In the delightful movie Shadowlands, one of C. S. Lewis’s students says to him, “We read to know we’re not alone.” This sentiment resonates with me. Books and reading are a critical part of my life. This might sound strange, but when I walk by my libraries (totaling a couple thousand or so) both at home and in the RTB office I feel as if they’re calling me. In fact, I think I know some of my favorite authors—even though I’ve never met them in person.
C. S. Lewis and Mortimer J. Adler wrote about the importance of reading and learning in general. Both men were public intellectuals and they were arguably two of the best-read individuals of the twentieth century. And they both became committed Christians later in life.
Reading stories about Lewis’s and Adler’s love of books and hearing their recorded lectures instills in me a wish that these two men had been my college professors. How grand it would have been to know these men personally and to have had access to their minds—storehouses of knowledge and wisdom. To receive personal instruction from them would have been a great honor and privilege. I envy those who studied under them.
Yet it struck me recently that I had the second best thing. I’ve come to know Lewis and Adler through reading their many writings. If the writing of books tends to crystalize the author’s thinking then I—along with many others—have been the grateful beneficiary of their significant wisdom. Through their works, Lewis and Adler have been my teachers once removed.
Sure, I wish I could have known them personally and enjoyed a good meal with them while discussing philosophical and theological issues. Or have joined them at a noisy pub for a drink or a good smoke while listening to their undoubtedly fascinating and humorous stories. Yet given that the three of us share the same historic Christian faith, then I have these things to look forward to in the life of the world to come.
Since gratitude is an important feature of living a good life then today I give thanks for my brilliant teachers once removed. Though being dead they still speak. That will have to be it for now because I think I hear some familiar voices calling me.
What about you? Which authors speak most to you through their works?
Resources: A good place to begin learning about Adler’s view on reading is the amazing book that he coauthored with Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book. As for Lewis’s view on the importance of reading, see his introduction to St. Athanasius’s classic book On the Incarnation. My own book A World of Difference, in which I quote from both Adler and Lewis, discusses the importance of the life of the mind within the context of the Christian worldview.