Online Conversation | Reading in Community with Matthew Lee Anderson and Anika Prather
Christians have been called a “people of the book,” yet how often do we spend time gathering together to read deeply? In a fast-paced technological world, taking time to read deeply and well, let alone alongside others, can feel like a daunting task. And while reading alone has extraordinary value (and, research shows, is intriguingly linked with spending more time with others), reading in community is a uniquely formative endeavor that shapes how we think, what we value, and our ability to have genuine and meaningful dialogue and relationship with others.
On Friday, June 10th at 1:30pm The Trinity Forum hosted an Online Conversation with Matthew Lee Anderson and Anika Prather to explore the importance of reading together and the impact that such small but meaningful interactions can have on ourselves, our communities, and our civic structures.
This event is held in partnership with Baylor in DC.
This event was made possible through the support of:
Online Conversation | Anderson + Prather | June 10, 2022
Cherie Harder: Let me add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on “Reading in Community” with Matthew Lee Anderson and Anika Prather. I’d like to recognize and thank Baylor University and particularly the Baylor Honors College and Baylor in Washington for co-hosting today’s Online Conversation with us. And to add my own thanks to our sponsors, Kevin and Chris Cherry and David and Lindsey Hanes, for their generous support, as well as the sustained support of the Fetzer Institute for this series.
We’re delighted that so many of you are joining us today. I know we have around 1,200 people registered from I think it’s at least 18 different countries that we know of, ranging from Australia and Austria to Venezuela and Uganda. So a particular welcome to all of you who are first-time guests or international guests. Let us know where you’re coming from and you can put that in the chat feature. It’s always fun for us to get to see where people are tuning in from and a welcome from all of us across the miles and time zones.
If you are one of those people joining us for the very first time or are new to the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life in the context of faith and come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope this program will be a small taste of that for you today.
Our topic today might seem a bit surprising or even counterintuitive. We tend to think of reading often as a solitary act. It’s one that might beckon us to new worlds of imagination or partake in an ongoing conversation with authors from different lands or time. But particularly as adults, we tend to assume that that journey is a solo one. But there’s actually a great deal of evidence to suggest that reading in community offers possibilities, benefits, and joys even beyond those of reading in solitude, including enhanced comprehension, increased memory, greater enjoyment, and a much deeper sense of relationship and belonging. And since thinking itself is a deeply relational act, reading timeless works of great literature with others both broadens and deepens our own capacity to understand, interpret, and appreciate both a text’s content and characters and the content of our own character, as well as that of our neighbor. And for those of us who worship the Word, it invites us into new ways of knowing and loving our neighbor. It’s an intriguing and exciting summons.
And I’m so pleased to get to introduce our guests today, two scholars and educators who have, in their very different ways, pioneered wonderfully visionary and creative approaches to reading in and for community. Matthew Lee Anderson is a professor of ethics and theology at Baylor University’s Institute for the Studies of Religion and the associate director of Baylor in Washington, as well as an Associate Fellow at the McDonnell Center for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Oxford University. He’s the founder of the web magazine Mere Orthodoxy, the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith and The End of Our Exploring, and has written widely for publications including The Washington Post, Christianity Today, and many others. But he is also the founder and creator of 100 Days of Dante, the world’s largest online reading group for The Divine Comedy, presented by Baylor University Honors College with support from at least five other universities, which has hosted a communal reading group of many thousands that met for 100 days starting this fall and commencing with Easter.
Joining him is Dr. Anika Prather. Dr. Prather is an educator who served as a teacher, teachers’ supervisor, director of education, and head of school. She currently teaches classics at Howard University and is the founder of the Living Water School, a very unique classical school for independent learners. She’s earned numerous graduate degrees in education, but maintains a research and practice focus on building literacy with African American students through engagement with the books of the canon, which she articulates beautifully in her recently published work, Living in the Constellation of the Canon: The Lived Experiences of African American Students Reading Great Books Literature.
Matt and Anika, welcome.
Anika Prather: Thank you so much. I’m so excited.
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you both here. So, Matt, I want to start with you. What led you to start the world’s largest Dante reading group? Of all of one’s life ambitions, this is an unusual one. And what did you hope to accomplish by facilitating a large communal reading of this classic rather than just encouraging people to read it on their own?
Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, it was a crime of opportunity. It’s certainly not the sort of thing that I ever imagined I would do when I was growing up. And in fact, you know, Dante is a new love for me. I’m a Shakespeare guy. If I had to choose one, it would have been Shakespeare. But I was teaching in the Honors College here at Baylor, and I taught with undergraduates all the way through The Divine Comedy, and it was such a phenomenal experience with my students. They resonated with the story in such a deep and profound way. Dante starts off the journey; he’s lost in a dark wood. Virgil comes along, helps him get unlost, but he’s got to go down through hell in order to sort of encounter all the sins along the way and become the sort of person who’s capable of then climbing Mount Purgatory and then ascending to see the face of God. It’s this extraordinary journey that he goes on. And students really resonated with it. And I thought that there was an opportunity to do something that would help others engage with the story like my students experienced it. It just so happened that as I was thinking about this, I saw a tweet in which Pope Francis encouraged people to read The Divine Comedy because it was the 750th anniversary of Dante’s death. And so it seemed like the right time to put together this sort of reading group.
So we compiled 100 videos from teachers from across the country and released them three times a week between September and Easter of this year and had some 15,000 people sign up to participate in this. And of course, not everyone finished. It’s a hard journey. We had probably about 3,000 people make it with us to the end, but it was just a phenomenal experience for people who did it. And yeah, it was a terrific resource that we had a great time putting together.
Cherie Harder: It sounds like a lot of fun. Anika, I want to ask you, you are a real pioneer in the realm of basically sort of research on as well as the practice of the lived experience of African American students in reading Great Books literature. And I’m sure you get this all the time, but there are many people who think, well, not only is this literature clearly not representative of the students reading it, but inaccessible, potentially even oppressive. So I’d love to hear from you why you lead your students through Great Books and how do they respond by reading these books with each other.
Anika Prather: The most important thing for me to do to be successful at that was to first show that it’s relevant. And the easiest way for me to do that was to first see that it was relevant throughout Black history. It is an integral part of Black history. And I started this journey, though, not realizing that. I started this journey, I had graduated from St. Johns College. I was working in my parents’ classical school. None of us really understood that it was a part of Black history. But we recognize that—and I think my parents appreciated it because they read the canon when they were growing up in segregated schools, and so they had an appreciation for [it] that was just kind of natural. “You just need to read this book.” They didn’t really have a philosophy behind it, but “You’re going to read Shakespeare,” “You’re going to read C.S. Lewis.” And it was really, “But why, Mommy?” “You’re just going to read it.” And so it was not a philosophy. So they created a school recognizing what this literature did for them, but not being able to really maybe articulate the theory or the philosophy behind why this is important.
I think after my second year at St. John’s, and my second year of teaching the Great Books class, where I would often use the arts to help the students engage, I just accidentally found an essay by Dubois called “Of the Training of Black Men.” And at the end of the essay—this is the one where he says, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” you know. And he says, “Arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, we glide in gilded halls.” And then he says something like, you know, “and they all come graciously with no scorn or condescension.” And when I read that one line—”they all come graciously with no scorn or condescension”—a lot of times people read that passage and they think he’s talking about, “Oh, you know, I can read the canon. I’m just as smart or smarter than you.” But that’s not what he’s talking about. He’s saying, “Do you not want us to feel this unity where we can all dance together in this ballroom because we’re engaged with these thinkers of the past?” For some reason, finding that essay made me think there’s more like him somewhere. It just kind of, I would say, it was the Lord, you know. He made me feel that by reading that passage—and that made me look at the rest of the essays in Souls of Black Folk. And he is making a case throughout that book that this is the best education for Black people. That wasn’t just that one essay.
And I found a whole book of the education, I think The Education of Black People, another collection of his education essays where he’s saying the same thing. And I’m thinking, if he’s going through all of this, to say “this is important, our people need to read this,” there’s something else missing. So I went on kind of like this Indiana Jones journey to discover. I mean, I literally ended up going through an abandoned school that was founded by Annie Helen Burroughs. Like, it was abandoned. And I found her class list—Annie Helen Burroughs’ class list—and one of the classes her students had to take was Latin.
So there’s this journey I discovered, and then I discovered Frederick Douglass and it just—Martin Luther King. And then before long it was like, Whoa, all of my ancestors are reading this stuff. And many of them were activists. They weren’t oppressed, they weren’t allowing themselves to be oppressed. They were freedom fighters. They weren’t trying to assimilate, they were surviving. But they definitely used it to feed their activism. And so once I uncovered that, I began to teach it that way to my students. And that is what revolutionized my teaching. It empowered them to know Martin Luther King read this. Oh, Black Panthers read this. You know, all types of Black activists read these works and found liberation and fire to fight the good fight. And so they then kind of internalized that sense of purpose and and began to value it, which also allowed them to then value it just simply because. But I had to start with their history first. Yeah.
Cherie Harder: Both of you are educators, and so I’d like to ask both of you, we’ll start with you, Matt: You chose difficult works, challenging works, but you also are doing this with others in community where this is not just a solo assignment. People are kind of reading collectively. What changes educationally with the experience of reading in community rather than reading as a solitary act?
Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, I think a lot changes. In The City of God, Augustine talks about the way in which commonwealths are formed, and one way in which a commonwealth of people is formed is through a common object of love, when a group of people have something that they love, that they share. And what happens when you gather around a text is you have something in common, and it doesn’t matter what other differences are in the room, like the text is there, and it’s a meeting ground for everyone’s different perspectives. And as you talk together, your love for the text is intensified by other people’s participation in it, by the way, in which they read it, by the differences that you have, by the questions that they bring to the table that you didn’t see. Together, you intensify your love.
In Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis talks about praise and how praise is the consummation of what you appreciate. Like if you go see a good movie, you feel this impulse to go tell someone about it. And I think that’s right. But I think he could go a step further and say what magnifies the delight even more is when you praise something and the person that you praise it to understands your praise and deepens it and returns it back to you. And when you have a community who reads a text, who sees something in it, loves it together, like your praise and your delight and your enjoyment is magnified. It just grows and grows. So I think that’s one of the central things that happens.
Just very briefly, I think one of the other things that happens is you just get like endurance, like you get a reason to keep going through hard text. So many people who participated in 100 Days of Dante said that the reason they did it was because they had always wanted to read this text, but it was hard, it was foreign. They didn’t know where to start. And there’s something about reading it with other people that supplies just a reason to keep going, because you might not experience something in the text, but you know you’ve got a book club that you’ve got to go to on Thursday night and you’ve got to say something. And if not, it’s going to be a very dull book club. And so that sort of social pressure actually helps people gain the kind of endurance that they need to to read things that are difficult that they wouldn’t necessarily read otherwise.
Cherie Harder: That’s great.
Anika Prather: Can I connect to what he’s just saying when he talked about that common ground? There’s a piece that I’m trying to finish writing that hopefully will get published someplace. And it started with me watching a cartoon with my son. And the cartoon talked about the jungle and how there’s kind of like this water truce where the animals of the jungle, the predator can’t go after the prey while they’re drinking at the watering hole. That the watering hole is a neutral ground of peace when they’re there and it’s safe—which is a myth. It doesn’t really work like that. A lion is going to eat you at the watering hole. But just kind of when I watched it, my husband knew that I was going to go someplace with that. He was like, “You’re going to connect that to what you’re doing, aren’t you?” I said, “You’re darn tootin.” And I found out that that concept, though, was from Rudyard Kipling’s second Jungle Book. There’s this whole listing of the laws of the jungle, and part of those laws is this water truce, because every living creature has to have water. And if the prey doesn’t drink water, then they die off and the predator has no food. So there’s this mutual respect that we all need water to survive.
And so for some reason, it made me think of the canon because all of our ancestors have read the works of the canon. And there’s a pattern that I see in many of the African American or Black activists, authors, influencers, history makers. One thing I see that’s very common—Martin Luther King would be a prime example, I’d say; Frederick Douglass, too—is when they read it, they didn’t read it to say, “I’m smarter than you and I’m better than you, and I’m separating myself from you, and I don’t need you.” Many of them read it and wanted to build a bridge to those who used to oppress them or at one time oppressed them. There was this activism that involved a creation of unity. So the one who created “I Have a Dream” says the canon influenced the work of the civil rights movement. Frederick Douglass did not run off to Canada and live happily ever after. He remains here in the United States and partners with people who do not look like him, who also were reading the canon, to fight this fight of not just ending slavery and oppression, but also bringing healing and unity among the races.
So you see this common pattern—I only listed two. So you see that common. And so that connects me to this concept of the water truce, this canon being a space of mutual refreshing of everybody, no matter what shade of skin you have, and then also a place of common ground, as you said, Matthew, where we all can gather around these stories that tell the human story. And there’s a quote by James Baldwin that really connects with what I’m saying, that he says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world. But then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.” And the canon has served that for humanity throughout the centuries.
Cherie Harder: That’s beautiful. So I’m curious, I’d like to ask both of you this as well. You’re both educators, and part of your job at different levels are teaching your students to read well. And, of course, reading well is a skill that has to be developed. And it’s quite different from the way we read so much of the material we come across in any given day where we’re doing a quick scan, a sort of strip-mining of data from a text. Reading well involves kind of deep immersion and interrogation of the text and the like. And I’m curious what it means to read well in community. Do any of the skills or the approaches change? And, Matt, maybe you can start us off there.
Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I’ve got a friend, Tom Ward, who talks about reading well as cracking your head on a book, like you spend so much of your time—
Cherie Harder: [Laughs.] Seems violent.
Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, it’s a little violent, but I love it because you spend so much of your time trying to get this text into your head. And your head is a kind of thick thing sometimes, and you’ve got to crack your head on it, like it’s got to sort of make its way into you. And that just takes time. One of the things that I would do when I was an undergraduate in a discussion class, I would multitask essentially. I would spend time listening to other people’s comments about the text while also looking through the text concurrently to remind myself of what the text said. Because the fact of the text being a common ground where we’re meeting together, that only works if we’re willing to return to the source, you know, to go back to the water, to use Anika’s image, over and over and over again. And so I think that what reading well looks like in community is the willingness to constantly return to that source and to bring it forward as a gift and an offering to the rest of the conversation. To say, “Here is in the text where I saw this thing, let us now read it together.” And so when I teach undergraduates, they get so tired of me saying over and over “And where precisely in the text, did you see that?” Because, you know, they’ll make these claims about the text, and they might be right. But the only way in which we’re going to know whether they’re right is if they will take us to the thing we have in common and show it to us. And so they’ve got to know the text well. They’ve got to be immersed in it, but they’ve got to use the text in such a way that it is a common property for the community. So I think that’s one of the biggest things that changes.
Anika Prather: I feel like Aristotle was a good example for me. And I came to like Aristotle after hating Aristotle at St. John’s College. But what made me switch from hating him is somehow Parts of Animals really allowed me to see his process of inquiry and just constantly asking questions, the questions almost being a shovel that’s digging you down deep over and over. So it goes beyond just the students. And I’m talking more about K-12, but I think this can apply to college students and beyond, adults. It’s more than just someone regurgitating back to you what they think the story or the text is about. But then you’re—beyond that—you’re encouraging them to, “Well, what questions do you have? What are some things you’re curious about from this text?” A lot of times—when I came to St. John’s College, I was very nervous because I was so used to being right. I have to make sure that if the tutor or the professor asks me a question that I give an answer that is more right than everyone else at the table. But I soon learned after probably a week at St. John’s that that’s not why we’re here. We’re all here, the tutor included, who may have read the book a million times, to learn, to ask questions, to be open to other ways of seeing what this text is talking about. And so I think reading well involves knowing how and not being afraid of asking questions.
Matthew Lee Anderson: Could I just—?
Anika Prather: Yeah, go ahead.
Matthew Lee Anderson: I love that so much. I think that’s exactly right. I mean, one of the things that I, when we did the 100 Days of Dante project, we provided questions for people about every Canto. And I was initially opposed to the idea. We did it because it’s a fairly common thing for a reading group to do and it gets a conversation started where you might struggle to start a conversation otherwise. But one of the things that I tell my students is it’s much more important to ask the questions that you have.
Anika Prather: Yes.
Matthew Lee Anderson: And to start there and to have the courage to start with questions that you might think are very obvious questions about the text, because often those are very difficult questions to answer. And there’s a sense when people get together that there is this pressure that you’ve got to ask the right questions about the text.
Anika Prather: Yes.
Matthew Lee Anderson: And that pressure is really counterproductive to a meaningful experience with the text. You really have to do what Anika did. Have the courage to ask the questions that you have, whatever they are. You can only start from where you are.
Anika Prather: Yeah. And not being afraid to say “I don’t understand. Can someone explain this line to me?” Or “I’m not sure I understand what this word means?” Or— And that opens up a beautiful discussion and a place of discovery too, when you are— It’s a humble thing, I think. You know, and there’s a quote from Socrates that he says something about “wisdom begins in wonder.” Like wisdom is not saying, “I know it all.” Wisdom is acknowledging I don’t know much, you know, and I want to learn and I’m going to learn through asking these questions and finding out what other people think as well.
Cherie Harder: So we’re at a time when reading in general is in decline. You know, there’s been a slight uptick in the last couple of years just because we’ve all been home with the pandemic. But in general, we are reading less. We’re comprehending what we read less. We’re reading great literature and the great books less. We’re reading in community less. And that decline is not all even. It’s steepest among boys and those most at risk. And would love to kind of hear from both of you and, Anika, maybe we can start with you, what the implications are. I wish I could say that there were different trends among Christians, but those of us who worship the Word are not necessarily reading the word much.
Anika Prather: Oh, woah, she said that. Yes.
Cherie Harder: What happens to us as a community, as a country, when we read less?
Anika Prather: I cringed when you said many of us who are— basically saying we’re students of the Word and not really reading the word, that’s very deep. You know, that we can go to church, we know a few Scriptures, but we think we understand the mind of Christ with how to relate in this world. And I think to your point, I think this is probably why I have become even more passionate about classical education, because I see schools—I hope this can answer your question, it’s kind of in a roundabout way—but this is why I see schools as factories for building readers or nonreaders. And so when you have a school that is so focused on just fill in the blank, pass a test, fill in the bubble so we can get these high test scores, and there is no thinking, no critical thinking, no questioning, no wondering, no inquiry-based learning, we continue to create people that honestly go out into the world no matter what—I’m saying this to all races; I’m not saying this at a particular race because all of us are guilty of this—of being people who don’t help the healing process with racial healing because we’re stuck in our caves. Right? We’re stuck thinking that these shadows that are dancing on the wall in the cave are what reality is, instead of actually picking up a primary source document, a primary source book that gives us understanding of what really is. Then taking that knowledge and trying to unchain the rest of those and bringing them out into the light.
But because we are not reading, we are not equipped to do that. And so we’re in this vicious cycle of no one listening to each other, constant judgment, constant—like if you say one thing, the person you’re talking to is interpreting it as meaning one thing, and they don’t even know what your heart is. The beauty about reading, though, reading well—and as teachers, whether you’re in K-12 or even university level, the importance of having these classes that teach people to read well is it begins to chisel away at that stone that blocks the cave door. It begins because you become face to face with someone most likely who has passed on and there’s sharing in this space. They have no idea who you are. They’re not writing against you specifically, necessarily. They’re just writing this human narrative that they’ve experienced. And you find yourself there being able to identify and then you, Cherie, may come with me and we’re reading the same thing and you’re like, “Well, this is what I’m thinking about this same book.” And before long you’re having this conversation between two people that may be politically disconnected, racially disconnected, gender disconnected, disconnected on so many different ways. But we find a connection in reading well this text. And so I think I really place a big responsibility on schools, educators, fixing where— I see us as activists and creating more activists who will shake things up a little bit by reading well and inviting the world to see things differently.
Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, I think that’s really right. I mean, one of the— There’s so much that can be said here, and it’s such a hard question, Cherie. A few years ago, I quit Netflix and I quit streaming television in my home. I just said, no more movies, no more television in my home because I wanted to read more. That was one of the main motivations. And one of the reasons why I did that was because it seemed to me that many of the shows that had once marked the cultural landscape in America were being forgotten very, very quickly. Lost is the last show that was on network television, not HBO or something like that, that probably had widespread cultural salience or cachet. And the students that I teach in college have no clue what Lost is. They don’t care at all. And no one in public discourse; it just doesn’t matter. It’s so ephemeral. And I think what happens when you lose a culture of reading is everything becomes ephemeral and everything is forgotten very, very quickly. And that has knock-on effects on our public discourse. It, I think, contributes to a certain sort of polarization.
Anika Prather: Yes.
Matthew Lee Anderson: But I think what I’m concerned about is it has really substantive effects on our souls, that there’s a kind of shallowness and a hollowing out of our persons that goes along with that. There’s a unique cognitive burden that comes with sitting down and reading a book that’s 350 pages. I love, like, serialized television. You know, I get it’s appeals, it’s very attractive. But reading— I’ve been spending the last three years reading Trollop like a maniac. You know, reading a 400-page Trollop novel is a different type of cognitive experience, and it’s the sort of cognitive experience that is demanding in a way in which screens, TVs, etc. are not demanding. And I think that there’s hopefully a kind of depth that comes with that and a sense of memory that you lose if you don’t have a culture of reading.
And it’s just extremely bad. It’s like, you know, my understanding is that at a private gathering, a CEO of a major Hollywood film studio, when asked what the future of Hollywood movies were answered, “Tik-Tok.”
Anika Prather: Wow.
Matthew Lee Anderson: And so to me, this is one of the gravest social crises that we have. And we need, more than anything, real practices of resistance, real communities who are going to read together to keep alive intellectual habits that will be lost otherwise and to resist the kind of social fragmentation and decay that come with the loss of those habits.
Anika Prather: And and—I’m sorry.
Cherie Harder: Go ahead.
Anika Prather: Oh, but and to that point that in our reading—we’re all fans of the canon—that we are reading the diverse voices who also read the canon. That’s another really key point. And we can even venture to say that when we go back to reading well, those who did use—because that does exist. There are people who have used the canon, the Bible, for oppressive means; that is there. But that was not what was necessarily in the text itself. Even assuming that—oh, I think I even heard a scholar say no one else besides these authors have really written anything that had really touched humanity, you know? And so it’s important to read Gandhi. It’s important to read MLK and James Baldwin and Dubois and Douglass. And honestly, Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s really important to read these people who have read the canon because they have something to say that does offer another worldview. Because if we don’t include these— This is the beauty of the canon. Everyone has read them!
Like just to be—this is kind of a light-hearted proof. I went to Hawaii a month ago for my anniversary. Right. So we’re touring the castle of the last Hawaiian king and queen or what have you. And they’re taking us on a tour. And I’m just thinking, “I’m just here in beautiful Hawaii. I’m just going to enjoy this little bit of Hawaiian history.” And they were reading the canon before they were colonized. The kings and queens would get, you know, they would travel to European countries and come back with these books and create libraries on the island because they wanted to engage, as people from other countries would come who may have read the same thing, and they were reading in community. They were reading because they wanted to share in this shared heritage, was what I like to call it. And so we need to be telling those stories and learning more about these other people that don’t all look the same, who also read the canon and wrote about those experiences and how they made connections to it. And that also is what allows the world to see that these books are not just for one group of people and invites more people to the conversation.
Cherie Harder: I want to get to questions. There’s so many of them piling up. But before we do, I want to ask just real briefly about those patterns of resistance that you mentioned, which is, there is, I think, a human yearning to read and to read with others and for the relationships that are found there. And there have been— Poetry used to be all out loud. It became academic. But there is a fresh expression—rap, in many—which is just spoken word. And I’m curious what each of you see as the future of communal reading. You both have pioneered sort of a fresh expression of that. What hope do you see for the future of reading in community? Matt, maybe we can start with you.
Matthew Lee Anderson: I see hope in Anika’s school and in the Baylor University Honors College and in the Trinity Forum, right? Like, in one sense, the future of reading is the same as the past of reading. It’s just more intense and more amplified and there’s more intentionality around it, because if you’re not intentional about it, all of the cultural pressures will eliminate reading from your life. And so organizations like the Trinity Forum that do book clubs and that provide guides and that help people read more are unbelievably essential for creating communities that do resist. So I— Cherie didn’t ask me to say that, but it’s genuinely the truth. And so those sort of organizations, schools like Anika’s, they need genuine support and resources to do more and good work to form people to read well. It’s absolutely imperative.
Anika Prather: And that’s, I think—you’re expressing my heart. I think that’s what my passion is, is encouraging those who wouldn’t normally have the invitation to read well to join the conversation. I’m not interested in a segregated experience. I am interested in inviting everyone to this space where all shades of people are reading well together. And I’m inviting it, you know, and I’m inviting everyone to that conversation. And it is imperative that we all do that. And I really feel— My journey also began when my husband was teasing me. I was telling my frustration about just the racial tension we see around us. And years ago I said, “You know, I think we could just solve all of this if we all just sat together and read a great book together.” And at the time he said, “Really, sweetie?” And he’s an engineer. He’s a reader, too. We both love to read together and he writes poetry and everything. But he just thought that didn’t make sense. He says, “Now I’m starting to kind of think you’re right.” Now, that was— you know, now he’s starting to feel that way. It seems very simple to me. You know, we’re doing so much of watching the news and trying to digest and articulate what every newscaster is saying and every social media post is saying where if we all just picked up a book of those who’ve lived this before and talked about our experiences and got to know each other from that place of grace, we could accomplish so much together, but it can only work if those who are doing it are diverse.
Cherie Harder: Well, the questions are piling up. And so I’m going to combine a couple of questions and I might toss these to you, Anika: a question from Leethy Barnett, who asks, “In reading together, is it helpful to have participants read aloud or is it better to have people read individually and then discuss it?” And kind of a similar sort of tactical question from Jenny Savage, who asked, “What resources would either of our presenters recommend for those who need help in learning to read the text closely and well?” So we’ll start with you, Anika, and then, Matt, maybe you can chime in.
Anika Prather: The first thing is that question can only be answered by first understanding what your students, no matter how old they are, their background is. So for me, I often—I have a mix—but I do have often, all the time, have students who don’t come from families that read or definitely not interested in reading these texts. And reading is not something that’s enjoyable. So I take advice from Charlotte Mason, who says, try not to do abridged versions or watered-down versions, but take their actual primary texts, but give it to them in bite sizes and let them read it that way. And so there are a couple of companies that I like for that. One of my favorite is Touchstones. You can find them, it’s called the Touchstones Discussion Project. And what he does—I think the founder of this, Howard, I can remember his last name—but he takes excerpts from pieces of the canon, works of the canon, and he’s made a whole curriculum around it. Anthologies for every age group from the little kids—little kids like kindergarten, first, second, third grade—all the way up to adult. These programs have been used in jails. They have been used in marginalized communities to introduce them to reading well, because it has a teacher’s guide and it has the anthology for each student. And you read this and you discuss it, which leads them to being able to read longer texts eventually. Instead of just plopping down Hobbes’ Leviathan in front of [them]—that will make them run for the hills. But if you start off with little bite sizes of the actual text and engage in— The Touchstones Discussion Project has the questions that you can ask and you can find it on the website, get class sets. It’s wonderful. Tell them Anika sent you. And that’s a great place to start.
I also like Junior Great Books, which comes out of the Great Books organization. I set them second because they’ve become very contemporary, so they’ve mixed in a lot of more contemporary works, and I am very much very traditional when it comes to the canon, which I know frustrates people sometimes. I’m sorry, but I just want to read the text that Martin Luther King read and Dubois read and all of my heroes read and Anna Julia Cooper. So I stick with that. But Great Books does have quite a few pieces of texts, but also some very well-written modern texts that would also foster a really great conversation as well, but in smaller bite size, a little bit longer than Touchstones, but definitely bite size.
And then finally graduating to “let’s read a book a quarter.” Let’s read a book a quarter, eventually getting to “let’s read a book a month.” And then that kind of gives you an example of how we’re weaning those who didn’t normally read this way or are not from environments that read this way, how to wean them in. And you will find that they do get drawn in. They love the intellectual conversation and it makes them feel really good about themselves. And then they all begin to see the world differently. They do feel like they’ve gained access to another perspective on the world around them. Yeah.
Cherie Harder: Matt, I want to ladle another question on top of that one, so maybe you can combine both. A question from Heather Zeiger, who asks, “Can you talk about the value of rereading and especially how you talk to your students about the value of rereading a book?”
Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, I love that question. I mean, the best resource for reading a text is rereading the text. You know, one of my teachers and friends, Fred Sanders, has said that it’s not so much what you should get out of a text that matters, but what you can get out of it. And the value of reading a text is your capacity for getting more out of the text increases. You know, if you get 15 percent out of a book like The Divine Comedy, that’s phenomenal. That’s 15 percent of extraordinarily thoughtful work. When you go back and reread it, you might get 25 percent, right, 30 percent, etc. And knowledge of a text is compounding.
So again, I mentioned I’m a Shakespeare guy. One thing that I do is, in terms of how I help people read through Shakespeare, is I encourage them to pick one text and to live with it for a long time.
Anika Prather: Yes.
Matthew Lee Anderson: And to read it and reread it and reread it and then to branch out. Because what you’ll discover is other plays generally have something to do with the one text that you know. So A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I think, is the perfect starting place for the knowledge of Shakespeare.
Anika Prather: Yes.
Matthew Lee Anderson: Knowing A Midsummer Night’s Dream inside and out allows people to then build on that as they go to other plays and hear themes and resonances. If you know one text really well, you can do that. And so that’s what rereading a text gives us. It gives us deep familiarity with one place and it allows for connections as we read other texts. And that increases our pleasure of both texts. But if you only have read one text very shallowly, it’s hard to get that sense of pleasure.
Anika Prather: Yeah.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So our next question—I’ll direct this to you, Anika—comes from David Chestnut, who asks, “Why is the decline in reading books greater among men? I lead a group, a book club for young physicians in training, and the women participants outnumber the men by 5 to 1.”
Anika Prather: I mean, I think we’re living— To back up a little bit: I used to think this issue with the reading was only relegated to the Black community. That was where my heart was and that’s where it will always be. And that’s where I saw the greatest concern. Black communities, schools located in black neighborhoods. I saw this. Then I started teaching at the college level at all types of universities: Black, white, HBCUs, non-HBCUs. And it was the same pervasive problem. Like if I was at a predominantly white institution, I would still get students, like, “I don’t like reading. Do I have to read all of that?” And I’m only giving a few pages. Why is that? I think, especially with men, I think overall society has just come to a place of “fill in the blank and let’s get the job.” Right. So when we think about men, as much as we may think we’re a more feminist society—and I’m not a feminist in the non-Christian sense—but as much as we think so, we’re still very much a patriarchal society where the man gets a good job, provides for his family, provides for his life, and makes a good life for himself. Right? And gets that job. I think all of society has gotten to a place, especially with men, where they’re just so focused on getting the job. And we see that especially with—there seems to be this competition, which often is a male-dominated field—with STEM. There’s this competition with STEM professions competing with humanities professions. Right. And so those professions—and I see this at the university level—those students who are in those STEM professions, often male, have not experienced the importance of reading and reading well. But they can work that science and that math problem and they can figure out that STEM issue. But just enjoying reading and reading well may not be happening. And somehow STEM fields can be presented as if the humanities are not important. So I think we have to get to a place where we recognize that they both are equally important and related. And that—and, again, I keep talking about St. John. They’re not paying me to talk about them at all. I don’t even know if they know I’m doing this program today. But St. John’s, there are so many STEM professionals that come out of St. John’s. And I’m an example. I hated math and science until I went to St. John’s and took the Math-Science segment, because you understand how math and science is a literature, is another kind of literacy as well, that also tells a story. So I think, I mean, that’s my guess, is this field of study that a lot of men go into. It seems to be related to that, but that’s a guess.
Cherie Harder: Matt, anything to add?
Matthew Lee Anderson: No, I think it’s a fascinating question and I obviously would like to do more work on it. I think what Anika says about the STEM just imbalances in that sort of realm is right. One of the reasons why I love Baylor is when I teach great text classes, I actually teach a lot of the engineering and science students, many of whom take literature classes as as a part of their engineering type of training. I mean, it’s, yeah. So it’s a very interesting question. Yeah. That I need to do a lot more work on.
Anika Prather: But to that point—and we saw this is why the Howard University students were fighting to save the classics department when it was going through that. And many of the students that they wrote letters, these were STEM students. They had come to see the value of classics even though they were STEM and they wrote these beautiful papers on how STEM connected with classics helped them understand humanity even better. But we’re in a society now that seems to be trying to disconnect that relationship.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Jasmine Ganter, and Jasmine asks, “Can you speak to the microcosm of family as a testing ground for reading in community?” Matt, I’ll toss that one to you.
Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the things that was most delightful to us who ran 100 Days of Dante, on our team, was seeing the Instagram posts of families reading Dante together. You know, obviously it’s not age-appropriate for everyone, but we had a lot of families with eight-, nine-, ten-year-olds who were working their way through The Divine Comedy with their parents and experiencing it. And it was delightful to see. I mean, there’s, again, it’s a kind of commonality, right? There’s a common experience that a text provides for a people. And a family who reads together has something in common that goes beyond their shared history as this particular people. Right? Like as we descended from our grandparents and our great-grandparents and all that’s very important. But what a book in common does is it actually expands the horizon beyond the family itself, and it introduces other types of experiences, other types of perspectives in a mediated way into the family. And it allows the family to incorporate those other types of experiences into its own common living and understanding of the world. And so I think reading together as a family is just massively important.
I also think reading Scripture together as a family is, you know—if you want commonality and if you want a deep understanding of the world that we live in, that we live in now, it’s impossible without Scripture, and without a deep understanding of the text. And, you know, doing that as a family and having that be a pervasive part of your culture, not so that everyone can sort of go around and judge each other by throwing the latest, the Bible verse of the day, at each other, which is not a healthy family experience. But you have a common language, a common discourse, and one which is saturated with the Word of God, I think is actually a really valuable thing to do as a family.
Anika Prather: Yes.
Cherie Harder: So I want to combine two questions for our final question, which I’ll ask both of you to tackle. Maybe we’ll start with you, Anika. Linda Bost asked, “Is reading well synonymous with reading closely?” And relatedly, an anonymous viewer: “Can you speak to how someone becomes a good reader? What are some of the habits that one needs to cultivate in order to read more and read well?”
Anika Prather: Ooh. Ok. That question has always been— it’s a hard question to answer because it can almost feel very nebulous and it doesn’t have a set formula. So I think—let me do the first part: reading closely and reading well. I think if you’re not asking questions, you can do one without the other. Like if you’re just reading closely, meaning you’re reading it to yourself and you’re seeing how it connects to your life and what it all means to you, I think you can do that reading closely. I think reading well, though, it involves the questioning and the engagement. I feel like that is a piece of it. And I think it does connect with what we were just talking about, reading with family, reading in community, reading the Word together. I grew up reading the Word with my mom and dad. We had to read Scripture. We came down for breakfast, and my mom, my dad, my brother, and I would sit around the table and talk about “What is this saying to me?” and ask questions. And we still do that today as a family. And so it’s that engagement in that sense of community. And so it’s not just connecting it to yourself and finding joy in it in yourself, kind of in a vacuum. But it is asking questions and talking to someone else about it and being able to articulate that with each other back and forth. And how that is taught—again, I know I sound like a broken record—is Socratic dialogue. I mean, the seminar model is just such an exercise of reading well and training children and students and adults how to read well, is engaging in that back-and-forth, that Socratic dialogue with each other.
Cherie Harder: Matt?
Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah, those are great questions. So I think I’m going to say no, that reading well doesn’t always require reading closely. It certainly does in some contexts. But there are other contexts where reading well just means reading. I read probably at least 20 minutes, sometimes it goes up to 40, every night before I go to bed. And, you know, I’m just lying in bed. I’ve got my little book light going and I’m reading away. And at that particular juncture of my life, I do not want to be thinking. Thinking is the thing that I’m opposed to. And so, like reading P.G. Wodehouse, the early 20th century British writer, is the perfect palate cleanser for a day because you can’t have a deep thought reading P.G. Wodehouse. It’s just, it’s against the grain of the whole experience. And so I’m reading it literally to turn my mind off and to have a few good laughs. And it’s been terrific for mental health purposes. I’ve given this out to many people who have struggled with mental health because it’s just a great reading experience. Now that’s a particular type of reading, and it’s not the sort of reading that I would commend in every context or in every way. And in fact, if all I ever did was read P.G. Wodehouse, I’d think there’d be something deficient in my soul. Which relates to how we can become a good reader, the second question.
I think one of the things that I want to do is lower the pressure or the sense of anxiety about being a good reader and say it’s more important to just become a reader first. And so blocking out distractions, carving out time for it, saying no to other forms of entertainment and taking up books as a part of one’s life is much more important as a first step to become a good reader. The other thing I’d say is that you really do have to balance your enjoyment and the challenges that you’re willing to take on. At some points, it’s important to read for enjoyment, like P.G. Wodehouse. At other points, you’ve got to challenge yourself because the only way in which you’re going to become a good reader is by reading things that you’re not good at reading when you start. It’s like music. The only way you’re going to become good at listening to music is by hearing some things and thinking, “I just didn’t understand that. Like, also didn’t appreciate it, didn’t enjoy it. I definitely didn’t understand it.” And those sorts of moments, if you can find yourself having that sort of experience, feeling a little lost with a text, that’s actually a great experience.
Anika Prather: Yes.
Matthew Lee Anderson: Because what that will do is it will prompt you to get yourself a little unlost. You might go look up someone who could help, to find a guide, to find a Virgil who will come and show you the way. And as you do that, you’ll grow in your appreciation for that particular text, and your capacity to be a good reader in general will go up. So I think having experiences where you feel lost and overwhelmed and where you don’t like text is really important. Like The Brothers Karamazov is a great test case for your reading. If you make it through Father Zosima’s really long, really, really long speech in the first third of the book, you will have a transformative experience. But the number of people who quit The Brothers Karamazov 200 pages in because they get bogged down in this super long speech on love is just enormous. So take that up as a as a good litmus test for a challenging book to get through.
Anika Prather: I think that’s one of my challenges with what you’re saying is getting students, young and old, to be that conscious. To me, that’s some good reading when you can acknowledge “I don’t understand this.” Because I have met students who, they’re given the reading assignment, they say, “I read it, I’m finished,” but they can’t tell you what they read. They can’t give you an opinion on it. They can’t even come up with a question. But somehow they’re thinking because they sat and looked at the words and decoded some words that they have read.
Matthew Lee Anderson: Yeah.
Anika Prather: I like what you said there, because even teaching students to be just conscious, you know, of what they’re reading and how they feel about it is also— People would be surprised that that’s some good reading to me because you’re being conscious as opposed to just drudging through it just to say you read it, or to say, “Oh, I read that book” and you don’t even know what it means. Because sometimes people are in reading competitions. They like saying, “I love to read, I’m reading this book.” And they sit there with their book and it’s all big and thick and they’re reading. And if you ask them questions or try to engage, they can’t. But the consciousness that happens in reading, whether it’s for entertainment or not, too, is just something I really want to try to inspire in students.
Matthew Lee Anderson: I definitely never did that. I never carried a big book around, but I wasn’t really reading. That was never me when I was in high school. Not at all.
Cherie Harder: Matt and Anika, this has been a real delight. And in just a moment, I want to give you a very short last word of a sentence or two. Before we do that, a few things just to let everyone know. First, right as we conclude there’ll be a survey form available. We really do appreciate your feedback. We read all of these, and as a special incentive for filling out that feedback form, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading of your choice. Have titles on many of the authors and topics mentioned here, including Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” of course, “The Divine Comedy,” and several others. So hope that you will avail yourself of that.
In addition, tomorrow for everyone who registered we’ll be sending around an email with a video link, which includes the edited video from today’s conversation, which we hope that you’ll share with others. There’ll be a bunch of readings and resources to help one go more deeply, and if one is a visual person, we also want to just say thanks to Bruce Van Patten, who will be coming up with an illustrated image kind of summarizing and synthesizing today’s conversation. So that will be posted on Facebook in the next few days.
For those of you who signed up to participate in our post–Online Conversation discussion groups, they will be happening almost immediately afterwards. Just exit as you normally would and log on to the link that you have been sent. I also want to make a really sort of special announcement. We’ve been talking about reading and the future of communal reading, and speaking of reading groups, just to let everyone know—this is perhaps more of a pre-announcement—of a new initiative that we at the Trinity Forum will be undertaking later this summer where we hope to launch reading groups and a reading group movement. And so if you are someone who is interested in being a reading group leader, we will have different resources. We will have a book club box that is essentially a do-it-yourself kit to get started. And want to make sure you know about the link in the chat feature if you are interested in that. I would love for you to sign up. It will be a couple more months before we’re fully announced, but we would love to be in touch with you about your interest in that and hope that you all watching will be part of this movement.
In addition, I wanted to invite everyone watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help make the mission of the Trinity Forum to promote, cultivate, and curate the best of Christian thought leadership possible. There are many benefits to becoming a member, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, our daily list of “What We’re Reading” recommendations, and as a special incentive for doing so with your membership or your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a custom collection of Readings based on the topics we’ve covered, which will include “The Divine Comedy,” excerpts from “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” as well as Dorothy Sayers’ “The Lost Tools of Learning.”
Our next Online Conversation will be on June 24th. We’re delighted to host Curt Thompson and Jeffrey Dudiak on “Neurobiology and the Soul,” so there will be a link in the chat feature. Hope you can join us for that. And finally, as promised, I want to give the last word to Matt and Anika.
Matthew Lee Anderson: Well, not to put too much of a downer on it, but I thought about one dangerous communal reading experience from The Divine Comedy in Canto five of The Inferno. Paolo and Francesca, in one of the most famous scenes, describe how they read together the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. And as the text says, “At the moment, when Lancelot kissed Guinevere, they looked at each other and they read no more that day,” which is a delightful moment in The Divine Comedy, but it’s also a caution about reading together and the types of explosive and dangerous things that texts can do to us and for us. And so I think it’s an extraordinary adventure, learning, but it’s also a dangerous one. And it’s one that needs to be undertaken with great caution and wisdom, and which is why we need organizations—again, not a forced plug—like the Trinity Forum, to help guide us through the world of reading and texts.
Anika Prather: And I want to close out, I was reading some of the Q&A and I want to make sure I’m clear on what I was saying about STEM. I wasn’t talking about students, but I was talking about, there is a mentality in academia, in the career field, that there is a separation between STEM and humanities that we are constantly battling. There are universities across the nation that are closing down humanities, lessening the requirement for humanities, in order to usher in more STEM programs, when I’m a firm believer that you need both. I use Dr. Fauci as a good example, who was a man of the humanities, but also was in STEM. And I think that little example is an example of a larger thing that everyone thinks it’s compartmentalized. What I love about the canon, which is basically the books rooted in ancient Greece and Rome—and those ancient texts and authors who have come out from that are the canon. They find themselves rooted back into those old ancient works. And then they write going forward. What I have found as we all are going through life and thinking, this is humanities, this is STEM; this is Black, this is white; this is Christian, this is not; this is good, this is bad; that the canon is our common ground. It is our shared heritage. No matter what color you are or what country you’re from, what you’re studying to be, what your career choice is, it is relevant to every human being. And the more of us who believe that shout it from the mountaintops, the more we can draw people into this water truce where we come together around the refreshing works of classics in the canon.
Cherie Harder: Anika, Matt, this has been a real delight. Thank you so much.
Matthew Lee Anderson: Thanks.
Anika Prather: Thank you.
Cherie Harder: And thank you to each of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.