Reading as physical exercise


“Doctors of ancient times used to recommend reading to their patients as a physical exercise on an equal level with walking, running, or ball-playing.”

So says Jean Leclerq in his wonderful The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

It is tempting to write off this recommendation as premodern idiocy but I want to argue here, with Jean Leclerq, that we really ought to give the suggestion a serious hearing.

Reading in antiquity meant reading aloud but, more than that, it was “an activity which, like chant and writing, require[d] the participation of the whole body and the whole mind.” Reading today is often a fairly perfunctory activity, partly no doubt because of the sheer volume of writing that is thrown at us. Our whole body and mind are not required to read an advert, a free newspaper, or even (usually) a blog post.

All teachers want their students to read more but maybe what we really ought to work on is getting them to meditate: “For the ancients, to meditate [was] to read a text and to learn it ‘by heart’ in the fullest sense of this expression, that is, with one’s whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.”

Meditation now has quite different connotations but, in antiquity and post-antiquity, it had a very specific meaning: “In secular usage, meditari means, in a general way, to think, to reflect, as does cogitare or considerare; but, more than these, it often implies an affinity with the practical or even moral order. It implies thinking of a thing with the intent to do it; in other words, to prepare oneself for it, to prefigure it in the mind, to desire it, in a way, to do it in advance –  briefly to practice it.” The idea of skim reading would have made no sense whatsoever to people educated in this tradition.

It seems clear that teaching children to read would take on a whole new meaning if we considered reading in this way, but is it really possible that reading could be a physical exercise on an equal level with walking, running, or ball-playing?

Jean Leclerq points out that meditari “is also applied to physical exercises and sports, to those of military life, of the school world, to rhetoric, poetry, music, and, finally, to moral practices. To practice a thing by thinking of it, is to fix it in the memory, to learn it.” And which teacher would disagree with that?

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