Counterpoint Reading image

Counterpoint Reading

You may already do this, but I’ve only just realised how useful it is, so bear with me: it can be really illuminating to read books in pairs, where each provides a counterpoint to the other. That doesn’t necessarily mean books which explicitly disagree with each other, although of course that can be helpful sometimes. But there are all sorts of pairs—and I’ll give some examples in a moment—which make both books more interesting for having been combined with the other one. They may have been written at the same time, they may address the same theme, they may overlap in their content, they may directly contradict each other, or something else entirely, but by being read together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

At the moment, for instance, I’m reading Robert Alter’s The David Story, a translation of 1&2 Samuel, alongside Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey: two of the foundational epics of Western civilisation, both from the early first millennium BC, both describing flawed and complicated yet heroic men, one a Jew, one a Greek. The similarities of date and, in a strange way, of theme, draw the different theologies, anthropologies and moralities of the books into sharp relief, and show you (if you didn’t know it already) just how different Yahweh is from the gods of the nations. When you read Hannah’s song right after Homer’s song, it makes your soul magnify the Lord, and your spirit rejoice in God your Saviour.

Over the summer I read Jared Diamond’s magnificent Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, which basically argues that Western nations developed faster than other nations because of geography, immediately followed by Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, which gives much more of the credit to Western thought. That materialist/idealist difference was also evident as I read Ian Morris’s Why The West Rules For Now, and then Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West. Going through two commentaries on Revelation in my devotions, from Peter Leithart and Ian
Paul, gave me more than I would have gained from reading them separately (as well as plenty of interesting discussions with the writers as I weighed their very different interpretations!) T. S. Eliot’s poems were more interesting for being read alongside his contemporary George Orwell’s essays. I’m now slightly wishing that I had waited before starting Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life, so that I could read it alongside Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind. And so on.

Those may or may not be the sorts of books you’d read, but you get the idea. I guess it’s an extension of Proverbs 18:17—but only if it’s read alongside Ecclesiastes 4:9.

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