Introductory Note:

Dorothy Sayers had the fortunate habit of being interesting on just about every subject she explored. How wonderful it is, then, that she undertook the already fascinating subject of reading books. Here’s a little excerpt from a lengthier piece that she wrote in the middle of World War II about the importance of words, reading well, and discussing books in community with other readers.

Books, like most things in life, are better when they’re shared with friends. The Renovaré Book Club has just begun our third book of this season. If you’re looking to take Sayers’ advice—“discuss the books you read”—we’re delighted to say that we have online reading groups, as well as regional in-person groups across the globe. Won’t you come on the journey with us?

Renovaré Team

Pray get rid of the idea that books are each a separate thing, divided from one another and from life. Read each in the light of all the others, especially in the light of books of another kind. Try and see — this is the most fascinating exercise of all — whether a statement in one book may not be a statement of the same experience which another book expresses in quite different terms. (I tried to make a synthesis” of this kind about biological man and the theological doctrine of the Fall.) 

Try the experiment of putting a statement of one kind into the terms of another. Try especially putting statements made in old-fashioned language into modern terms. You will often find that things you have taken all your life for incomprehensible dogmas turn out to be perfectly intelligible observations of truth. Take, for instance, those dark pronouncements in the Athanasian Creed that God is uncreated, incomprehensible and eternal, and re-state them like this: The standard of Absolute Value is not limited by matter, not limited by space, not limited by time.” It may seem more acceptable that way….

If [an] author mentions some other book in terms which make it seem important, whether he approves or refutes it, don’t take his word for it: get the other book and read it, and judge for yourself. If he refers to something, or uses some word, which you don’t understand, get a dictionary or work of reference and look it up. (Don’t write and ask the author to explain; he is not required to be an Encyclopedia, and you will only give him a poor idea of your industry and intelligence.) Especially, examine the sources of what he writes; to read Mr. Somebody’s critical valuation of Milton’s prose or his examination of the economic effects of the Peace-Treaty is quite valueless if you have never read any Milton and do not know what the Peace-Treaty actually said. 

Discuss the books you read. If your husband or your wife is bored with your opinions (they very often are), persuade some friend to read the same books and talk them over. By discussion I mean discussion: not just saying, Oh, I thought it was frightfully interesting, didn’t you?” Nor do I mean exchanging gossip about the author’s personality and private life and saying he must be a delightful (interesting, unpleasant, dangerous, irritating, fascinating, entertaining) person to know. (It is well to remember that the best of a writer’s energies goes into his writing; he may not have much charm or virtue left over for private use. This does not invalidate his opinions; it merely means that he is liable to be disappointing when encountered in person.)

And do please realise that words are not just talky-talk” — they are real and vital; they can change the face of the world. They are a form of action — in the beginning was the Word by Whom all things were made”. Even the spate of futile words that pours out from the ephemeral press and the commercial-fiction-mongers has a real and terrible power; it can become a dope as dangerous as drugs or drink; it can rot the mind, sap the reason, send the will to sleep; it can pull down empires and set the neck of the people under the heel of tyranny. For every idle word that ye speak ye shall render account at the day of judgment.” I do not think that means that we shall have to pay a fine in a few million years’ time for every occasion on which we said dash it all” or indulged in a bit of harmless frivolity; but I do think it was meant as an urgent warning against abusing or under-rating the power of words, and that the judgment is eternal — that is, it is here and now.

A Note on Creative Reading” is in the public domain.

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Text First Published January 1941 · Last Featured on February 2022