Saturday, November 24, 2007

Slice From An Autobiography That Will Never Be Written or The Year of Reading Dangerously

In March of 1976, I started filling an old blank, lined black book with vocabulary entries. The place was Greeley, Colorado, and I was attending The University of Northern Colorado (for one and only one year, thank goodness). Entering college as an abject ignoramus (my high school GPA was 2.4, and that was because of grade inflation), I found that my textbooks were replete with words I did not know (including not a few sesquipedalians).

I still have this book, and I sometimes show it to my students, whom I always encourage to expand their vocabularies in order to expand their understanding of reality. The book sports 132 pages of entries, starting with "autonomy" and ending (in 1994) with "demotic." Yes, I continue to learn new words (I picked up "gimcrack" from Shelby Steele's stellar, White Guilt), but now write the definitions in the books where I find them. I still often use the dictionary my mother gave me when I went off to college in 1975: The American Heritage. We are old friends.

I have known the general whereabouts of the vocabulary book since 1976, but I only recently found something else within its musty and chaffed covers--a list of books I read in 1981. This was entered near the very back of the book, which I had not entirely filled with new vocabulary conquests. During 1981, I worked in a campus ministry in Eugene, Oregon, called The McKenzie Study Center. I was twenty-four years old, with a Bachelor's degree in philosophy from The University of Oregon (the mail order school). My duties included teaching a class each quarter at the University as part of a special program that let community people teach classes for credit. I also did some evangelism and discipleship. But mostly I read as much as I could on a plethora of topics, all related to my class, "The Twilight of Western Thought: A Christian Response" (Sociology 400). I made about $400 a month, which was spent on rent, food, and books, books, and more books.

What an idyllic life it was. I was single, had very few responsibilities, very few needs, and a wealth of time for study and reflection. My black book records that I read 116 books that year. I cannot make out a few of the titles, but the topics included comparative religion (R.C. Zaehner), the New Age movement (I was researching my first book, Unmasking the New Age), philosophy (mostly Existentialism, Camus, Sartre and William Barrett), theology (Carl Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority), apologetics (Van Til, Schaeffer), ethics, economics, education, art, church history, sociology, and more.

Such a life of classical leisure is far beyond me today, although I have far more time to read than most humans; moreover, few people have probably ever experienced this amount of time for protracted reading. I know, however, that Joseph Campbell (the Jungian purveyor of mythical distortions of Christianity and much else) spent some similar years as a young man. What different trajectories we took. Looking back, I realize that this year of reading dangerously (and the whole period from 1979-84) was formative and foundational for me intellectually. I was an autodidact with a vengeance, untutored by any mentor, unanchored to any controlling ideology (beyond the Christian worldview), and consumed by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge (which I still possess). I had not yet begun to write very much--except in 1983-4 when I wrote Unmasking the New Age--so most of my time was buried in books.

I remember that at some time between 1979-81, the Director of the ministry came into my bedroom/study, where I was hunched over my desk, and said, "You need to get out there and spend time with people!" Well, I did some of that, but books took up most of the time. And I'm thankful that they did. Thanks, Wes, for letting me continue to read.



Paul D. Adams said...

"In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself . . .
Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself;
and am never more myself than when I do."
-- C. S. Lewis

While intereacting with others indeed does shape our identity, it by no means should solely define it. Our culture should give serious attention to knowledge shaping who we are and will be become, rather than merely being defined by others. Ergo....READING IS QUINTESSENTIAL TO OUR IDENTITY!

D. A. Armstrong said...

I made it a goal to read 1 book a week last year. I was working 3/4 at a church and doing odd jobs on the side. I read 48 last year. Topics were, theology, mormonism, biblical studies, philosophy, education and other topics. I think more Christians ought to read.

During my years in Bible college, I used to have people tell me I needed to go out and minister to people, not be a hermit in the library. I'm probably still in my formative years of learning, though perhaps on the tail end of it.

I wish I had more time to read this year, but my school studies haven't always allowed for it. I've been itching to reread Aristotle's Metaphysics as well as a few others. But school has me reading a lot of other things.

Anonymous said...

d.a. armstrong,

I can empathize with your last paragraph. My undergraduate reading is often an enormous bane...there simply aren't enough hours in the day to read extracurricular works! I am entertaining the idea of ceasing to sleep and just drinking mass amounts of coffee in order to read books of substance and great intellectual significance. This strategy may, however, hinder actual processing of said books.

D. A. Armstrong said...

My undergrad reading was fairly light compared to my grad reading. So far my shortest read was probably 300+ pages out of the Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics. I'm not sure whether reading most sections out of History of Philosophy Volumes 1, 2 and 3 by Copleston or the 600 pages that are photocopied chapters of various philosophical books. However, I guess by the time I get done, I can say that I've read something from every great philosopher in the modern and contemporary era. I'm not sure how many others can, er I mean want, to say that.

BJS said...

HEY-- why the hit on Northern Colorado! Aside from the smelll, it's a great place to learn, live, and grow.

Tom said...

As someone who was in Doug's "Twilight" course the first time he taught it (I believe--it was team taught with Karsten Something-or-Other), I was a beneficiary of Doug's studiousness. And I might well have never decided to go into philosophy without his influence then. So thanks Doug!

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Thanks. It was the second year I taught it, I believe. Karsten Musaeus and I co-taught it for one year. Then I taught it by myself the second year.

Dave said...

You've raised a couple of thoughts for me: first, I think that literacy should be far more emphasized than mathematics in our culture, and prioritized by parents above video games, television, and film. Not that any of these three mediums are inherently wrong...I think they are all beautiful mediums... but we've raised an illiterate generation in order to appreciate them. Too much of a good thing is still bad.

Secondly, I wrestle with weighing the burning need to read more and write more with the Biblical concept of community. I would much rather be alone with words and with story than dealing with all of these annoying people that surround me.

Unfortunately, one must experience life in order to write about it.

Oh well. Such is my lot.

Clint K. said...

Great post. It made me realize how much I am cluttering my mind up with Wikipedia articles and videos on YouTube. I would prefer to read more so why do I snack and snack on these articles until I am fat on empty calories? I have more time to read now and it is foolish of me to not seize the opportunity. Also, I like the idea of expanding one's vocabulary with the simplicity of notepad.

Unknown said...

"White Guilt" by Steele dear brother. The only time I shall ever correct one of my most respected professors.