To read well, says Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, is to prepare oneself to live wisely, kindly, and wittily:
I have long valued literary theorist Kenneth Burke’s simple observation that literature is “equipment for living.” We glean what we need from it as we go. In each reading of a book or poem or play, we may be addressed in new ways, depending on what we need from it, even if we are not fully aware of those needs. The skill of good reading is not only to notice what we notice, but also to allow ourselves to be addressed. To take it personally. To ask, even as we read secular texts, that the Holy Spirit enable us to receive whatever gift is there for our growth and our use. What we hope for most is that as we make our way through a wilderness of printed, spoken, and electronically transmitted words, we will continue to glean what will help us navigate wisely and kindly—and also wittily—a world in which competing discourses can so easily confuse us in seeking truth and entice us falsely.
I think, for instance, of Henry James’s hope for Isabel Archer, in The Portrait of a Lady, that she “be a person upon whom nothing is lost.” That phrase reminds me of a way of living to be aspired to: to be a person for whom every encounter is food for thought, reflection, prayer, or perhaps lively resistance, who notices word choices and recognizes need and gets the joke and pauses over what might easily be passed by. The hope expressed in that line is fueled by a reassurance I have found in words Robert Bolt assigns to Sir Thomas More, whose deep moral intelligence links piety to precision of thought: “God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind!” Wit is the sharp instrument that prunes away what obscures the things that matter most.