Why we read books

I’ve not been writing reviews recently for a number of reasons, but I keep reading. We’re in Week 20 of the year and I’ve read 19 books. I hope to finish my 20th this week to keep on schedule. But we don’t read books to review them, or to meet a quota, but to learn, to grow, and to deepen our knowledge.

Peggy Noonan (whose book on John Paul II I’m currently reading) spoke at Catholic University’s commencement last week. She puts it this way:

Reading books forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect, connect one historical moment with another. Reading books provides a deeper understanding of political figures and events, of the world — of life itself.

Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama. Reading histories of it presents you with a dilemma.  The book forces you to imagine the color, sound, tone and tension, the logic of events:  It makes your brain do work.

But, oddly, it’s work the brain wants to do.

A movie or documentary is received passively: You sit back, see and hear.  Books demand more and reward more. When you read them your knowledge base deepens and expands.  In time that deepening comes to inform your own work, sometimes in ways of which you’re not fully conscious.

Not to put too fine a point, but your brain gets bigger, stronger. You become smarter and deeper.  That happens with books.

The video of her address is here.

“It’s work the brain wants to do.” Put down your iPhone, your iPad, and your remote control and grab a book. You’ll be better off for it.

The Secret Life of John Paul II (Lino Zani)

In this rare glimpse into John Paul II’s private life, Lino Zani gives the reader more than an explanation of the pope’s skiing trips in the Italian Alps. The heart of the story is how the “secret” life of John Paul II in the mountains–his clandestine trips to northern Italy–are linked to the secrets of Fatima as they relate to the Holy Father. The Secret Life of John Paul II is a book worth reading.

Zani’s work is a mix of autobiography about his own interactions with John Paul II and a story about John Paul II in the mountains. Both aspects of the book give the reader an intimate portrait of John Paul II and how he approached people and the world with a particular insight. Through his conversations with and observation of John Paul II, Zani experienced a deepening of faith and conversion from his dissolute youth. Through John Paul II, Zani became an apostle to the mountains and brought the sign of Christ to the highest peaks in the world.

Yet it was on the relatively modest peaks of the Italian Alps that Zani learned what it meant to be an apostle. There, John Paul II revealed a deep prayer life and intimate connection with God. There, Zani saw John Paul II in the ecstasy of prayer and the agony of a kind of supernatural knowledge.

Before reading the book, I had not paid a lot of attention to the secrets of Fatima, or John Paul II’s connection with them. Whether you are familiar or not, Zani connects many of the dots between the secrets and the life of John Paul II, particularly his time on the mountain. That connection makes this book an interesting historical work as well.

In short, The Secret Life of John Paul II is a quick read worth reading. It’s one of many glimpses of John Paul II’s personal side that we often overlook.

For a complimentary copy of the book, the author provided an unbiased review. For more such books, visit Saint Benedict’s Press today.

The End and the Beginning (George Weigel)

If authors were baseball players, everyone would want George Weigel on his team. He would have the highest batting average in the Major Leagues, hitting doubles and triples with the greatest of ease. And with The End and the Beginning, Weigel has hit another grand slam, a fitting afterword to his masterpiece, Witness to Hope. But The End and the Beginning is more than an appendix to Weigel’s magnum opus. It is a classic work in its own right, a penetrating and insightful reflection on John Paul II’s life and final years.

Weigel begins his work by placing John Paul II’s pontificate, and priesthood, in the larger context of the second half of the 20th Century. At a time when much of the Catholic world was in chaos–or at least confusion–after the Second Vatican Council, Karol Wojtyla became a calming force in Poland, implementing the Council’s directives gradually through diocese-wide catechesis. The university professor turned pontiff continued and extended that focus throughout his pontificate.

But John Paul’s effectiveness as a teacher or pope was almost thwarted by the efforts of communist forces. Weigel’s first half of the book is the equivalent of a page-turning mystery novel. Except that it’s true. With access to previously unavailable documents from various communist sources, Weigel tells an amazing story of John Paul II’s confrontation with and triumph over communism.

John Paul II’s battle with communism was a kind of warfare  previously unseen. His plea for “solidarity” was “far more dangerous.” “Father Karol Wojtlya’s sharp mind, spiritual depth, openness to others, and insistence on personal moral responsibility . . . created zones of freedom in which the students who became his friends could forge their own decisions to live as serious Christians.” (42) Serious Christians could not stand idly by as the communists enacted a regime in which the person was a commodity. Serious Christians knew that persons had an intrinsic value that they had to preserve against all odds.

Those experiences of living and studying under communist control provided a gauntlet for the future pope and forced him to develop pastorally, intellectually, and in every other way. The years of formation gave John Paul II the strength and conviction to proclaim, shortly after being chosen as pope:

Be not afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind.

Be not afraid. Open the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, and vast fields of culture, civilization, and development.

Be not afraid. Christ knows “what is in man.” He alone knows it . . .

I ask you . . . I beg you, let Christ speak to [you]. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life. (101-02)

This fearless proclamation of the Gospel guided John Paul II to the heights of political diplomacy–openly and behind the scenes–and guided his personal struggles in the face of disease and bodily fatigue.

The second half of the book discusses John Paul II the man, and the personal struggles he had in leading the Church through the post-Council confusion, clerical abuse, the rampant spread of secularism, and his own failing health. This he did with grace and a deep confidence that the Truth would prevail and bear fruit.

Being a member of the “John Paul II Generation” myself, I was touched by the depth to which Weigel penetrated into John Paul II as a man. Many priests attribute their priestly call to John Paul II’s example. But even for us laypeople, he is a tremendous example of a committed Christian and what we are all called to be. He had a

great capacity for friendship, and the time and energy he invested in others, testified to his determination to live justly in his relationships with others. Everyone who ever worked for, or with, him remarked on his probity, his fairness, and his seemingly inexhaustible capacity to let others have their say. He was a man of his word who kept his promises to the end, even when doing so cost him aggravation, even personal pain. (421)

John Paul II was certainly an example of a committed Christian, but he also showed us how to be a modern-day prophet. Realizing that “it was no longer possible to transmit the faith by cultural osmosis,” John Paul II led the Church “to reimagine itself as robustly evangelical and culturally assertive, [to] engage modernity without surrendering to it, and [to] confront the default secularism of [modern] high culture with a nobler vision of the modern world and its possibilities.” (439) As recently argued, this effort cannot be left to the clergy. Nor would John Paul II think the clergy could do it all–or want them to. Rather, John Paul II made a point to exalt the dignity and vocation of what I call “ordinary Christians,” those of us in the trenches–in school or the workplace who strive to live their faith in a way that is attractive to those around them. John Paul II was attractive to so many people because he challenged us to be better people, better Catholics. We need to have the same willingness to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel in every facet of our lives.

In the end, “John Paul II did not ask of his young followers anything that he had not asked of himself . . . he lived the strong love and challenge of genuine fatherhood, and the youth of the world responded. Let us now respond as John Paul II asked us to do beginning almost 35 years ago. Let us be the voice of the new evangelization in our own spheres of influence, and let us ask Blessed John Paul’s intercession to further and perfect our work.

This review was written as part of The Catholic Company‘s reviewer program. For a fair and honest review, the author was given a complimentary copy of the book. To learn more about The End and the Beginning, go to The Catholic Company.