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You Are What You Love 📚
or, a treatise on why we should read well
Our tendency is to assume that who we are is what we think, or perhaps what we believe. I know that I am a 45-year-old woman from the United States, a mother of three and a wife of one. I am a Catholic Christian, a writer, a teacher, and a pilgrimage guide. This is who I am.
But really, that’s not who I am. The reason is that René Descartes was wrong: I don’t think, therefore I am. We humans are primarily what we love. If you’ve ever experienced the phenomenon of a gap between what you know and what you do, this is why. I know physical exercise provides me with endorphins, increased muscle strength, and added energy, and therefore it’s good and healthy for me. But I don’t do it nearly as much as I’d like. This is because I don’t love exercise. (If I’m more honest, it’s because I don’t yet fully love God with all my strength. Ouch.)
We’re not primarily thinking things, we’re loving things. We’re hardwired to worship. As David Foster Wallace once said:
“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
Surprising words from a self-proclaimed agnostic.
We worship, either intentionally or not. We can’t escape it. Worship is one way to say “love,” so we don’t “think, therefore we are.” We love, therefore we are.
Love isn’t a feeling, it’s the willing of a good. Aquinas spilled thousands of bottles of ink on that idea and I wouldn’t do any better than him, so I’ll leave it as true because it’s yet to be disputed since he wrote it 800 years ago. But if love is a willing of the good, you could argue that love is a sort of habit. It takes a repeated purpose and action, over and over again, to truly love something. I might “love” chocolate cake, but I truly love my husband and children because of a daily repeated choice to love them, over and over again, for twenty-plus years now. My love for them isn’t reliant on their best behavior, right choices, or pleasant dispositions. I love them — I will their good — no matter what they do. It’s actual love.
So. If love is a habit, and if it’s also what we are, then you could say that we are our habits. As James K.A. Smith says in his fantastic book, You Are What You Love:
“In short, if you are what you love, and love is a habit, then discipleship is a rehabituation of your loves.”
How Do We Rehabituate Our Loves?
This is a lifelong endeavor. In fact, as soon as I think, “Done — my loves are fully calibrated to the right thing. I’ve made it,” then I hope I stop breathing two seconds later because a core part of our life’s journey is rehabituating our loves to be aligned with that which we’re best made to love. Life is a journey of us becoming who we’re made to be, who God has called us to be as fully-made, wonderfully-made human persons.
There are lots of ways to correctly realign our loves, and most of them are boring and ordinary. These habits look like taking out the trash, going to bed at a decent hour, holding your tongue when you’d like to lash out at the foolish person in front of you, making dinner for your family when you don’t feel like it, and listening to your child with rapt attention even when they’re taking far too long to tell that story. Virtue is built one day at a time, one action at a time, one choice at a time.
I’d also argue that what we consume directs what we ultimately love. Just like a steady diet of cotton candy would cause cavities and stomach aches, a regular consumption of shallow teaching and entertainment leads to laziness, poor thinking, and restless hearts. I’ll just say it: looking to Instagram influencers for one’s wisdom and the Kardashians for one’s entertainment leads to a miscalibrated soul. Like a neglected compass that no longer points to True North, over time a neglected mind, body, and soul that’s been fed shallowness leads to a heart that doesn’t love what it’s made to love.
Just like an occasional dessert or cocktail does not a horrible diet make, nor does the occasional binging of a silly show or a beach read. I’m not implying everything we consume has to be Profound and Heavy. But I am arguing that a wise adult consumes more vegetables than sugar, and a wise adult also consumes more quality books, movies, music, and TV shows than fluff.
I’ll revisit this idea again soon, but for now, to keep this essay from being longer than it ought, I’ll focus on books. Last year was a good reading year for me. A friend of mine, however, read fewer books yet read what I’d say was a broader range of goodness, and I liked her reading plan so much I’ve decided to create a version of it for this year.
We who live in this post-modern world need to read old books because they’ve stood the test of time and therefore say something timeless. We also need to occasionally read things that help us better understand the times we live in. We also need to read stories that touch on something universal, that help further calibrate our hearts toward the right things. We need a steady diet of good ideas found in good books.
Reading, like love, is a habit, and as our attention spans grow shorter and shorter, it requires a paddling upstream against the cultural tide to sit with a book and just …read1.
Read. Read for your souls, for your minds, and for your hearts. The people in your life you’ve been called to love will be better for it because you will be better for it. Make a conscious choice to read and read well. What we read changes our minds, souls, and hearts. I’ve experienced it first-hand, and I bet you have, too.
I’m not at all implying that my way is best, but if you want to read more this year yet you’re overwhelmed and aren’t sure where to start, below is my personal 2023 plan. You’re welcome to copy it — in fact, I’ve created a template for you to print, if you like.
A Quick Word About How to Read
I do my best to read two books at a time, one fiction and one non-fiction. It's tempting for me to half-read seven books at a time, but then I feel halfhearted about all of them. This is what I’m reminding myself is best for me, and I hope to follow through.
I also genuinely depend on audiobooks. As a mom who works, I rarely have the time to sit in my velvet chair and leisurely read. So, I read when I fold laundry, cook dinner, drive to work, take the dog on a walk, grocery shop, shower, and work out. There’s actually something that further solidifies an idea or story in my brain by pairing it with bodily action. When I think of CS Lewis’ thoughts about liturgical prayer in Letters to Malcolm, I think of chopping onions for chicken tortilla soup. When I remember Gaspery-Jacques Roberts leaving the moon and ending his days on an Oklahoma farm in Sea of Tranquility, I’m walking Ginny past the neighborhood coffee shop.
And lastly, I read in short spurts. If I waited to read until I had a full thirty minutes — or heck, ten minutes — I’d get far less reading done. One page in line at the grocery store is one page. Added up, that becomes a full book read in a month. There’s no hurry to finish a book, but there’s no reason to wait because the time isn’t right. There will rarely be a perfect time to read if your life is like mine.
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My 2023 Reading Plan
I’m naming categories of books to read this year, then filling out the rest of my repertoire with whatever I like. I will undoubtedly read more than one book about spiritual formation, for instance, and I plan to read whatever novels strike my fancy here and there. But naming these categories — and planning ahead which book will fill it — helps me broaden my range.
Here’s what I’ve got right now. It may very well change.
A book that’s been on my TBR list forever: Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A really long book: Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset
A short book: Gift From the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
A book from the Southern Hemisphere: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A book I'll probably disagree with: (still undecided… I have many options here.)
A classic I’ve yet to read: Plutarch’s Lives
A children's classic I've yet to read: Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome
A historic biography: Frederick Douglass, by David W. Blight
A book of spiritual formation: An Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales
A book of vocational formation — parenting: Sacred Dwelling, by Wendy Wright
A book of vocational formation — writing/teaching: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, by A.G. Sertillanges
A book of cultural formation: The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, by Alexandra Hudson
A family read-aloud: The Warden and the Wolf King: The Wingfeather Saga Book 4, by Andrew Peterson
A book about the natural world: The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, by Wendell Berry
A re-read: Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton
A book I’ve had on my shelves forever and still haven’t read: A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
A book I’m repeatedly told I’d love: The Awakening of Miss Prim, by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
A book in a genre I don’t normally read: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
A book of historic instruction: Catholic Social Teaching Collection
A book to read all year: Sounding the Seasons, by Malcolm Guite
If you’d like a bit of structure to your reading life this year, feel free to download this template. Whatever you decide to read, do what you know you need to calibrate your loves to that which you’re made to love.
I’m also working on a list of books I recommend as essential reading. Some are listed here, but it’s a work in progress. I hope to have it done soon!
I’d love to hear from you: What’s on your reading list this year? Do you have any structured plans, or do you plan to read whatever strikes your fancy, like I did last year? Share in the comments — for now, I’m opening them up to both paid members of The Commonplace and free subscribers to 5 Quick Things. I look forward to hearing from you!
Ora et Labora,