Author (Paradise Lost) John Milton argued for promiscuous reading.
Now, the word promiscuous has certain connotations in our culture. Yet, promiscuous, removed from sexual connotations, initially implied random, casual, indiscriminate behaviour.
It is the idea of random reading that I am exploring here, under the banner of promiscuous reading. That kind of reading that just happens, casually, because books are strewn around the house. Or on your bedside table. Or on the higgledy-piggledy bookshelves, so that when you go to search for one book, you become lost in a book-savouring haze, and come away with another six books that you want to read and re-read, in addition to the original book for which you were searching.
This is promiscuous reading at its best. Reading from a variety of books, different genres, unrelated authors, prose, poetry, non-fiction, biography, classics, graphic novels, apologetics. Whatever it is that strikes your fancy, rather than working through a prescribed booklist.
In some ways, the prescribed booklist limits the experience of reading. It limits the reader’s exploration, and blocks mental conversation with a number of contradicting ideas. When we read promiscuously, however, we explore a number of ideas, we stretch ourselves mentally, we enter into dialogue with authors, ideas, writing styles; and with others, our colleagues, friends, family. Is Dumbledore right, for example, in asking Snape to kill him, to protect Draco? Does the act of killing affect us, as explored in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment? We make connections with Nietzsche’s discussion of man as a ‘sick animal’ and contrast this with the hope of St John Paul II’s ‘theological anthropology’, viewing humanity as a complex whole, body, soul, heart and conscience, mind and will, with a vocation to love.
These kinds of links are made with promiscuous reading. Indeed, promiscuous reading often manifests itself in ‘having more than one book on the go”. It has been likened to being a ‘book-adulterer’ but I think it has more worth than that.
In my case right now, that means Woman by Edith Stein, The Brokers by John Grisham, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Trials of Theology by Brian Rosner and some Advent/Christmas reading – Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Pope John Paul II and The Christmas Mouse by Miss Read. An eclectic bunch, a promiscuous bunch, with books picked up to read at disparate times, according to mental agility and/or tiredness in the moment. It’s those reading rhythms of life.
Promiscuous reading was something I encouraged in our homeschooling. Strewing books on the table, in baskets, near the computer. Sharing books avidly. Reading picture books and contemporary fiction alongside classics and books like Supertrucks and The Way Things Work. Coming to realise, as Donnalyn Miller describes in The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, ‘that every lesson, conference, response, and assignment I taught must lead students away from me and toward their autonomy as literate people.’
Promiscuous strewing and sharing of books can lead to promiscuous readers, whose lives will be made richer through their contact with a range of topics, genres, authors. And I agree with Ms Miller (hers is a great book, by the way, on encouraging reading in children): ‘the purpose of school (I would say education) should not be to prepare students for more school (or only for possible future needs). We should be seeking to have fully engaged students now.’