Reading and the Moral Imagination

by John Paul Lechner

Few people doubt the value of reading, but perhaps no one doubts the importance of eating. And today, a great number of people pay close attention to what they eat: balancing the proper amount of carbs and proteins, and valuing local organic products over processed commercial GMOs. In our country, we are threatened more by obesity than by starvation, and McDonalds takes great pains to make sure we are informed of our calorie intake as we choose our next meal. However, the familiar phrase you are what you eat applies just as strongly to reading: you are what you read. But how much thought goes into what we read, or what our boys read? Rather, parents and schools seem so desperate just to get boys to read anything, that they’ll go to any length, even dumbing down books and pandering to crass humor.  Going to the library, one might easily find trash bound under a bookcover, such as that titled Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But should we not consider more carefully what we read and what our sons read? Just as the food we eat forms a part of our bodies, what we read forms what we might call our moral imagination.

By moral imagination, I refer to how we view ourselves and the reality around us. The moral imagination might be influenced by many factors, such as family, school, social media, or even video games. Our imagination will be shaped by what we feed it, and so it is important to think of the diet we provide it. Even something as small as video games has its own impact. In a video game, if the player dies, he can easily “start over” and begin again as if nothing had happened. But real life isn’t a video game: if I chop off my hand, I can’t restart and have my hand just as perfectly as before. In real life, consequences follow our actions. While this is but one aspect of video games, and not necessarily resulting in lost appendages, we should examine how video games, among other things, shape the life of our boys, particularly when some boys might play video games for hours on end. Might we be doing a disservice to our boys giving them video games instead of books?

But while reading is a very powerful way to form the imagination, we can’t just throw our boys any old book. Just as we take care to eat healthy food, we should be sure to read healthy literature. What should we read, and how might we shape a healthy moral imagination? Perhaps the best image to guide us is that of an adventure. Adventure comes from the Old French aventure, meaning “chance” or “accident”. Any adventure involves risks, real dangers that a hero must tackle to achieve some good end, perhaps slaying an evil dragon to save a beautiful princess or an enchanted kingdom. Adventures often happen in some fantasy fairyland, with its own rules and laws that may strike us as strange. G.K. Chesterton himself, in his unique style, compares life to an adventure in his Heretics,

The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.

But is this really the best image of a healthy imagination? Doesn’t this talk of adventure seem closer to madness than reality? Do we want our boys to end up crazed as Don Quixote from reading fantasies and adventures?  

Reflecting upon Chesterton’s words above reveals the paradox. In reading fairy tales and adventures, we see a world very different from our own, a world that we the reader must accept, with all its “strange laws” not determined or even fully understood by us. We are struck by the strangeness of the story’s foreign world, and looking back upon our familiar world, we might see with an enlightened vision and appreciation. Without reading, we starve our imagination. Staying within reality’s routine normality, our vision is dulled so that we become blind to that reality which we take for granted. Reading good literature can help us see our world in brighter color and depth. Take also the characters of an adventure. We can see aspects of ourselves reflected in the various characters, learning from their choices and how those choices affect themselves and others. But if, through lack of reading, we limit ourselves to only our own experiences, we lack the matter and space to reflect. We are left without a guide, alone in our journey through life. Reading good literature, including fairy tales, can help us form our moral imagination, seeing our life as an adventure. Such an attitude towards life is both realistic and healthy, much better than other attitudes we might take up given different nutrition.  

So it is good for us to read, and to get our boys to read. But how do we make this happen? First, we have to remove obstacles to reading. One of the biggest obstacles to boys reading is the screen. Books cannot compete with moving images. It is so much easier for us to sit passively behind a screen than to exert our mind actively upon words frozen in a page. It’s also a lot easier for us to give the boys screens: screens almost make a sort of pacifier for our boys. Are the boys rambunctious or bored when you need to take care of something? Hand them a movie or video game, and they’ll be quiet for hours. It’s too easy – and highly addictive. So what is the solution? Unplug. “But wait!” one might cry, “One does not simply unplug the computer.” Correct: it is wise to provide some alternatives, such as reading, hiking, cooking, sports, family responsibilities, etc. But if we want our boys to read, we have to eliminate the obvious obstacle, the screen.

After having locked up or tossed out all the video games – and only after – we can think of how to encourage our boys to read. First, we should have a collection of great books accessible to our boys. If you’re wondering what books to stock at home, you might try thinking of your own favorites, both as a child and more recently. It’s fine to have some books that might challenge our boys, that they might attempt now but then come back to appreciate later in life. You might also investigate great book collections from a person or school whose judgment you trust, eg. Sparhawk Recommended Reading. Second, we have to practice what we preach: we have to read. Boys often learn by imitation, and if they don’t see us reading, we may be undermining our own efforts to bring them to read. Reading is simply something we have to make time for, perhaps by listening to books as we travel. As we read, we can talk with our boys about what everyone is reading, and we can also get a sense of what may be best suited for our boy at this particular moment in his life. One last suggestion would be to read aloud to our children, even the older ones: this one activity nourishes not only the moral imagination, but several other aspects of family life as well. Whatever the situation we may find ourselves, now is a very good moment to consider how we are nourishing the moral imagination of our boys through reading.

John Paul Lechner is the Director of Academics and Formation at Sparhawk Academy.