How often do you read on a whim?

Today one can take advantage of a free download of Alan Jacobs‘ “How to Read a Book,” a chapter in Liberal Arts For the Christian Life (Edited by Jeffry C. Davis & Philip G. Ryken. Crossway. 2012). Below’s the conclusion from which I raise the question, “How often do you read on a whim?”

As I draw this essay to a close, let me turn to a matter that, in my mind, is very important indeed — but not nearly as solemn as what we’ve been talking about over the past few pages. Recalling Auden’s warning that masterpieces of literature should not be our steady diet, we should affirm the great value of reading just for the fun of it. The poet Randall Jarrell tells the story of meeting a literary critic who said that every year he reread his favorite book, Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, just because he wanted to. Though a critic, he had never written anything about Kim, nor did he ever plan to. That one book he read, Jarrell says, “at whim,” and Jarrell ends his essay by exhorting us all to “read at whim!” 12

In my experience, Christians are strangely reluctant to take this advice. We tend to be earnest people, always striving for self-improvement, and can be suspicious of mere recreation. But God doesn’t just create, he takes delight in his creation, and expects us to delight in it too; and since he has given us the desire to make things ourselves—has allowed us to be “sub-creators,” as J. R. R. Tolkien says13 — we may rightly take delight in the things that we (and others) make.

Reading for the sheer delight of it — reading at whim — is therefore one of the most important kinds of reading there is. By all means strive to be a better reader, to grow in attentiveness, responsiveness, and charity; but whatever you do, don’t forget to allow yourself to have fun (131).


12Randall Jarrell, “Poets, Critics, and Readers,” in No Other Book: Selected Essays, ed. Brad Leithauser (New York: Harper, 1999), 229; emphasis original.
13Tolkien develops this idea of writing as “sub-creation” chiefly in his long essay “On Fairy Stories,” first published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed. C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966), 38–89.

Comment 1: I confess not reading on whim often enough. Of course sometimes reading on a whim leads to posts such as this and it’s hard to categorize one’s reading. I’m someone who finds it hard not to share good stuff. One might say that deep down I’m compelled/delighted by that which is good, true, noble, pointing beyond ourselves to the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. How about you?

Comment 2: Tolkien’s perspective on subcreation, a topic worthy of receiving more attention in a future post(s) . . . If you’ve studied/considered the concept, feel free to comment 🙂

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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    Hannah commented on May 17, 2012 Reply

    I agree that reading on a whim is one of the most important kinds of reading. For me, this kind of reading is often children’s literature. I love The Wind and the Willows and enjoy revisiting it, but I never plan to write literary criticism about it. I love having a realm of reading that is just for fun, that can nourish and change me but that doesn’t need to be analyzed. That’s not to bash analysis, which I also find compelling. It’s just to say it isn’t the only way to read a book, and I think we’ve lost something when we assume it is.

  • Tom Grosh IV commented on May 17, 2012 Reply

    Beautiful Hannah 🙂 I’m currently reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” with one of the twins, after having finished “The Hobbit.” What a blast!

    This morning I started to read N.T. Wright’s “The Kingdom New Testament” and have been surprised how laid back I feel when soaking in this translation of the New Testament. I find the inserted maps particularly fun as I imagine Paul’s journeys. To God be the glory!

    Andy Catsimanes commented on May 17, 2012 Reply

    Honestly, is “not reading on whim,” something we now need to confess? Isn’t that sort of defeating the purpose?

    I read on whim all the time, but since I take delight in reading and rereading turgid philosophical prose as well as boilerplate mysteries, I suppose I’ve never found this to be an issue.

    My problem has most often been the reverse. I college I almost could never read what was assigned until the next semester, when it was no longer required of me.

    Dave commented on May 17, 2012 Reply

    I used to feel compelled to finish a book merely because I started it and found it dulled my thinking, drained the joy and, more deeply, sabbath from my reading. Also reading good relatively unknowns dekivers me from name dropping even in my leisure readeing. The impeccable historical voice in SJ Parris featuring Giordano Bruno or Troy Soos with his gritty novels in 19th century New York City or spot on major league baseball murder mysteries can give the mind good places to play.

    Anne commented on May 17, 2012 Reply

    Thank you for posting that essay! I especially like what Jacobs says about marking in books, and the quote about giving attentiveness and focus to reading.

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