There’s a pace to reading that corresponds to walking, and probably to thought itself; the followers of Aristotle are called the “peripatetics,” a word that means “those who walk to and fro”…

At the end of this week, the fifty-two new freshmen at Wyoming Catholic College descend from the mountains where they have spent the last three weeks, and they begin a very different kind of activity: reading—lots of reading. By Monday night, stocked with the new set of books they acquired over the weekend, they will be deep into their first assignments for their classes, and that great adventure of hiking day after day, sometimes yard by rocky yard, over the mountain terrain of the Winds and the Tetons will begin to take on the aspect of heroic memory that it will retain for the rest of their lives.

But, on second thought, perhaps reading is not such a different activity—or good reading anyway. There’s a pace to reading that corresponds to walking, and probably to thought itself; the followers of Aristotle are called the “peripatetics,” a word that means “those who walk to and fro”—a hint if I ever saw one. If I can, I get in a good walk early on these cool late-summer mornings in the valley outside Lander where we live, and this morning I was struck again by the obvious difference between what I see at a walker’s pace and what I see driving. This morning on the way out I heard the cry, high up, of some raptor, and then, a moment later, a huge red-tailed hawk came into sight flying westward perhaps a hundred yards above me and then banked to ride the winds back toward sunrise along the red rock cliffs. Back on the ground, I noticed the contrast between the bristly scrub-brush stiffness of the mown grass along the right-of-way and the easy, limber motion of the same grasses uncut a yard away. I saw a mule deer twenty yards off the road, intent on me as I passed; up near the cattle guard where I turn, a dead prairie dog lay beheaded by a car on the road, and a few yards back toward home, a live rabbit sat under a sagebrush holding very still.

Driving, I would have seen the contours of the valley and the foothills, but I would have missed all of these details. The same thing, I suggest, applies to a “walker’s pace” in the act of reading. In all the recent discussions of this ancient activity, the focus seems to be on whether the general capacity for close attention to texts has faded away in our digital age. Has the onslaught of internet superficiality and ubiquitous new devices made the act of mentally walking into language impossible? Of course not. But I was struck earlier this week by a review of the new book by a neuroscientist named Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Dr. Wolf did an experiment on herself. She picked up a novel that she had greatly admired in her youth, Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi, and found that she could hardly read it. She found the narrative action “intolerably slow” and suspected that she had lost the “cognitive patience” she once had. The book’s reviewer, Laura Miller, knew what Dr. Wolf meant, reporting that in her twenties she herself had “devoured fat Henry James novels for fun”—an act she could hardly imagine now.

I know exactly what they mean. In fact, by pure coincidence, I also tried to reread Magister Ludi a year or two ago, and I could not fathom what its original spell had been. Yet this was a book that moved me deeply in my sophomore year of college. The book had not changed: I had changed. With some books that I read in my impressionable early years, the change in me is surely felicitous, since now I have more depth and experience in the whole range of Western thought, but there is also a loss—and maybe “cognitive patience” is the right term. Like most of us, I’m used to driving instead of walking, and what is usually offered up for our “reading” is like the signage on the interstate: it’s calculated for the attention of someone traveling at seventy or eighty mph, not for someone with time to let distance open up into the riches of detail.

So what does it mean to walk into language? Poetry gives us the best training, and I’m reminded, with gratitude, of an afternoon I spent last month with Dana Gioia, former head of the National Endowment for the Arts and current poet laureate of California. We sat in the beautiful studio of his home on a mountain above the Sonoma Valley, and for two hours, he pulled out from his bookshelves some of his favorite poets (Richard Wilbur, Robinson Jeffers, A.D. Hope) and read me poems, usually with his hand in the air like the conductor of an orchestra, indicating line by line the sounds and accents and emphases that the language deserved.

He reminded me in this generous way of what real reading should be. My hope is that our freshmen will bring their intense experience of the heights of the backcountry—the attention it required, the demands that it made—into their reading of the Great Books. In a passage that Fr. James Schall quotes in his book Another Sort of Learning, the political philosopher Leo Strauss writes that there are very few great minds. “It is a piece of good luck if there is a single one alive in one’s time. For all practical purposes, pupils … have access to the greatest minds only through the great books.” These greatest minds—Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle—arise as a higher range before the freshman now. May these students bring the pace of real attention fully into their ascent of what is greatest in our tradition, so that they may find anew what has always given us purpose and direction.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (August 2018).

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