I made this decision some months ago. I would only read books that were no more and hopefully quite a bit less than 400 pages long. It’s a poor judgement of a book’s value, when content is less important than brevity, but my concentration is not what it was. I can read a paragraph of text and then not be at all sure what it has been about. Often I have to retrace my steps. And sometimes can forget again. Characters in a novel come in and out of the plot without me being sure how they fit into the story. But reading continues to be important to me. Not only does it keep me thinking but also introduces me to other people’s ideas and experience, whether fact or fiction.
I have just finished reading Diarmaid Mac Culloch’s ‘The History of Christianity – the First 3,000 years’. It was given to me as a Christmas present last year and has accompanied me in the months of this year. Over 1,000 pages long it has been a labour of discipline rather than of love and perfectly justifies my decision not to read long books.
But what a book; what an author; what a story! The scholarship is formidable, the research meticulous, the author’s hold on the complexities of history awe-inspiring. To achieve so much and in such detail astonishes me. He must have a superb indexing system to be able to refer to a history that covers the globe, but also he saves his text from boredom by his humour and often delicious irony. He can be moved by some of the story and then in a cunning phrase demolish the pomposities and idiocies of some of the incidents and characters he introduces us to.
And there are so many of them! A page at a time and he can picture half a dozen people, some of whom may have changed the content of belief, and corralled a whole population into a faith they may not hold individually, but are required to give assent to by the dictate of a ruler.
That eternal – and infernal – use of religion as a means of political control and definition of national identity is an unhappy thread woven into the whole of his historical narrative.
Despite its vast subject, it is a very personal book; you meet the author. Mac Culloch is clearly impatient with the Catholic miss-use of power, appears fascinated by the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity of which we in the West are mostly ignorant, and shows more than a hint of affection for a dissenting attitude to faith – for some years though not in my time, he lectured in the Methodist Theological College I attended. No longer a practising Christian, and critical of much Christian doctrine and practice, he can be positive as well, even hopeful for the future. He ends the book by saying of this ‘youthful’ religion, that it may yet have more secrets to reveal.
I ought to read it all again, if not in its entirety, certainly in part. But meanwhile I shall return to my resolve to read books of more modest length.