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Omnibus | 6 Minutes

The Value of Multiple Readings of the Same Book—and Having a Favorite Book

Written by Ty Fischer
The Value of Multiple Readings of the Same Book—and Having a Favorite Book

I attend a church that celebrates the Lord’s Supper each week. I did not grow up in a church like that. When I was studying in seminary, we worshipped in churches that had Communion once a month or once a quarter. I can remember talking with other students who worshipped at churches that had Communion weekly. I remember asking them, “Do you think that something special is lost because Communion becomes such a regular part of your worship experience?” The churches I attended took the sacraments really seriously and used the Lord’s Supper as a time of real reflection on one’s life and repentance. I could not imagine doing that weekly nor could I imagine the logistics of having Communion each week. 

Now, that I have been worshipping with weekly Communion for many years, it would be a real challenge for me to worship at a church that did not have the Lord’s Supper each week. The regularity has not bred thoughtless familiarity but rather deep, expectant reflection and joy. I was thinking about this recently while I was reading an old minister’s reflections on the Beatitudes. Thomas Watson said, “In the Word preached the saints hear Christ’s voice; in the sacrament they have His kiss.” That nailed it. Every morning I try to find my wife and give her a hug and a kiss. (Most mornings this happens unless I have already been out for a bike ride and am covered in sweat. At that point, Emily draws the line.) Kissing my wife does not have less meaning over time. It has more. 

In this post, I want to encourage you to find and adore a particular worthy book more than others. By the way, I am assuming that all believers already have one book, the Bible, that must be number one and should serve as every believer’s daily bread. What I am advocating is having one other book that you devote yourself to regularly reading it and gleaning as much as you can from it. For me, that book is Dante’s Comedy. I used to read it each year, trying to find a different translation each time. Now, I read it every couple of years and I often go back to translations that are my favorites (Sayers and Esolen if you are curious). I am not arguing that your favorite book must be The Comedy (although I think it is the best, toughest, most rewarding read). I must admit that I have flirted with other favorites like Anna Karenina (don’t tell Dante) and Paradise Lost, but I always come back to The Divine Comedy. The book you choose should be a book worthy of many readings. Many of the books covered in the Omnibus curriculum could fit the bill as a “favorite book.” Here are a few of the most meaningful reasons for discovering a favorite book and rewards that you can only accrue if you devote yourself to multiple readings of the same book. 

  • It is only in multiple readings of the same book that you catch all of the details and understand the deeper points the author is attempting to make. 

This happens to me all of the time when I am reading the Bible. You read a passage that you have read many times and you see something new. There have been times that I have picked up the Bible and read this “new” part over and over, thinking, “who put this in here” or “I have no memory of this.” It is the same with the Great Books. Multiple, devoted, careful reads yield up fruit that can only be tasted through devotion, patience, and reflection. A single reading of The Comedy is almost useless. Dante expects you to return, to make connections, to glory in the details and coax out all of the layers of meaning. This is true of Thucydides, Plato, Virgil, and Tolstoy. The 10th read is better, much better, than the first. 

  • Multiple readings help you to find friends who are also devoted to the same book. 

This might seem weird, but it happens to me all the time. When I find other devotees of Dante, I reliably find really great friends. They have been formed by the same master. We end up seeing many things in similar ways and we always have something to talk about even if we do not agree. My Dean of Students, Graham Dennis, and I have an ongoing debate about the meaning of the Leopard, the Lion, and the Wolf in the early cantos of Inferno. He intentionally poisons students against my correct view and tells them to challenge me with his heretical views regularly. We have a great time talking about this disagreement. 

  • Only in multiple readings can you discover the joy of anticipation which is a deeper more soul-feeding joy than the joy of new discovery. 

This is probably the most important reason for multiple reads of a favorite book. You cannot effectively anticipate until you know the content really well. Anticipation is a greater, more live sustaining joy than discovery. The joy of new discovery is awesome, but what if we only celebrated Christmas once in our lives. That would be terrible! The greatest joys, like Christmas, or marriage, or Communion, are ones we can anticipate with expectation and longing—so long as it that anticipations leads to culmination. (Some people, many of the medieval people who are often very wise, thought it was even better to have anticipation without culmination. This is senseless. It is much better to have a wife than to secretly devote one’s self to a woman that you never talk to. It is better to take Communion rather than to long for it and never be fed.) 

Reading through Dante, there are passages that I come to that make me smile before I read them because I know that they are coming. I am coming back into the presence of a character who is a friend. They move me in advance. They catch me in the middle of the day when something analogous happens. These blessing can only occur if and when you devote yourself deeply to a particular book. 

So, play favorites! Pick a book that you love or that is worthy and you wish to love. Commit to reading it at least once a year for five years. If you love it by the end, make it your favorite. Start collecting versions of it. Enjoy the literature about the book which will become much more accessible after you have begun to master the content. This pattern of reading will bless you, help you discover likeminded friends, and fill you with anticipation whenever you read or reflect on the content of your favorite. 

In Paradise, Dante spends time with his ancestor Cacciaguida. His great-great-great grandfather is so proud of Dante. Dante respects and loves this hero of his family—Cacciaguida was beloved for his military prowess. I love that conversation. Someday, I want to talk with Dante about it and by thinking on it now, I want to have something worthwhile to say.