We are formed by the company we keep.
That is a truism we have probably heard in one form or another from our parents or religious teachers from our earliest years. For some of us, the company we keep with God, or whatever we believe is ultimate, is profoundly formative. We can trace how families, friends, and colleagues have shaped our lives. Sometimes, we express regret when someone we know makes poor decisions shaped by ‘bad’ company.
Since all the above is pretty self-apparent, I’m not going to dwell there. Rather, I’d like to think about the company we keep as readers. Do we consider that the books we read (and other sources as well like blogs, social media, and various feeds) may also be forming us as persons in some way? Do we weigh how, consciously or unconsciously, what we read shapes how we see the world, what we value, and how we act? While I do believe that reading choices are a matter of taste to the extent that we enjoy reading different things from one another, I also believe that reading choices are not neutral. Our books may simply reinforce our beliefs and view of the world, could potentially skew our view of reality, or open up the world to us in new ways. Books have the power to enrich our mental life, or feed the “darker angels of our nature”.
This is not an argument for censorship nor for banning books. The same book that could be illuminating for one could be unhelpful for another. I think our speech freedoms, which include the freedom of authors to write what they will, and readers to choose, continue to be worthy of protection. Rather, this is an argument for mindfulness in the choices we make, considering the ways books might form us, just as those with whom we associate.
I don’t want to moralize about how others should make these choices but share some of the things, as best I can understand myself, that shape the company I keep in the books I read.
1. Is this a work that advances the good, the true and the beautiful? In this regard, I’m not looking for polyannish books, with sugary sweet outlooks. Rather, even in the portrayal of the evil and the bad, does it assume a moral universe? Does the book consider the pursuit of truth a worthy pursuit and not something to hold in contempt or cynicism? Is there an excellence of thinking and writing suitable to the genre of the work?
2. Is this a book suitable for the season of life I am in? It is a danger for me to read intellectually challenging books at times when I am mentally and emotionally challenged and cannot really engage their content. I’ve also become more aware that books that may insinuate doubt or despair may not be the best things to read when I am physically depleted or emotionally spent. I’m not saying I avoid such books but rather that I engage them when I have the mental and emotional wherewithal to assess them more objectively.
3. This said, I want to ask myself if I am listening to voices that will reveal the blind spots in my own thinking or just reading books that reinforce my comfortable way of seeing the world. As a white, male, North American Christian from the Midwest, am I reading women, ethnic minority writers, those of other faiths and political persuasions, those from other parts of the world as well as other parts of the country? I will never understand completely what it is to grow up African-American in this country. But to listen to African-Americans, for example, can engage my imagination to begin in small ways to walk in their shoes and question the unthinking judgments I might be inclined to make. To listen to writers from the Majority World can help me better grasp the impact, for good and ill, that the West has on the rest of the world.
4. I do choose books that I think in one way or another I will enjoy and find life-giving. Particularly in the realm of fiction, I prefer books that are not laced with gratuitous violence, sex, or conspiracies. I personally do not find myself unchanged when I read such material, and that change not for the better. Character development, plot, and the quality of writing matter far more. If a book that I read does not in some way inspire and nourish my pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful in the rest of life when I’ve read it, I feel it a waste of time. Is it a book that will tell me what I already know, or help me explore what I know more deeply in a way that enriches my thinking and enlarges my perspective?
5. C.S. Lewis once counselled reading one old book for every new one we read to avoid the danger of chronological snobbery, our propensity to think that “the new is the true.” I’ve found Socrates, The Bible, Athanasius, Virgil, Boethius, Dante, Milton, and Chesterton as enriching as David McCullough, Anthony Doerr, or N.T. Wright, or even C.S. Lewis! I don’t achieve Lewis’s ratio of old to new but find our Dead Theologians reading group a help in reading older works.
I‘m curious how others think about the influence of reading choices on our character and how you make choices about the “company you keep” in books.