Two weeks ago, James Sire addressed a question from me about learning from artists and writers who have a different world view than my own. In his response, he mentioned Alan Jacobsâ€™s A Theology of Reading, which I have been reading and blogging through lately. I’d like to expand a bit on Jim’s reference to Jacobs’s book with a few examples of charitable reading.
Throughout the book, Jacobs offers â€œinterludes,â€ which are essentially case studies of different styles and methods of reading. â€œInterlude D: Two Charitable Readersâ€ compares two different readersâ€™ approaches to two different subjects which I think relates to the question of influence that I raised. Jacobs posits two different paths of reading charitably:
- Drawing closer to an author you find repellant, so that you can appreciate whatever value is to be found in their work.
- Distancing yourself from an author you love, so that you can assess their contributions more accurately, apart from your own adoration.
As an example of the first path, Jacobs offers Jane Tompkinsâ€™s essay about Buffalo Bill Cody in West of Everything: The Inner Lives of Westerns. The essay reflects on a visit to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center , which Tompkins finds emblematic of the violent, imperialistic impulses of 19th-century American culture, and she is outraged.
But the outrage was undermined by the knowledge that I knew nothing about Buffalo Bill, nothing of his life, nothing of the circumstances that led him to be involved in such violent eventsâ€¦So when I got home I began to read about Buffalo Bill, and a whole new world opened up. I came to love Buffalo Bill. (Tompkins, 195, quoted in Jacobs)
Tompkinsâ€™ love for Buffalo Bill, however, did not lead her to ignore his violence or his personification of a world view she detested.
[Tompkins] does not encourage us to love Buffalo Bill by diminishing or limiting her description of the evils with which he was associatedâ€¦Tompkinsâ€™s charity consists in the wholeness of her attention, her refusal to sacrifice attention to one truth so that another one may be privilegedâ€¦.Had Tompkins been more decisive, her essay perhaps would have been more coherent, but less charitable and less truthful. (Jacobs, 117â€“118)