I was raised in a traditional Protestant household, which means that at an early age I was instructed by devoted parents to set aside a portion of my morning to be alone with my Bible, just as they did. Private devotion had the basic structure of a conversation: I was instructed to talk to God by praying and to listen to God by reading His words. I would daily withdraw to a solitary area—usually my bedroom, but at times the woods—and there conduct this “conversation” for several minutes.
Reading as a habit is essentially religious in its origin and structure. What we now practice with various genres first developed around a set of sacred texts in ancient cloisters. Christianity, especially, has always been a bookish religion. It was the Church that so popularized the codex during the assemblage of the biblical canon that it replaced the scroll. Similarly, the reading habits I’ve enjoyed in adulthood owe themselves to this early instruction in private devotions, where I learned to set aside a still space to be alone with a book; which is to say, not alone at all.
Reading (a book) possesses characteristics analogous to spiritual exercise (i.e., ascesis). Reading is a fast from the world: an ascetical setting aside of all concerns and distractions to orient ourselves fully on something higher. Few lack a high opinion of reading but few read as much as they’d like. As an ascetical practice, reading is something we can’t expect to fit in the cyclical patterns of our lives. It is by its nature inconvenient; its benefits indefinite. If we put it off until all other needs and responsibilities are met, we will not read at all. Do you see how this is only possible with a religious spirit? There can be no habit of reading nless we are willing to deny ourselves and reject the world.
Here, reading is a habit, not a hobby. A hobby is a strategic and perhaps productive distraction. Reading is a spiritual discipline; it is freedom from distraction, repossessing our attention on what is central and essential. It is everything else that distracts, even if it is necessary. A habit is a commonplace pattern that conforms to and renews in the person their chief end.
WHAT IS TARRYPIN?
Tarrypin is a personal project to cultivate into habit the religious spirit of reading. Everything here centers on whatever books I happen to be reading, whether for work or for leisure. I will respond dialectically to my reading through reviews, commentaries, commonplaces, précis, essays, and other writing forms which I will publish here. Following my vocation, most titles that appear here will relate to early Christian studies. However, reading is as much the provenance of leisure as it is of my profession, and my interests are varied. My mission is not only to read well but to read widely, and I will deliberatley attempt to foray into new genres in which I have less familiarity, such as graphic novels and films.
My vocation to study early Christianity is especially relevant to my aspirations to become a reader. For the modern world, the world of the past is present first and foremost thanks to its literary legacy. Although archeology and other sciences have roles to play, to study history is essentially to be a reader. The ancient world practically means ancient literature and art. Opening ourselves to these voices, whose tongues have long turned to dust inside their skulls, we at once raise the past to modern scrutiny and put ourselves under the judgment of antiquity. This second half of this conversation is the most difficult and the least rehearsed in modern classrooms, but it is what I essentially mean by the religious spirit of reading.
WHAT AM I READING?
WHY DO I CALL IT TARRYPIN?
I first learned of the tarrypin from a book of Southern fables I read as a child. From spare descriptions, I gathered in appearance it was ancient, small enough to pick up, and resembled a polished stone. In manner, it was deliberate and crafty (hence “tarry,” I thought), and, following an old Southern literary tradition, outwitted the larger and stronger brutes with much theater and comedic timing. A mythical creature formed in my mind; perhaps an enchanted lump of pond.
It would be some time before I knew the facts. Part of the reason for the delay was the book used a deliberate Southern misspelling of terrapin. My mythical beast was, in reality, a freshwater turtle like the dozens that lived near my home. In most biographies, this would mark the beginning of the cruel but necessary disenchantment of the world before my young and innocent eyes. But the effect was the opposite. There is a song about a man who is bored with his wife; idly, he pursues a relationship with another woman who is new and interesting to him. The song ends with the revelation that the other woman is his wife using a pseudonym. This discovery is, in fact, a rediscovery. It reinvigorates his marriage, for he learns his boredom was not the fault of his lover, but of his failure to assess the scope of her soul. His next affair may be with her, for she contains multitudes. Something similar occurred to me. Calling it by a different name, I was given the opportunity to see something which I saw practically every day as though I had never seen it before. The mythical qualities remained intact in the transfer, and suddenly, something quite familiar to me was alien and strange. Rather than reverting my tarrypins into turtles, turtles transformed into tarrypins.
Familiarity breeds a sort of falsehood. Reading is a historic and reliable means to make otherworldly what we think common. A book offers the world and speaks, “Consider this anew.”
There is a final reason I chose the title. In his writings, Antonin Sertillanges compares the vigilant reader to a turtle. Such a person, book in hand, is prepared to make a strategic retreat occasionally from the world to the home he carries with him always, which is the mind.