Editor’s note: This commentary is part of an ongoing Deseret News series exploring ideas at the intersection of faith and thought.

C.S. Lewis observed that every age suffers from its own blindness — failing to recognize perspectives that will be obvious to succeeding generations. To overcome such blindness, he writes, “the only palliative is to keep the clean breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”

The same internet and digital technologies which provide widespread access to humanity’s literary treasures, however, can ironically distract us from reading with depth — as we’re drawn into the latest news or the day’s social media posts. 

According to reports from the National Endowment for the Arts, the overall percentage of adults in the United States who read at least one work of literature is at a multidecade nadir, sliding from 57% in 1982 to 43% in 2015. Studies from Gallup and Pew track similar trends, with Gallup finding that in 1990 Americans reported reading, either partially or completely, an average of 15.3 books a year. A decade later, the average climbed to 18.5 books. But, more recently, in 2021 the Gallup found the average had slide to 12.6 books per year.

As important as it is to understand current events, Latter-day Saints are also instructed to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books.” Yale scholar Allan Bloom writes, “The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency — the belief that the here and now is all there is.”

When we find ourselves engrossed in ephemeral material, we skim the surface without drawing deeply from the collected wisdom of the ages. Overlooking the best of the written word blinds us to the light and truth of past epochs.

This is why Lewis had a rule of thumb. He believed in reading one old book for each contemporary book — offering, as they do, an escape from the biases and paradigms of our own age. 

Relishing “all good books.” For believers, no text represents a better opportunity for this escape than holy scripture. Those who may complain about “not being able to relate” to these ancient texts have not yet appreciated the fact that their departure from many modern assumptions are part of what makes them valuable. 

Latter-day Saints can also look to the examples of modern prophets spanning decades who have also shown a love of scripture and great literature — from uplifting poetry to oft-quoted Charles Dickens novels. All three recent presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson and Russell M. Nelson, have referred to Shakespeare’s work in different sermons. President Monson once recalled a lunchtime conversation with former President David O. McKay, where the young apostle was asked about his favorite work of Shakespeare and his favorite quote from it. Then-Elder Monson responded with the lament by Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII: “Had I but served my God with half the zeal I serve my king, he in mine age would not have left me naked to mine enemies.” 

Souls striving toward sainthood can likewise expand their minds and hearts through worthy prose or poetry, gleaning life lessons and a heightened sense of humanity.

Of course we are all busy. And there are seasons in life during which individuals have less time to drink from the fountain of the written word. But it’s also the case that most of us would have more time for close reading were it not for countless digital distractions. That’s why it can be valuable to remember what we can gain by choosing to plumb profound poems or verses rather than a fleeting social media post.

All things bearing witness. I’ve long loved a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that includes the lines “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” and “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

At their finest, poets share something in common with prophets: a deeper insight into the world around us, and by extension, our Creator. When I read Hopkins’ words, I feel that I am hearing the “testimony” of a poet, conveying a marvelous truth about Earth’s connection to its great architect.

Great works of literature also help our vision expand as we feel drawn anew to the heroic, the beautiful and the virtuous. Consider how Shakespeare’s words on the “twice blessed” nature of mercy echo the Savior’s teachings.

“The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

… mercy is above this sceptered sway.

… It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice.”

The pessimism of it’s-all-about-power. There are growing consequences for a world increasingly disconnected from “the best books.” Bloom notes that, “Where the purpose of higher education once was to enable the student to find truth, the modern university teaches that there is no truth, only ‘lifestyle.’”

The postmodern philosophy often taught at secular universities today is a reaction against the modernism that characterized the 19th and early 20th centuries, with their rationality and belief in science, democratic institutions and capitalistic markets to provide mankind with a bright future of opportunity and justice. Postmodernism has soured on those hopeful impulses, substituting a profoundly political way of looking at life. Idealism and confidence have been replaced in too many instances by distrust, boredom or resentment. 

This is a profoundly pessimistic lens through which to view life. It also seems crosswise with absolute truths of the kind to which the scriptures testify: that we are all brothers and sisters in the family of man, children of a Heavenly Father who has provided Earth as a school for learning eternal truths in preparation for returning to our true home; and that God has spoken truth down many ages through his prophets. 

Such ideas are dismissed in some academic circles today as hopelessly arrogant or naïve. Who are we, the story goes, to impose an outdated narrative on others? The villains in the story as told by some postmodernists are the emissaries of colonial powers that tried to dominate the world and the missionaries who followed them and tried to convert the world.

Great literature is commonly dismissed today for serving the interests of “dead” values of an outmoded Western civilization viewed as having sought power for their own group by repressing the importance of all others. 

In its place, each one of us is told we can only hope to find our own truth and tell our own story. Grand meta-narratives of universal truth are rejected in favor of power struggles between clashing group identities. The whole project of finding eternal or absolute truths is thus rejected.

Extending our beings. Parents with religious convictions are understandably reluctant to send their children out into settings that present such a vision of life. How can parents and leaders arm young people to survive spiritually in such times? 

Good literature is one answer. It specifically overcomes the barriers that keep us locked in our own narrow understanding and opens to us the heart of our brothers and sisters. Fortunate are those young people who have begun to understand early in their lives the breadth of possible human experience through reading, and who can, as they mature, find the universal human truths that are the common lot of mankind, and that give ultimate meaning.

C.S. Lewis wisely said, “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. … The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.”

By contrast, the cynics today would have us believe that we can only make sense of our lives by interpreting them through the narrow lens of our particular group identity. But if it is true that God is the father of all, then we are all made in the divine image. Here is that same thought expressed (once again) in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (a favorite of mine):

“… for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Life is so varied. The Greeks with their side-by-side masks of tragedy and comedy understood the inevitable variation in life between light and dark, good and evil, joy and pain — this, as the common lot of humankind. 

One of the very purposes of life is to come to understand more clearly and richly the many things we are experiencing. T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Dry Salvages” contains the haunting line, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning.” What a terrible loss to have the experience of life and miss the meaning by a voluntary blindness to the richness of life. 

Immersing ourselves in the “best books” helps us avoid both the trap of too narrow an experience and the postmodernists’ falsehood that we can never transcend the boundaries of our own interpretations and we must therefore distrust the very idea of truth. In doing so, the barriers that keep us isolated in competing groups are overcome and we connect with others by understanding how their experience relates to ours. This is the power of literature, and indeed, of all good art.

Becoming “a thousand men.” Life inevitably wounds us, but as C.S. Lewis said, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege of individuality … in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” 

Human beings are hardwired to enter deeply into the experiences of others. It is one of the best things about us, our ability to empathize and relate to the sufferings and joys of our fellow beings. 

There is an additional power of transcendence found in good literature to stretch our understanding and imagination within the context of scriptural truth.

We delight in the happy ending of a Jane Austen novel when, with obstacles overcome and misunderstandings resolved, the wedding bells of a bright future ring. We feel in “My Antonia” the yearnings and alienation of an immigrant in a strange culture. We grieve the loss of a poor sleigh driver’s only son in Anton Chekov’s short story “Misery,” who must pour out his grief to his horse because the people he meets won’t listen. We read The Grand Inquisitor chapter in Dostoevsky’s masterwork, “The Brothers Karamazov,” and are astounded at the power of Christ’s love to soften the hardest heart, along with the hardness of men’s hearts as they reject that love. We read about and feel the inevitable, inexorable wages of sin through the life of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and of the power of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” The power of redemptive love touches us deeply in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” We rejoice in the opened heart of the miser Silas Marner. We feel the poverty of the underclasses in Dickens’ novels. 

In all this, we feel and thus gain understanding. The world of good books thus frees us from the very isolation to which postmodernism would condemn us. Perhaps that is why holy scripture recommends them.

But we should note that Latter-day Saint scripture specifies “good books.” Each author creates perforce a kind of universe that his characters inhabit. If that author rejects certain basic truths, his world will reflect that distortion. I think of the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s haunting novel, “A Farewell to Arms.” As the story concludes, the main character has just lost his beloved wife in childbirth. Numb with grief, he walks outside the hospital and sees a group of men gathered around a fire for warmth. He walks over and stares at the burning logs. A stream of ants is pouring helplessly from inside one of the logs, and he watches as they fall to their deaths in the fire. The story ends there, in hopelessness, and we are meant to see our human life as not much different from the ants, doomed to live at the mercy of an unfeeling universe that cares nothing for our suffering. A religious reader will read with discernment, recognizing Hemingway’s talent at describing the human condition, but rejecting his despair because our universe is made hopeful by our beliefs.

In today’s often frenetic world, our lifestyle and online lives can sometimes leave little room for the pursuit of spiritual truth and eternal beauty. That can put us all at risk for the cultural “blindness” Lewis and other sages have warned us about. 

Lewis cautioned, with a parenthetical of my own added, that “None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it … if we read only modern books,” and I would add other modern media. 

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“Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.” 

The English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold noted how “the best that has been thought and said” could act as an antidote to materialism and cultural deprivation. And, indeed, today cognitive science hints at a possible correlation between greater empathy and the reading of literature

If we are to better understand each other and continually seek that which is “virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy,” we would be wise to draw from both scripture and “all good books” that ennoble and uplift. Such works present the banquet of life’s choices before us, enlarging our capacity to absorb the light and truth of the ages as we seek to both live by it and share it with others.

Elder Larry Y. Wilson is a retired business executive who studied literature at Harvard, and received an MBA from Stanford. He’s an emeritus General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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