as a family would help folks step away from their electronic screens, take out their ear buds, and actually look at and talk with each other. Younger children need to be taught (and their elders need to be reminded) that there really was a time when people were entertained by each other and not by devices! They would also benefit from the lesson that happy times don’t need to cost a lot of money.

Younger children need to be taught (and their elders need to be reminded) that there really was a time when people were entertained by each other and not by devices!

A family vacation may be an ideal time to read aloud together The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. (You can tell your more jaded children that having watched the movies doesn’t count!) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is another good candidate for family vacation-time reading aloud. (And having watched those Hobbit movies definitely doesn’t count!)

Vacation time should be more than a change of scenery followed by costly dissipation. Reading good works this summer can produce happy memories, good habits, and better souls.

When I write next, I will speak of praying in times of great difficulty. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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