The Contemplative Reader

How we approach a book can parallel the way we approach life itself. We can spend our time merely in pursuit of pleasure or we can strive toward a higher goal—the pursuit of what John Henry Newman calls the “philosophical habit of mind.” We would never dismiss the pleasure that reading can bring, but we should seek more than pleasure when we read. We should choose books that have more to offer, great books that challenge us to think deeply about what we read so that we might grow and improve as people.

Therefore, teaching children how to access, and ultimately contemplate, great books is an important long-term process. I often tell parents and teachers that when it comes to reading, completing a book doesn’t always equate to comprehending a book, and comprehending a book doesn’t always equate to contemplating a book. Contemplation is certainly more demanding—yet also far more rewarding. Contemplation is a bridge that leads from knowledge (comprehension) to wisdom and helps us use what we have learned to pursue virtue and avoid vice.

In the classical model we have a destination, which is not just contemplating any books, but contemplating the most enduring books of humanity. If we want to get to the vistas of wisdom through the True and the Good and the Beautiful, we need a plan. A sporadic approach is likely to leave us intimidated— instead of inspired—by the best that has been thought and said. You can see, for instance, how the Iliad could confuse the person who hasn’t been exposed to Greek mythology. Likewise, it’s understandable that Shakespeare challenges those who haven’t been immersed from a young age in the beautiful and elevated language of poetry or Scripture. Meaningful access to good books requires intentionality. When we fail to view literature as a cumulative subject, we fail to recognize that books build on each other in language, meaning, and allusion. If we don’t read Homer, we miss Homer— which is a great loss—but we also miss the countless references to his epics that have been used by other authors for over two thousand years!

If we accept that we must approach literature strategically—if we are to glean all that books have to offer—we must think then about how we should help students accumulate the skills and knowledge to do so. Making a distinction between skill and knowledge keeps the two from getting muddled and confused.

I call the beginning stage of reading the completion stage. This is basically a skill stage that requires having the ability to read the words on any page as well as the discipline and confidence to get to the last page. Simply refusing to close a book and walk away is the first step to becoming a contemplative reader. But even when a book is finished, we should be realistic about the extent to which it was absorbed.

I remember teaching my kids to read. We’d settle in on the couch and my child would open a book, plod through sounds, stop and start words, and often skim over punctuation in the hope that I wouldn’t notice. Eventually the book would be completed successfully, but once the task was accomplished my child would invariably look up and say, “Wait—now you read it to me.” They seemed to have gleaned little about the book’s content. They had completed the book, but couldn’t yet comprehend while completing. They were working on the skill of reading, but the comprehension—the knowledge—was somewhat sacrificed in the effort.

That doesn’t mean my children were incapable of comprehending those books. They absolutely could understand when I reread them. I simply had to close the gap between their reading skills and their comprehension abilities. It was difficult for my children to focus on both skill and knowledge simultaneously.

This scenario is easiest to spot in the primary years, but it can happen at any time. Think about the student reading Shakespeare. Or Plato. Or Dante. A certain degree of discomfort or intimidation can be routinely expected as students advance through increasingly difficult literature. Reading skills might be challenged many times. So we encourage teachers at all levels to be alert to the fact that skill and comprehension aren’t always advancing in tandem. This is one of the reasons we advocate reading books and passages multiple times. It’s also the reason we offer thorough literature guides to support students and teachers. We distinguish phonics (skill-based) reading, read-alouds, and literature in our curriculum because we recognize that a threepronged approach to reading is beneficial.

Phonics reading is skill-based reading for the youngest learners. Books in this category teach students how to read. Phonics reading requires much practice. Reluctance is common in this stage because we generally dislike doing what we are not especially good at doing. However, we love being great at things—it’s exhilarating and rewarding. The better we are at something, the more we want to do it. This is why we must push through the initial reluctance to read what is difficult. Once mastery is achieved, students are positioned well to continue because they have overcome the hurdle and have hit a solid stride.

But the course continues on an incline. Effort will always be expected of the advancing reader. So we encourage dedicated parents and teachers to help students access books they might not manage independently quite yet.

Read-aloud books are thus a distinct element of our curriculum. Read-alouds are generally two or three grade levels above the reading level of the student, allowing an opportunity for advancing knowledge without dependence on skill. These books alight the soul to the beauty and wonder of stories. They add volume to the student’s literary foundation. They are not necessarily studied with the same attention as the selected literature in the curriculum, but they contribute importantly to the expansion of the mind. Read-alouds add to the characters, ideas, and images the child holds in his heart. They train in discernment by helping the child, by way of variety, identify what is lovely, meaningful, and real in books—and in life. Read-alouds also allow students to hear experienced readers read with fluidity and expression, encouraging them to develop the skills necessary to emulate these practices. Even if every read-aloud book is not read deeply, we want our children to be exposed to good books in high quantities so they are able to discern which deserve their full attention. Read-alouds help make this possible.

The third category of books in our curriculum is literature. Literature is where we intentionally merge skill and knowledge: the ability to comprehend while completing. Reading literature is more difficult than phonics reading and (obviously) less phonetically consistent for younger students, but literature offers beauty, meaning, and the opportunity for contemplation. Literature provides a different but equally essential foundation for young readers. Students advance in their ability to appreciate increasingly difficult ideas and language with carefully curated literature selections that are read deeply and closely and carefully.

At Memoria Press we study only a few books each year to promote contemplation, and we are conscientious and humble in promoting books that deserve our deep thought. In gratitude to those who went before us, we ask history to offer a reading list of favorites. These are the classics that have instructed men and women for generations. With phonics reading, read-alouds, and literature, our students are trained to enjoy and contemplate the best books. They are trained to grow in wisdom and knowledge. They are trained to see Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. They are trained to pursue good things and, even better, to delight in them when found.