I don't like the so-called "summer reading lists" because they undermine the value and seriousness of reading. "Light reading" stuff seems to me an affront to both the author and the reader. Instead of treating reading books as a hobby or killing time, we should treat it as an invitation to engage with ideas, concepts, feelings and dreams that good authors of various vocations present to us.
Reading is a serious business. Whether we read a cookbook or Plato, we let the author and the book into our world of the mind. We engage, like, dislike, accept or criticize their ideas and concepts. Whatever the end result, we accept their invitation to set out on an intellectual journey. How enriching, depressing or disappointing the journey may turn out to be depends as much on the books we read as on our state of the mind and spirit when we read them.
Reading is an act of the mind as well as the heart. We read with our minds but also with our feelings and emotions. Whether reading a novel or a book on cosmology, we respond to its main ideas and propositions with the intellectual and emotional background we have. Books shape our thinking but also we shape the books in the various ways we respond to them.
Reading a good book may bring joy and comfort. Some may see it as a good investment for leisure time. There is nothing wrong with reading to relax the mind and uplift the spirit. But anyone who takes reading seriously would gain more than just relaxation from reading books. What is really wrong is the belief that we should read in our leisure time.
Reading, when done properly and intelligently, nourishes the mind and the soul. It is therefore important to know what to read and how to read. Each book is a journey when written by an author and when read by a reader. We have to take this journey seriously if we are to achieve something good at the end. A book may make us laugh, think or cry. These are all serious matters when placed within our larger journey on this earth.
Reading requires discipline and concentration. This does not mean that one has to go to a big research library or sit in an isolated office to read all the time. Spending time in libraries is an extremely rewarding experience. Just looking at book titles may open up numerous possibilities in our minds. Given the opportunities we have to access books easily today, we may set our own rhythm to read. And of course, we can read anywhere. All we need is a mental discipline and concentration.
Admittedly, this is not an easy task in an age in which we are bombarded with millions of sound bites and braking news headlines. What is worse, we are expected to respond to the "instant messaging" of the modern world of communication and social media in the same ways it is produced: short, swift, scandalous, shallow, aggressive, invasive. Every news story is now produced to immediately move to the next one: instantly produced, instantly consumed without any depth.
This makes the act of reading even more important. We are supposed to read in order to expand our knowledge and increase our understanding, not kill time. Therefore what we read and how we read does matter.
But reading is not limited to reading books (or screens these days). It encompasses other states of existence such as nature, visual arts and music. Just as a book tells us many things, nature also speaks to us. If we have the ears to hear and the eyes to see, nature can teach us profound lessons about beauty, balance and harmony. Art works can evoke sublime feelings in us so that we can go beyond form to reach meaning. They can also teach things through "shock therapy." Music can be a mentor for those who want to experience meaning beyond words. These are all different forms of reading in our quest to discover ourselves and our place in the great chain of being.
Reading is essentially an act of unveiling and attaining meaning that comes in different forms. The truth and meaning that become available through reading books, art or nature open up our doors of perception and invite us to discover diverse worlds that we otherwise are not aware of. But since each discovery is also a process of self-discovery, we gain an inner understanding of things as they stand in the world of existence. We discover ourselves in every attempt to understand the meaning of things.
This approach is firmly enshrined in the Islamic tradition. The very first revelation that was sent to Prophet Muhammad was "Iqra!" meaning both "read" and "recite." This suggests that we read the Quran as a sacred book but also seek to gain insight into the inner nature of things through it. The Quran urges people to read the signs within their souls and the universe so that they can be better human beings by using their intelligence and appropriating virtues. Those who fail to read in this sense basically accept to live under their true potential to become full human beings.
We should read to increase our knowledge, widen our horizons and discover new worlds. This leads me to one conclusion only: read what is really essential and enduring. Trendy stuff comes and goes. Do not waste your time and taint your mind with them. Read those authors and books that have shaped human thinking, forced our imagination beyond the average and urged us to be better and more intelligent beings. Read Plato and Aristotle and do not listen to those who say that it is heavy stuff. Read Marcus Aurelius to see how a philosopher-king struggles with ideals and realities, principles and facts - the same challenges we deal with at various levels every single day. Read St Augustine to understand how a first-rate mind deals with issues of faith and reason.
Read T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis to make sense of our modern predicaments.Spend serious time with al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Ghazali, Suhrawardi, Mulla Sadra and other Muslim thinkers to see how a believing mind can make sense of the world without sacrificing either God or human reason and freedom. Leave your mind and heart to Rumi and Ibn al-Arabi to take you to places of wonder, love and compassion. Turn to Ibn Jubair, Ibn Battuta and other Muslim travelers to see how Muslim men of learning developed a notion of the global world before the era of modern globalization. Plunge yourselves into the timeless poetry of Hafiz, Sa'di, Khayyam, Attar, Yunus Emre, Baki, Fuzuli and other poets who sing the songs of divine and human love, wayfaring and companionship.
This list can be expanded to include works from the other great traditions of the world including the Chinese and Indian civilizations. No matter how wide we throw our net, though, the key to meaningful reading is to read what is essential and do it in a disciplined way. In the summer or winter, at home or on the road, read to unveil the signs in the horizons and within our souls.