Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: L. E. Harrington on Reading

11.18.12 | | 2 comments

Despite anti-Mormon claims in the 19th century that Mormons are ignorant, Mormon leaders, both Church-wide and local, repeatedly urged members to seek knowledge. They urged them to read as well as become better educated. And, while leaders cautioned members against reading novels and “light” reading, at least the Bishop that gave the following remarks, urged members towards careful reading.

L. E. Harrington was called to help establish American Fork and became its Mayor and its Bishop in 1853, serving as Mayor for 29 years and as its representative in the state legislature for the same period. I haven’t been able to find out much more about him, and I have no reason to think of him as a particularly literary figure. But there is one line in the following extract from his remarks to the children’s sunday school in his ward that I think is insightful and unusual for his time:

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Remarks

by Bishop L. E. Harrington

… Be diligent in your studies. Read good books and periodicals, and not only read, but study and reflect. Exercise your thinking powers. A small amount of reading, well digested, will be far more profitable to you than volumes lightly read. Let novels and light reading occupy but a small portion of your valuable time. But the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and other standard works of the church, as also its newspapers, and in short all useful books, claim your earnest attention. I am pleased with the large subscription list to the Juvenile Instructor—read with care its well prepared lessons. It is a great benefit to Sunday school teachers and scholars.

Juvenile Instructor, v2 n14, 15 July 1867, p. 106-107.

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The sentence that gave me pause above is: “A small amount of reading, well digested, will be far more profitable to you than volumes lightly read.” The concept is perhaps simple, but it also has a substantial value to it. It is certainly true that, just like all writing—or all of everything for that matter— all reading is not the same. Some materials are worth more to read than others. And, perhaps even more importantly, some reading is more important than other reading.

Often, when the material is deep enough, we get out of reading what we put into it. Trying to read the scriptures the same way that you read a beach novel or thriller isn’t likely to yield a lot of insight or help you to change. But putting effort into the reading of the scriptures can yield surprising value. Indeed, this is generally true of the best literature—additional effort in reading yields additional value. In contrast, literature written purely for entertainment rarely gives the reader anything more when additional effort is put into it. Perhaps this is even a way of assessing literary value.

In the end, however, Harrington’s phrase simply hints at a common issue in the world—balancing quality against quantity. We all know the issue from popular philosophy of today, especially when it comes to advice for parents: “Spend quality time with your children” we’re urged on one hand, while elsewhere we hear that there is no substitute for spending enough time with your children. Indeed, translating this idea to books we easily see that both are important. While its very important to learn how to read deeply, to study a text in a quality way, still you need to have enough quantity of reading to first learn how to read, and then learn how to read deeply.

So, in the end Bishop Harrington’s advice is valuable simply because it stands out so much from the advice Mormon leaders of his day gave. Instead of simply suggesting what his audience should or should not read, he also suggested that how they read makes a big difference.

2 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: L. E. Harrington on Reading

  1. Kent Larsen Post author

    Yes. I think the idea of reading closely or deeply is sometimes lost in today’s world, given our emphasis on entertainment over substance. I read quickly through a novel by a well-known science fiction author this past weekend, and found it quite disappointing, not only because of the problems in the novel, but also because it seemed like it was written simply for entertainment — like he was just ‘phoning it in.’ There just wasn’t much meat there.

    Its so much better when after you finish a novel you want to read it again.

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