Originally published at Covenant, June 28, 2017.
I am a slow reader. I chalk this up to my most formative training having been in analytic philosophy, a discipline in which if one does not read slowly, one may as well not read at all. But I’m also a slow thinker — not a bad thinker, I think, but a slow one.
Slow reading has its benefits. One develops a taste for words and a corresponding appreciation for wordsmiths. One of Wittgenstein’s insights was that it is impossible to think outside of a language, and I suspect this fact accounts for my savoring of English, the language in which I do almost all of my slow thinking and reading, and for my appreciation for master crafters of English words. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Sidney Lanier spring to mind, among many others. I bet they were slow thinkers too, for what it’s worth.
I have been slowly reading Edward Abbey lately. He was recommended to me almost simultaneously by Wendell Berry and our own Christopher Wells. Abbey merits slow reading, and he’s a first-rate wordsmith, or close to it. Paradoxically, though, he doesn’t strike me as a slow thinker. Quite the opposite.
The quickness of Abbey’s thought and prose accounts for what’s best and worst about him. (Funny how material conditions often account for what’s both best and worst in people and things — consider, for example, the capaciousness of Anglicanism.) Abbey is manly, in the virtuous and unfashionable sense of that word, forever getting in adventures and close scrapes, pausing occasionally in a kind of sun-burnt contrapposto, lighting his pipe as he regards a lizard or a shrub or some ecological outrage, passing judgment, and bouncing off down a desert road in his ramshackle pickup.
He is incorrigible and irreverent. This is charming more often than not. But his irreverence in particular can carry him away, in the judgment of this sympathetic clergyman, and sometimes smacks of vicious pride. Abbey obviously wants to offend his readers. All of them. And I suspect that readers who claim not to be offended are really just being spiritually pusillanimous.
Abbey’s was a great soul, and his judgments are correct in the main. Wendell Berry’s 1985 panegyric (anthologized in What are People For?) gets it right. The best reason to read Abbey, says Berry, is “for the consolation, for the comfort of being told the truth.” Namely, that we are causing problems for the rest of creation, and that those problems are symptoms of a deeper sickness, a sickness for which laws and policies, to say nothing of “clicktivism,” can be but topical analgesics. As Berry puts it,
There is no longer any honest way to deny that a way of living that our leaders continue to praise is destroying all that our country is and all the best that it means. We are living even now among punishments and ruins.
Abbey’s commitment to irreverence would have prevented him from agreeing that a country can mean something, but his prose (and his life) betray that deep down, he understood that it can. The speed of his thought and prose are indeed explicable in terms of Augustine’s restless heart. What is needed is swift obedience to the ancient summons Conversi ad Dominum (“Turn to the Lord”) — an intuition more readily grasped, I think, by Robinson Jeffers, a poet Abbey admired. The final lines of Jeffers’s poem, “Shine, Perishing Republic,” say better, perhaps, and perhaps better because they take more time in saying it, what Abbey drove so furiously toward:
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught — they say —
God, when he walked on earth.