Books Before Newsbites: Curating the News with C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Day

When it comes to news consumption, I mostly have two kinds of friends.

The first backs away from any conversation about current events. “Oh, I don’t pay much attention to the news,” they say with a dismissive wave of the hand. “It’s too political for me.” 

I know what they mean.

Many of us are giving up on conversation about the news because it’s too risky. An unguarded comment revealing a shade of thought to the left or the right of a friend and the entire relationship may be at stake.

One may label you a hater (you said something a scooch to the right of their brand); another, a traitor (you revealed a thought scooch too close to the left). Maybe it’s best to forget about current events beyond what’s new in entertainment and sports (How about those Denver Nuggets?).

The other group is hypervigilant in their news consumption. “You haven’t heard what Senator so-and-so said about the investigation into such-and-such?” they question, eyebrows raised. “You can’t afford to have your head in the sand about this!”

I know what they mean too.

We’re responsible for how we live in this world,  what kind of neighbors and citizens we are. Local, state, national and international headlines can be overwhelming, but ignoring them means we leave the world in other hands; we forsake the call to be salt and light because we love Christ, and he calls us to it. 

I’ve always followed the news with interest for that reason, though a good deal of pride muddles the mix, I must admit. And I still recall a moment when my obsession with current events cooled a bit. I was in my early twenties, and I was reading a collection of essays in remembrance of C.S. Lewis in the library at Southwest Missouri State University while my husband worked on a project in the microbiology lab.

I scanned the periodical section at every visit to the library back then, checking out headlines in the papers, Time, Newsweek and everything from Mother Earth News to National Review before settling down to read a book. My lifelong fascination with the work of C.S. Lewis had just begun and C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences was my current read. It was here that a thought-provoking remark Lewis once made to a student left me with the impression that he didn’t pay the daily news much mind.

Apparently the creator of Narnia, convert from atheism, master of medieval literature and deft defender of the Christian faith had once commented to Derek Brewer (who became a renowned Chaucer scholar) that he didn’t read the papers because “if something important happens, someone will tell you.” 

I wasn’t the only one to be influenced by this remark. The editors of Christian History magazine would dub it “the original media fast,” and I’ll admit that to this day whenever I’m overwhelmed with the flamethrowing news-obsessed culture we live in, I’ve employed Lewis’ remark as an excuse to take a break from it all.

And I must correct the record.

Lewis’ pithy phrase has in fact created a false impression, a belief that he never read the news but relied on scuttlebutt from friends to keep current with his culture. If you think that sounds a little off, you’re right.

Lewis, it is true, was not a fan of the daily paper. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy he took issue with people who believe “schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers.” Why? Because, like the internet websites, cable news shows and social media feeds of today, newspapers are filled with the temporary and the trivial:

Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be seen before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.

Oh how true that rings! We only have so much time in a day, so much space for contemplation and leisure. And in our own times we are in greater danger than ever of clogging our neurological pathways with details we’re powerless to act on and which can only flatten our emotional responses while we glide from tragedies to trivia without serious reflection on any of it.

But Lewis did read the newspaper, in point of fact; he just didn’t read it every day. 

And he read it with a particular focus. C.S. Lewis scholar Harry Lee Poe notes that Lewis, in his letters to friends, commented on events in the news that concerned him. “Such events as a general strike by the labor unions and the dangerous political situation in Ireland regularly elicited comments in his correspondence about things he had read in the newspapers.” 

Poe points out that “Lewis had a robust sense of humor, and he often poked fun at himself. The image of a man who never read the newspapers has a funny tone. Lewis saw the humor in the exaggeration”:

In the same way that he preferred conversation about big ideas to small talk, Lewis didn’t pore over the paper every morning as many men of his day did. Instead, he sought out newspaper articles on serious events such those cited in his correspondence. That seemed to him more worthy of his time, and steeped as he was in great literature, teaching and writing of his own, he made the most of it.

A related suggestion about managing news consumption is found in The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus, a short collection writing by Dorothy Day.

Nobody has ever accused Dorothy Day, the social activist and Catholic Worker co-founder, of being uninformed or out of touch.

She founded a newspaper, after all. But the Catholic Worker was (and is) a paper of a different kind, created “not to chase advertisers but to cultivate a community of discourse among [its] readers.”

Dorothy Day was a journalist all her life. She outlived Lewis by twenty years and she commented on the major events of the twentieth century as she experienced them: “wars, economic depression, class struggle, the nuclear threat, and the civil rights movement.”

D.L. Mayfield notes in her introduction to The Reckless Way of Love that Day was involved in politics “while refusing to be conscripted to any political party.”  Dedicated as she was to her Catholic faith, she held some views that right-leaning people favor and others more congruent with those on the left.

And her political independence may have been supported by a habit similar to Lewis’ approach to the news. The bulk of her reading time was spent in books, and these informed her worldview in a deeper way than an obsession with current events could.

“Put away your daily paper,” Day advises a friend in one of her letters: 

“Read one review of events a week and spend some time reading such books as [Labrinthine Ways, To the End of the World, Kristin Lavransdatter, Master of Hestviken, Jeremiah, 1 Kings]. They tell too of days of striving and of strife. They are of other centuries and also of our own. They make us realize that all times are perilous, that men live in a dangerous world, in peril.”

I can see in the lives of these two great 20th century Christians the truth of words attributed to St. Catherine of Siena: “Be who you were meant to be and you will set the world on fire.” C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Day are very different personalities who led very different lives. One might struggle to find a thing the former soldier and the passionate pacifist had in common, apart from the fact that they both converted to Christ after a period of committed atheism and that they both read and wrote voraciously.

I had to smile when I read that in a diary entry from the 1960’s, Dorothy Day recorded carrying a copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain in her purse.

Lewis famously recommended the reading of old books as a corrective to the spirit of the age, which swallows our souls as we consume its clamor. In an often-quoted passage in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books” he remarks:

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century–the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that’–lies where we have never suspected it…None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.

Day’s favored reading tended to be more contemporary than Lewis’ recommendation would allow (though her diaries reveal her attention to spiritual classics). Lewis was a medieval scholar and Christian apologist; Day a radical intellectual, founder of a movement dedicated to community and to the poor. Neither found it necessary to spend time on the daily trivia of the news, but curated their approach to current events while daily forming their hearts by the scriptures and by books.

With the advent of the internet, social media and multiple technologies for accessing “a little bit of everything all of the time,” contemporary Christian intellectuals are wrestling more than ever with how to stay current without becoming consumed by polarizing politics and trivial pursuits.

Jeffrey Bilbro, in Reading the Times: a Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News echoes both Lewis and Day when he writes:

“We cannot ignore current events simply because much that passes for news today is trivial or vapid….Instead, we would do well to apprentice ourselves to a long tradition–stretching from the Old Testament prophets to Jesus to the church fathers to many saintly contemplatives and social advocates–that models a way of responding wisely to contemporary events.”

Reading the Times is the finest book I’ve encountered on the subject of responding reflectively to the times we live in. I also recommend Bonnie Kristian’s Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community.

Both books contain concluding sections with action steps worth considering. Kristian, former acting editor-in-chief at The Week, recommends its daily email Ten Things You Need to Know Today that provides a five minute glance at the headlines. Bilbro advocates subscribing to a local newspaper and a journal such as Plough Quarterly or Local Culture. I can recommend as well the Braver Angels podcast, which I turn to when I want to understand both sides of a particular issue and school myself in courageous, compassionate conversation. Their mission might just win you over, too.

Even more than finding a better book-to-newsbite ratio in my life, I hope to work past my fear of being thought a hater by some and a traitor by others when my sincere views don’t match up with those of my friends.

I don’t know what C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Day would have thought of each other if they’d met. It really is hard to picture such an encounter! But they illustrate to me the beautiful diversity in the kingdom of God, and the truth Gerard Manley Hopkins saw when he wrote so memorably: “Christ plays in a thousand places/lovely in limbs/and lovely in eyes not his.”

“The just man justices,” he asserts earlier in the poem.

These two certainly did, each in the way God called and gifted them. Our times could use a few more like them.

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You might also enjoy Loving our Neighbors while Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Contemplation on the News and Prepare for this Political Year: Read Arthur Brooks’ Love Your Enemies.

Dip into some of C.S. Lewis’ favorite books with From the Library of C.S. Lewis: Selections from Writers who Influenced His Spiritual Journey, compiled by James Stuart Bell. Pints with Jack has recently kicked off “Jack’s Bookshelf,” a series of episodes about the authors and works which shaped C.S. Lewis.

To peruse a list of Dorothy Day’s reading, head over to Salt and Light Media’s four part post The Dorothy Day Reading Challenge List by Alison Kenny (she’s extracted all the books Day mentions in The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg.)

Booklists can be daunting, but these offer a fascinating look into the influences of two extraordinary people. I’m wondering how my response to contemporary events might change if I steeped myself more diligently in books like the ones Lewis and Day spent their time absorbing.

How do you manage your news consumption? What books are shaping your imagination? I’m still searching for tips, and I’d love to hear from you!

Photos by Thomas G. from Pixabay and Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.