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“Reading Around” under­lines the impor­tance of under­standing the context sur­rounding a work. Pexels

“No readers get to every­thing they want to read. In fact, the more we read the worse the problem grows.”

Director of the Dow Jour­nalism Program John J. Miller opens his newest book by addressing a number of issues per­tinent to avid readers. Released in January, “Reading Around: Jour­nalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas,” includes a variety of articles he has written on pieces of lit­er­ature and authors ranging from “Beowulf” to C.S. Lewis.

The title for the book came from a phrase Provost David Whalen uses. “Reading around” under­lines the impor­tance of under­standing the context sur­rounding a work. In order to better under­stand an author’s message, readers must research the events and writings of the day as well as the influ­ences on the author.

Miller high­lights one conundrum for book­worms: that readers are in a con­stant search for more and more books to devour. Then he addresses the problem of quenching this ever-growing thirst to read more books.

“When I finish a book, I may scratch a title off a mental list but often two more titles suggest them­selves and the list lengthens,” Miller writes in the intro­duction. “One of my hopes is that ‘Reading Around’ will address this conundrum of the curious.”

Miller grew up as a “vora­cious reader,” devouring all kinds of books he could get his hands on. He attended the Uni­versity of Michigan with plans of becoming an English pro­fessor. His college and pro­fes­sional careers took dif­ferent turns than he had orig­i­nally planned.

“As things turned out, I went into jour­nalism, and I’m glad it worked out that way,” Miller said in an interview. “I have never looked back, although my interest in lit­er­ature, art, and ideas never went away. As I’ve been a pro­fes­sional writer, I’ve looked for oppor­tu­nities to cover these topics.”

And he has found them. The book fea­tures pieces he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Claremont Review of Books, and the Weekly Standard. Because “Reading Around” is a col­lection of his articles than a con­tinuous nar­rative, Miller said readers will not likely read the articles in order, from beginning to end. 

This book has a perfect format for college stu­dents. With the business of essays and exam prepa­ration, time is a pre­cious com­modity for the stu­dious. Miller has designed the book so readers may pick and choose articles they find inter­esting.

One goal he hopes to accom­plish for the readers is to show the pos­si­bility of making a living by writing lit­erary articles. You don’t need to be a pro­fessor, Miller said, to write about lit­er­ature. It’s entirely pos­sible for jour­nalists to get paid writing about books and their authors, he said. He men­tioned great writers such as John Milton, Jonathan Swift, and Edgar Allan Poe who worked in jour­nalism and got their start in writing and editing for news­papers and mag­a­zines.

“If you love movies, why not be a movie reviewer?” he said. “Or if you love books, why not think about working at the Wall Street Journal book section? These are real jobs, and they require people with certain kinds of interests. You can do this pro­fes­sionally. This is not an unre­al­istic goal.”

Miller is living proof of this. Although he has done more political jour­nalism than lit­erary, he has built up an impressive col­lection of book reviews and lit­erary opinion pieces, which appear in “Reading Around.” 

But more than an inter­esting topic, Miller believes that lit­er­ature is vital for under­standing human nature and finding truth we had not pre­vi­ously known. But there’s more to it than that. Good lit­er­ature is simply appealing to us as readers.

“The best lit­er­ature is enter­taining,” Miller said. “I read a lot of books that are pri­marily for the purpose of enter­tainment. I enjoy a good thriller. I enjoy a good crime novel. I think that’s an entirely worthy thing. The best lit­er­ature says much, much more and gives us insights we may not have and teaches us things we may not know. Enter­tainment is a per­fectly good reason to read.”

Stu­dents at Hillsdale are often con­cerned with the intel­lectual value of a book and the truths we might glean from it. This is cer­tainly noble, but we’re prone to lose sight of the enter­tainment value that great books offer. 

One article in “Reading Around” covers L. Frank Baum’s classic story of the land of Oz. In “The Wizard of Oz: Just a Story,” pub­lished in the Wall Street Journal in 2006, Miller “reads around” Baum’s life and his most famous work, “The Won­derful Wizard of Oz.” Miller explains scores of readers and teachers tried to read all sorts of political meanings into the children’s book. But this is not where the true heart of the book lies.

“The real bril­liance of ‘The Won­derful Wizard of Oz’ is that it aims chiefly to entertain — a worthy ambition in its own right,” Miller writes. “As Baum himself once said, ‘To write fairy stories for children, to amuse them, to divert restless children, sick children, to keep them out of mis­chief on rainy days, seems of greater impor­tance than to write grown-up novels.”

As Miller said, enter­tainment is an important aspect of good lit­er­ature. Cer­tainly, some novels can be purely fluff, but we shouldn’t absurdly dismiss the value of a book simply because it is enter­taining.