Perhaps the most famous saying of God from outside the Bible is an exhortation to read: “tolle lege” —meaning, “pick up and read.” These words, repeated as a chant in what sounded like a child’s voice, once exhorted Augustine to read and, in that act of reading, find salvation. Reflecting on this exhortation to read—salvific things, in particular—is powerful if we seek to redeem reading in a writer’s world. Reading, Augustine reminds us, is quite literally good for the soul.
And yet, many of us live in sorrow over all the books we do not have time to read. One of my colleagues recently commented in despair over the tottering tower of books on her bedside table. And over the past month alone, multiple conversations among academics on social media have bemoaned the lack of institutional support for reading. As someone noted, grants and sabbaticals promote extreme writing productivity, but are loath to support mere immersion in reading. And so, many of us race each day, writing as much as we can, but never able to read everything we wish we had time to read. Some of this problem is unavoidable—human time, unlike God’s time, is finite. And yet, something is lost in the process.
It might be easy to critique academia for its pressure-cooker conditions, which indeed exhort us to produce words rather than consume them. But this is the case for non-academics as well, as Kate Murphy’s recent book You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters suggests. We are a society that craves to talk and get our point across, Murphy argues. We are not, however, quite so interested in listening to others. This is a related problem, even if many of us have a much greater eagerness to read good books than listen to others talk. As an educator and a mother of three very vocal image-bearers, I find this convicting.
As a society that craves to talk more than listen, we have also become conditioned to write more than we read. Sure, being a producer is valued more than being a consumer, but not all consumerism is created equal. After all, we are what we eat, as far as consumption of food goes, but we are also what we read and hear with regard to intellectual consumption. It is perhaps this intellectual consumption—the contents being consumed, rather than simply the consumption in and of itself that Christians deem a vice of intellectuals.
Augustine’s experience shows the vital connection between listening and reading—those seemingly passive acts of consumption of words—and fostering a vibrant life of the mind and soul. It is through this consumption of words that Augustine first hears the message that he needs to hear at that moment and then reads what he needed to read. The passage to which his book providentially opens is Romans 13:13-14, which is Paul’s exhortation to Roman Christians to reject over-indulgence in earthly pleasures: “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh” (NIV). In other words, what we put into our bodies, minds, and souls matters a great deal.
This exhortation from Paul to the Romans, to be careful in their consumption of food and drink, became for Augustine an instance of reading as a transformation, an all-consuming and life-changing experience. It is a powerful reminder that more than merely speaking to our minds, the act of reading can and should engage our very souls. But reading alone can’t save us, of course. What we read matters, as does when and how we do it.
Augustine’s writings over his half-century long career as a writer show that he was indeed a voracious reader, one superbly well-versed in classical literature, history, and philosophy. He refers to a broad range of works in his own writings with encyclopedic ease. True, he never mastered Greek, but we can probably cut him some slack on this, even as he himself felt deeply insecure about the matter.
And yet, we sometimes forget that Augustine’s days of educational immersion in all the classics predate his conversion. Teenage and adolescent Augustine was a superb student. But he was also a pear-stealing rebel against God, who fathered a child out of wedlock, and was a practicing Manichee. It was only after his conversion to Christianity at the age of thirty-one that Augustine could look to Vergil, Livy, Sallust, Cicero, and others, and use their writings to re-evaluate the entirety of the Roman pagan experience. Only then could he produce such magisterial works as City of God, a powerful rebuke of the Roman perspective on history, literature, philosophy, and religious belief.
For those of us who are educators, this is a comforting thought as we assign readings in our classrooms and wonder what, if anything, is taking root in young minds, hearts, and souls, some converted and many others not. Augustine’s journey is a powerful reminder that nothing we read is ever lost. So continue to celebrate reading, both in the classroom and beyond. Embrace that tottering pile of books on your own bedside table. And say a prayer of thanksgiving for the early church, whose love for God’s word transformed books into the shape of the codex and freed us from reading on much more unwieldy scrolls.
But, to return finally, once more, to the connection of reading and listening—the call of “tolle, lege,” sung out to someone who was troubled and seeking God, is a reminder of the power of listening. May we listen not only to the words of books we read but also to students and colleagues, as we discuss said books and even dream of beautiful books we may someday write ourselves.