One night at the dinner table, Dad and I were debating something – as we did most nights at dinner. The conversation usually began with Dad’s question, “What did you learn today?” Then, my brother would share, and I would share. Then, Dad – intentionally – would challenge something we said, and we’d have to defend or concede, all in a mostly quiet, but sometimes tear-filled way. (Okay, I was the only one who cried – I’m tear-prone, what can I say.)
But this one night, Dad and I were talking, and he asked me where I learned that particular piece of information, the nature of which I cannot for the life of me remember now. And I told him, “I read it in a book,” thinking this would be the end of the discussion. Books were true – that’s it.
“Not everything you read in books is true or correct, Andi.”
I caught my breath, stared, and probably cried a little.
These words from my dad were the first ones that encouraged me to read more critically. They taught me to check my sources, to look for the slant in the telling, to confirm the information against other texts and with other people, to question everything, in other words. This is a hard way to read – it doesn’t allow me to take things at face value, and sometimes – as when I began reading Scripture this way – it shakes up the foundations of my world view. However, here’s what I’ve learned – truth is truth is truth. If it’s true (which, as my friend Shannon pointed out, is not the same as factual), it will hold up. If it’s not true or only partially true, it will crumble beneath scrutiny. For me, I’d rather see something crumble than hold firm to a falsehood. Thus, when I read a text – fiction, nonfiction, Scripture, film, journalism – I look for the truth. The part of what is written that resonates with honest and sincerity, the part that confirms what I already know or challenges it with something more powerful and resonant.
I love reading this way because it means that while I put the Christian Bible on the top of the most influential books in my life, it’s not the ONLY influential book in my life. Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead taught me so much about love and faith and hope, not to mention writing. And Richard Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus Series 3 reminded me that women are not only often heroic but that they are often underestimated in so many ways. And when I read the Book of Esther in Scripture, I don’t have to read it literally to see a person who hears the cry of the oppressed and uses her power to save their lives.
For me, a literal reading of any text is too narrow. It would mean that I missed the masterful use of language in Lolita because I could not see past the entirely wrong relationship between Humbert Humbert and a young girl. Literal reading would mean that I just saw Owen Meany as a kid with a tiny voice and small stature instead of as the Christ-like model of sacrifice that he is. I’m not willing to give up the richness of those stories for anything.
Dad’s lesson – that one sentence, handed to me when I was 9 or 10 – gave me a gift – the ability to take in words and tumble them around like ice cubes in my mouth and spit out what does taste right. An eye for interpretation and the ability to question is a gift I will never regret receiving, no matter how much it shakes up my world view.
How do you read texts? Where did you learn how to read them that way?