I read a disturbing article the other day that wasn’t really all that shocking, but rather a sad reaffirmation of the signs that are all around me. Fewer and fewer people read books these days. Affirming that we are now part of a postliterate society, Peter Denton laments:
Simply put, we are no longer a country of readers – at least not of more than 1,000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.
Preferring to communicate with images, Vines, and 140 characters or less, Denton points out the irony of how much emphasis and money we put into education, and yet, “We now have the intellectual attention span of squirrels – and it shows.”
For anyone who doesn’t read many books anymore or who thinks we have all we need on the Internet, I wanted to share a few reasons why we should still read books. I’ve gathered these reasons after reading a book, How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (Yes, that’s how much of a nerd I am):
Because there is a big difference between gathering information and reading for discovery and understanding. Articles, tweets, and Facebook posts can give us some new information. But we are usually getting this information at a level that is easy to consume and purposefully not challenging to our own intellect. But learning is about more than absorbing new information. Information is just the basic building block to stretching our understanding and moving on to discovery. In order to grow in this way, we need more than a 1,000 word article even. We need to read from people over our head and engage in the process of learning from them so that we can then connect that knowledge to other ideas for new discoveries. It’s all very exciting, but the shallow waters of the internet will never get you there.
Difficulty does not mean we should stop. The Internet is physiologically changing our brains. I am going to repost an article on Thursday about this challenge. It’s becoming harder for us to focus on reading a whole article, much less an entire book. But we don’t have to give in to that. We need to exercise our brains to keep the firing paths moving for endurance in our attention spans and capacity to think deeply. Just like a constant diet of fast food makes us flabby, so too a constant intake of social media to the neglect of books and thoughtful meditation will make our brains flabby. So if you find it difficult to read more than five pages at a time or you find yourself falling asleep as soon you crack open a book, that is a sign that you should be putting in the work that it takes to be an active reader. It doesn’t mean that books aren’t for you. The rewards are always better when we prep a meal with fresh ingredients than when we are in a hurry and hit the drive-thru.
To join the conversation. Authors write books because they have done a lot of reading and have made some discoveries that they would like to share in a meaningful way. An article or two isn’t going to cut it. Neither is a Vimeo or a Meme. So they put the crazy mad time into the process of writing a book. But readers are an important part of the conversation. Some people don’t read because they think it is isolating and they would rather be with people. But that is an inaccurate understanding of the process. When you read a book, you are engaging with a person, the author. And the intent of the author isn’t for you to shut the book and move on with your life, as if this were just a private affair. “Reading a book is a kind of conversation” and the reader now has a duty to reciprocate (137). There are all kinds of ways to engage in the conversation, the easiest being just to talk about these ideas to others or share the book. But my next point takes it one step further.
To develop critical skills of discernment. Joining the conversation should be more than regurgitating ideas. Adler and Van Doren have some great advice regarding our teachability: “A person is wrongly thought to be teachable if he is passive and pliable. On the contrary, teachability is an extremely active virtue. No one is really teachable who does not freely exercise his power of independent judgment. He can be trained, of course, but not taught. The most teachable reader is, therefore, the most critical” (140). This is an art that I really see lacking in the church. Animals can be trained; people ask questions, look for propositions, points of persuasion, and interact with ideas. I’m afraid our lack of intelligent reading has disarmed us from developing these critical skills.
Because “knowledge can be communicated and that discussion can result in learning” (149). If we believe that every claim a person makes is merely an opinion that is equal to all other opinions, then there really isn’t much of a reason to read books. But if we believe that truth has content and that we can actually appeal to that through the act of reason and logic, then we should be truth-seekers. And this gives us a purpose to reading—to learn! An author with a likeable personality is certainly a bonus, but I read with a goal to learn something from a book, which is also what helps me to finish the book.
Good books last longer than blog posts, which fade into cyberspace hoping for a Google search to one day bring them to light again. And they seek a higher purpose in shaping a reader. Read for discovery and understanding, not just to gather information. Read to develop your critical thinking skills. Be teachable and then teach others. Read books!
*Originally published on January 19, 2016.