The Benefits of Reading “Promiscuously” – J. Milton & K. Prior

reading-well-priorIn making her case for ‘reading well” in her new book by that title (On Reading Well, which I just picked up at the local Barnes & Noble store), that is, for virtue, author Karen S. Prior begins by referencing her previous title Booked, in which she emphasizes the importance of reading “widely, voraciously, and indiscriminately.” In doing so, she points out the spiritual lessons she learned while reading widely, or as she calls it reading “promiscuously,” drawing from a famous book by John Milton (though perhaps not as well known as his Paradise Lost).

This is how she references Milton and his work Areopagitica:

Areopagitica makes a deeply theological argument, one that Christians today, particularly those nervously prone to a censoring spirit, would do well to consider. Grounded in Protestant doctrine (as well as the polarized political situation surrounding the English Civil War), Milton associates censorship with the Roman Catholic Church (the political as well as doctrinal enemy of the English Puritans) and finds in his Reformation heritage a deep interdependence of intellectual, religious, political, and personal liberty – all of which depend, he argues, on virtue. Because the world since the fall contains both good and evil, Milton says, virtue consists of choosing good over evil. Milton distinguishes between the innocent, who knows no evil, and the virtuous, who know what evil is and elect to do good. What better way to learn the difference between good and evil, Milton argues, than to gain knowledge of both through reading widely: ‘Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.’

Perhaps we struggle to understand Milton’s point here. Let me try to clarify it. I believe that, being the good Puritan that he was, Milton would never say, “In order to appreciate virtue you ought to go out and experience or enjoy vice (sin).” But he is saying here that there is a way to learn (and to choose) virtue, and that is by reading about evil. In that way of “the scanning of error” through the world’s books, you learn to see evil for what it is (“sin and falsity”), in order that you reject it and choose the virtuous (“truth”) instead.

Is that not one of the reasons why Christians ought to read widely? Milton makes a valid point, to my thinking, and Prior is right to direct us to it so we too may learn to read well and find “the good life through great books” (the sub-title of her new book).

We’ll return to more of Prior’s spiritual lessons on reading as I move through the book.

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://cjts3rs.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/the-benefits-of-reading-promiscuously-j-milton-k-prior/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: