Patterns of Reading: A Defense of Reading Widely

Shock_doctrine_coverAs you know, I’m currently reading The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein: an expose of how free market capitalists exploited (or created) geopolitical crises in order to transform developmentalist economies into capitalist ones, giving big corporations a huge payout in the process.

It’s a convincing and angering read. Klein has thoroughly documented, through primary sources and detailed research, the role that free market supporters played in the economic downfall of Latin American countries. Having visited Argentina a few years ago, I’m personally familiar with its poverty and financial difficulties; I understand the cause of these difficulties better since reading Klein’s book. In today’s uneasy global economy, The Shock Doctrine adds evidence to the pile that when the corporations are set free from government control in the name of the free market, it is primarily the corporations that benefit. Citibank and Ford Motors are not inclined to be generous.

This isn’t to say that I’ve suddenly turned socialist, nor even that Klein’s book is altogether convincing. Because one of her assumptions has caught my attention.

Early on, Klein notes that although Argentinian people consistently elected leaders who supported a progressive, developmentalist economy, the Argentinian corporations were frustrated with governmental limits on how high prices could be raised: “They were outraged,” Klein notes,”to see their profits being diverted to build up other sectors [of the economy], their workers demanding land redistribution, and the government keeping the price of their crops artificially low so that food could be affordable.”

This is a theme that Klein returns to throughout her book, that developmentalist economies more than capitalist ones impose price checks on basic necessities, so that even the poor can be well fed and housed.

The thing is, price limits are not the unadulterated good that Klein assumes they are. Even on basic necessities like food, price caps or government subsidies often cause more harm than good.

In the United States, government farm subsidies keep the cost of corn and meat (especially beef) artificially low. This is why corn syrup is in almost everything, because farmers have been producing and producing and producing in order to take advantage of federal funding, and so we are literally awash in corn. Hence, it gets turned into syrup, added to our foods, and there contributes to the ongoing health crisis in the West.

Similarly, cows are raised en masse on huge factory farms with little protection for the workers, health of the animals, or the consumers, beef corporations taking advantage of super-cheap corn for feed; this leads to poor quality and diseased beef. Beef that is sold for its actual value is much more expensive, yes, but the animal is healthier and happier, and those who raise it are not mistreated.

To give one more example: the government has also subsidized milk and dairy in the United States. At the same time, people have demanded lower-fat dairy products. As companies skim the fat off the huge quantities of milk produced, they wind up with a large amount of milk fat solids they have no purpose for. So in order to turn a profit, they turn the fatty solids into cheese, then add cheese to other products: cheesy-crust pizzas, cheese crackers, even cheesy cat food! Do price caps and government subsidies keep food affordable? Sure, but it’s bad food: bad for people’s health, bad for the environment, bad for the animals.

My goal here isn’t a takedown of Klein for her apparent support of price caps. I’m not an economist. I can say that obviously, it’s good when people can afford to purchase food. Beyond that, I’m not qualified to talk about the methods for keeping food affordable versus keeping food good.

My goal is simply to point out that I noticed this conflict between affordable and good food, this flaw in Klein’s assumptions, because I read wisely. Books like Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma convinced me that well-intentioned as government farm subsidies may be, they don’t work, or at least they don’t work anything like as well as we want them to.

When we read, we tend to read books we already agree with; it’s nice to have our beliefs affirmed. And we tend to read very few books, imagining somehow that one book is sufficient education on a topic.

But the conflict between Klein’s book and others is interesting, because it suggests that to be truly educated, to really get how the world is working, we have to read a lot of books, books that we disagree with and books that disagree with each other.

The world is not homogenous. Its problems are not simple. Think of a tapestry, woven from threads of contrasting colors. Just the orange thread, or just the green, by itself is lovely; but only when the two are brought together are we able to see the picture clearly.

Likewise, when we read books, we have to resist the temptation to admire a single thread of thought; it’s when two thoughts come into contrast with each other that we see the picture clearly. 

I was talking with our school librarian the other day, and he mentioned something similar, in reference to religious history: that history is like a kaleidoscope, that everyone who looks at it sees a different pattern.

Endlessly varied and open to multiple interpretations, a kaleidoscope is also the perfect guide for understanding how we read for information, and read well. If we read only a book or two, then we are essentially raising the kaleidoscope to our eyes without turning it at all, seeing a single pattern: the perspective of one author, likely one that we agree with. The pattern may be pretty, but we don’t come close to seeing all the truth.

Only when we turn the kaleidoscope do we see all its variously-shaped, multicolored pieces falling into a new pattern. Likewise, only when we “turn” our reading practices, picking up books that we disagree with, and that disagree with each other, do we see the world fully. Each author’s thesis is a new pattern, and each new pattern shows us more of the world. 

And this brings me to a pet peeve of mine, books intended to help Christians engage with the culture, books that (purport to) lay bare the gaps of the secular worldviews and suggest how a Christian worldview may fill those gaps. I’m thinking of things like Tim Keller’s The Reason for God or Russell Moore’s recent Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel. 

On the one hand, these books have a place in teaching believers that their faith is strong and can be intellectually defended. On the other hand, all these books do is show a single pattern: that of American evangelicalism, which most readers already believe and which is (for all its virtues) a very narrow slice of Christian history. 

By the law of opportunity cost, every time somebody chooses to read one of these books, they are choosing against reading a book which offers up a new pattern, a new way of seeing the world. If you choose to read The Reason for God, you are perhaps choosing not to read George MacDonald’s Lilith, a Christian universalist text; or you are perhaps choosing not to read Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, gloriously medieval in its vision of the world.

Of course, we may not agree with MacDonald’s theology, or Vodolazkin’s. But when we refuse even to read their novels, to see in this world the patterns that they see, we miss out on many great beauties and truth. Our experience as American evangelicals is only a small thread in the great tapestry of the Christian faith, and when we follow other threads, we understand our own faith better. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Christian apologetic texts. But they take up headspace that could perhaps be better used by taking time to see the world through a different set of us, to see in it another pattern.

I’ve rambled long enough about reading (an error to which we English teachers are especially prone), and I should probably go do something productive. But I want to close with a short passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Here, Eliot reminds us of the end of all our knowledge: that “the faces and places” we know are passing away; given that we orient ourselves by recognizable human faces and geographical location, the poem implies that not only the physical world but the way we make sense of it is vanishing.

Redemption, Eliot gently suggest, lies in accepting the retreat of our human knowledge, and letting ourselves be made again, woven into the pattern which God is creating. Ultimately, this is the best defense for reading books which do not follow a single pattern. As we read varied books, and find in them pattern upon pattern, we remember the transience and limits of all human knowledge, and we wait all the more eagerly for God to reveal his all-encompassing pattern:

See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s