Mark Edmundson argues in his Why Read? that great writing can take the place of religion in guiding souls "if religion continues to lose its hold on consequential parts of society."
I find this idea to be interesting in that Marx is known to have said that "religion is the opium of the people" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people and some books might have just that that kind of powerful influence over readers. (Obviously, being addicted to reading is not debilitating in the sense that addiction to opium is.) People could engage in solitary reading or come together as a group occasionally to discuss a selection of books they have read. Prose invites us to reflect upon different aspects and dimensions of life, while poetry delights our ears with its musical cadence and encapsulates in poetic visions the values and truths of our civilizations.
Although religion as culture and a way of life can never be reduced to pure scholasticism, studying and interpreting the scriptures is central to the spiritual development of readers of many religious communities around the world and Edmunson's observation seems hardly far-fetched in terms of how our souls might benefit from close readings of great humanistic narratives.
In Booknotes (see About Us after clicking on the link below) interview with Brian Lamb, Mark Edmunson explains how he became a reader and which authors influenched him. http://www.booknotes.org/Watch/184076-1/Mark+Edmundson.aspx (This program has an archive of 800 interviews with audio and transcripts that are categorized-e.g. biography, history, writers, etc.-and is worth exploring and gleaning for ideas and insights.)
LAMB: This book, "Why Read?" is 146 pages long. It's relatively small. How long did it take you to write this?
EDMUNDSON: Well, you know, I love the answer that R.P. Blackmur gave when a student showed up at his door and showed him a poem. And Blackmur - showed him three poems -and Blackmur said, I like this one the best. And the student said, I wrote that in five minutes. And Blackmur said, how old are you, son? I'm 18. Blackmur said, it took you 18 years to write that. It took me 51 years to write that, you know?
LAMB: How do - and you write a lot about philosophers in here, including Freud, who you say you've spent your life with.
LAMB: Why, by the way?
EDMUNDSON: Freud is somebody who can tell you more about yourself than anybody else when you're feeling down and low and reduced, right. Freud is great on depression, great on mourning, great on a love that's going sour. His view of human beings when they're at their worst is astounding. At the same time, somebody who desperately needs a philosophy of happiness to complement the philosophy of grief, that is pervasive in his work. These are great thinkers. Just a stoical, very tough-minded thinker. Far too tough-minded for our current addiction to cheerfulness.
LAMB: And how much in a day do you read?
EDMUNDSON: It really varies, but you know, I try to take home a new book that I've never read every weekend and go through that, all kinds of different books -- novels, histories, poems, plays, what have you -- and then probably a couple of others during the week, and lots of magazines and newspapers and stuff.
LAMB: Do you have pet peeves about writing that you avoid? Phrases, you know, dangling particles. I don't know. You know what I'm getting at?
EDMUNDSON: I punctuate a lot. I try to guide the reader as much as I can. I try to be as absolutely clear as possible, and yet, I try not to be somebody who sacrifices complexity at all. So, I was talking to a group of students at the University of Massachusetts this weekend, and they knew I was from Medford. Many of them were from similar towns. And they said, hey. You're from Medford. There are 50 words in here that we don't know. And I said, well, you can look at that as an affront, or you can look at it as a doorway into new knowledge. The great line of a 20th century American literary critic, he says that new words and new metaphors increase the stock of available reality. You know? There's suddenly something you perceive as out there that you didn't perceive before. Well, you can take it that way, or you can become a downcast. No, I don't know that word. That's a problem.
LAMB: Gertrude Himmelfarb has written a lot about the Victorian period. She's got this to say about the language. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB, AUTHOR, "THE DE-MORALIZATION OF SOCIETY": ... a good chunk of my life reading and thinking about the Victorians. I find them an enormously stimulating - it's an enormously stimulating period. And these were very, very thoughtful men. Mind you, while I was doing this, I was doing other things, as well. When I taught, for example, I taught not only English intellectual history, but I also taught about the Continental traditions, and the Germans and the French - Kant, Hegel, Marx, and so on. And it was very interesting to see my Victorians in contrast to the Continental thinkers. The Continental thinkers very often much more profound, more systematic, more ambitious as philosophers than the English. But lacking at a kind of humane quality that I always found in the English. (END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Your reaction.
EDMUNDSON: Good stuff. I mean, if it's a matter of reading Dickens, the most humane, comic and buoyant writer in English, maybe - next to Shakespeare - on the one hand, and reading one of the great mid-19th century German philosophers, even, you know. And I adored Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Maybe the palm goes to Dickens. But I like what Gertrude Himmelfarb is saying about making the Victorian period available to people as a source of other values - and I think she does this in her work - of values that they may want to maintain, sometimes in contrast to contemporary values.
LAMB: You mentioned Schopenhauer, and you also write about him.
EDMUNDSON: I do a little bit.
EDMUNDSON: Schopenhauer is a very daring, early romantic philosopher. He's extremely pessimistic, very tough-minded and is somebody who ends up in his despair of human folly, turning in a direction that I`ve been exploring more and more. And that's Buddhist thought.
LAMB: Why Buddhist?
EDMUNDSON: The Buddhist philosophy of the will, that the only way to happiness is to curtail and subdue as many desires as possible, is absolutely fascinating to me. Ultimately, I think it's a failure. Human beings can't do it, and suffer all kinds of sorrows when they try to go too far in terms of denying desire. But there's something very profound about it, nonetheless. You know, still, you know, Jacques Lacan says, talking about the Buddhist or Buddhist renunciation of desire. The patient desires to have no desires. And when somebody desires to have no desires, you've got a serious case of repression on your hands.
LAMB: Are you becoming a Buddhist?
EDMUNDSON: I want to be influenced by the part of Buddhism that emphasizes kindness, nonviolence, benevolence, respect for life. And yet, because some of the things that I'm inclined to say are controversial, I have to be aware that, though I affirm kindness and gentleness, nonetheless, there's going to be some inevitable friction in what I do. And I don't want to back off from that. So, the poet that I like the most, next to Emerson, is probably William Blake. And he's a tough, prophetic, left-wing, revolutionary poet. If you could combine Blake's toughness and eagerness to effect change with a sense of Buddhist detachment and kindness, you'd really be going somewhere. But that's tough to do.