Thursday, June 09, 2016

Book Review: Reading for the Common Good by C. Christopher Smith

We all are called to follow in the compassionate way of Jesus, and central to that calling is the work of carefully reading and meditating on the scriptural story to understand who Jesus is. Not everyone likes to read--indeed not everyone can read--but a vital part of our work as the church is equipping everyone to read to the best of their capability and to participate as fully as possible in our shared work of discerning the shape of our shared life. - C. Christopher Smith, Reading for the Common Good

As a lifelong committed reader, I've been fascinated in recent years by analyses and opinion pieces that try to describe the changing reading habits of our culture. Some lament the popularity of ebooks and openly wonder if we will soon see the death of printed paper works. Others take this worry a step further, suggesting that our collective attention span has become shorter due to screen media such as TV and the internet, which has led or will lead to less of an interest in books due to their length and depth. And still others envision a time when libraries will become completely obsolete thanks to online resources and search engines, given that some brick and mortar bookstore chains are already suffering from the effects of their existence.

There is also plenty of pushback against these ideas, with many also arguing that books will always have a place in our society, along with the people and places that love and keep them. Books and reading still shape us as individuals and communities, and libraries and similar havens still serve plenty of important functions for neighborhoods and cities. Reading still shapes us, even in an age where so much seems to discourage or lessen its potential impact.

This latter view is one championed by C. Christopher Smith in Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish. Smith is a member of Englewood Christian Church near Indianapolis, and editor of the Englewood Review of Books, which is based in that congregation. So it might naturally fit that he has some positive things to say about the importance of reading in this shifting cultural moment.

As the title and subtitle allude, Smith's basic thesis has to do with how reading shapes us as individuals and as groups. He explores this from multiple angles, beginning first with how we read in general: do we rush through from one book to the next, or do we take time to really savor and digest? This has an impact on how well we understand and absorb what we are reading in order for it to have a real transformative effect on how we think and interact with the world.

From there, Smith embarks on a series of chapters showing how reading can lead to social change, whether the culture of a church, neighborhood, or entire municipality if enough are engaged: "The seeds of transformation lie, I believe, in a community (or sub community) that has an alternate vision of how life could be structured." (p. 38) In other words, a community that reads a common work and allows it to seep into its thinking and vision can be altered by the experience enough to begin acting and deciding and moving into something new, different, and life-giving.

A natural question to arise might be: Why reading? Why not organizing or activism or prayer? Smith does include these other elements, but argues that reading is foundational to the rest because it informs before the action can begin. He includes contemplation as a complement to reading, noting that a slow, deliberate, thoughtful, and even prayerful pace is needed for one to really be both enriched and inspired.

Later chapters should satisfy any questions regarding the role of organization and taking action. Smith explores how reading can be impactful to neighborhoods in several ways. First, it provides the knowledge necessary to take real steps toward change: you have to learn how to set up a community garden, remediate a vacant lot, or advocate for local food choices before you pursue doing so. Second, encouraging reading among an entire local populace through programs and resources can lead to a shift in how that neighborhood approaches its communal life. "Reading alone will not transform our communities. It is in dialogue and discernment that we are challenged and commit ourselves to the practices (economic and otherwise) that will change us." (p. 128)

Smith has written an accessible and powerful call to churches and neighborhoods to take up reading as a basic component to transformation. It's also a love letter to reading in general, as he cites numerous works from diverse genres such as poetry, fiction, fantasy, theology, spirituality, philosophy, and cultural studies among others in showing how each can be that which leads to something new and different in the life of an individual or committed group. Churches looking to help their communities thrive or simply to encourage a greater appreciation of reading among their membership would find this an inspirational point of beginning.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the author. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)