In my usual tradition of arriving several years late to the party I will now weigh in on the people don’t read debate. I find most of this to be a preaching to the choir kind of writing, simply because the people who are most likely to read this kind of critique/complaint is most likely a reader already. So rather than lament the state of things I will make one comment and then, in a very round about way, make a suggestion that, if followed, will be detrimental to this blog but better for the reader in the long run.
I dispute that, “no one reads anymore.” Publishing is changing, yes. The heyday of the mass-market paperback or blockbuster from Clive Custler is largely over. And good riddance in my humble opinion. When they finally break into Danielle Steele’s basement and find all the monkey skeletons and typewriters I will not be among the shocked. There is more demand for books produced in high quality, and despite the grousing publishing houses have hauled their printing presses around to meet the demand. The internet has changed a lot but books are still around and being bought. And speaking of the internet, text is still an important communication tool. From messages to tweets to preferred news outlets people are reading. The general issue it that while people read in volume they do not read broadly or, as Jeeves would say, “Improving books.”
The first mark against the reader is volume. Consider that we are spoiled rotten just on available books alone. Augustine would weep if he saw my humble library alone. Much less if he knew how much of it is instantly available at my fingertips on a small grey device with an apple etched into the back. This was a man who wrote letters waiting six months or more for a single book. I start drafting angry emails to booksellers if I don’t receive my book in two days*. I have ready to produce at a moments notice a Nick Hornby essay justifying the purchase of books I will never read. Bookish people oft complain about the embarrassment of riches on their bedside table. The volume can be overwhelming. And is more so when it comes to important books or the classics.
“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Mark Twain
The second mark is laziness. Most often this is called our short attention span, but I grow weary of throwing that bum under the bus. Attention spans can be grown, it takes discipline. And before I set up a standard I myself do not fully meet, though I could excuse it away with a medical reason with the best of them, I too lack the full discipline to plow through in one go a proper chunk of Dickens**. It is so much more entertaining to pop out a phone, pop over to Not the Bee and, pop into being outraged at hypocrisy. Discipline means repenting of laziness, putting the phone in another room, and forcing yourself to actually read Knowing God uninterrupted.
The third mark is possibly the hardest to overcome. Finding fellows who will read with you. I hesitate to say, keep you accountable, though you may have to start there. Just as Scripture interacts us to, “Spur one another on to love and good works.” I would also exhort that we spur one another on to read broadly and improvingly. Beyond that nothing drives people to read more than friends who have that common love with you; and noting drives friendship like a common love.
“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”
… It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision – it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.” – C.S. Lewis The Four Loves
Books are capable of being both individualistic and communal. Friends help us to embrace what we have read to greater understanding and enjoyment, the best help us apply and integrate into our lives what we have learned.
“There is no substitute for good books and talking about them with friends” – Os Guinness
Mark five, which is attached to volume is that the pressure to finish and move on to the next book, to accomplish like a personal Everest means when we are done, we are done. A book can not be properly digested in one reading. One of the reasons I am an obnoxious quoter of Lewis is that I have read and reread him more than any other author. Proper familiarity with a work requires, well, familiarity. One of my favorite anecdotes from Julie Andrews biography is from when My Fair Lady was being staged. Being based on G.B. Shaw’s Pygmalion Rex Harrison guided the entire production from the original work that he knew intimately. The show was improved by his constant pointing out how the adaptation failed to understand Bernard’s original work and humor. Harrison’s constant cry was for his edition of the initial work, “Where’s the penguin!?” Till one day a stagehand charged cross the boards and shoved a stuffed penguin into Harrison’s arms. Harrison knew the work well and the world is better for it. Intimate knowledge of a selection of great works can be better than a shallow knowledge of an enormous spectrum.
“The common man reads the literary man re-reads” – C.S. Lewis
To tie this all together I would recommend the following. Read the Puritans.*** Not to turn this into a listicle but let me outline the reasons for you.
- They are endlessly practical. This is not to discount their devotional quality. There was a reason Puritan works were translated into French and Swiss for the reformers in Geneva who were so theologically minded. But the Puritans broadly made devotion applicable. Not an emotional journey with just you and Jesus and him carrying you over a beach.
- They relentlessly indexed their works. It is rare when a book by a Puritan is not broken down into minute sections. This makes their work easily digestible. There are many books that can be taken in small chunks even to defeat the habit of tweet checking. What a beast of a Christian would you be if your reaction to boredom was to reach for a Puritan Paperback instead of your phone?
- This is a way to narrow down volume and find your guy. And when you find him he will be a theological giant. My guy is Richard Baxter. That is who I reread (after Lewis). If you are wanting to discipline yourself in theology this a a great place to start and then narrow down and re read from there. At that point you can then branch out from a granite foundation
- The Puritans are are a great example of how to read. They read broadly and then considered what value was there, they pulled from and were familiar with the work of their own spiritual and intellectual tradition, This made them great thinkers, writers and examples. Consider the following:
“For the content of their belief… the Puritans… drew freely upon the stores of knowledge and the methods of thinking which were then available to educated men… Piety did not inhibit the Puritan scholar from adventuring upon them. True, he surveyed them in a thoroughly didactic spirit, and exercised critical wariness lest in his travels he be lured into accepting as fact what might in reality be the fancy of a depraved mind… He could be both selective and eclectic without seeming to do violence to any field of knowledge, without seeming to suppress any idea merely because it was at variance with his creed… [but] whatever teachings were incompatible with his religious beliefs he could exclude, not on the grounds merely of that incompatibility, but by objective and rational demonstration of their falsehood, demonstrations which he did not believe his enemies ever succeeded in disproving. Being a Protestant, he had the vast literature of Protestantism to supply the main outlines of his system; yet because he lived a century after Luther and Calvin he could view the first reformers in perspective, go beyond them or dissent from them when he had reason or Scripture to warrant him. Being an Englishman, on the edge of the Protestant world and always a little remote from his continental brethren, he could select what he saw fit from the works of Dutch, German, or Swiss Calvinists, and meanwhile take up from indigenous traditions, particularly from English legal and political theory, whatever supported his contentions.” – Perry Miller, The New England Mind
The point is this start in a rock solid place, one that is not insurmountable. A good number of Puritans have been made affordable and readable by Banner of Truth’s Puritan Paperbacks series. Swim broadly in the pond, find the cove you enjoy, then once you are established, branch out into the creek; then the river secure in knowing where home is. I would be happy to loose all three readers here to a Puritan. You will get more out of them in all honesty.
A final note. This is important because the anemic western church mostly boils down to the fact that it is not a reading church. Robustly theological bodies are steeped in scripture and in good theology. Lay people are able to work with a pastor to care for one another instead of be shunted around by a few who stick out. There are very few new objections or problems that arise in churches that have not been previously solved. How many pastors are answering the same questions or objections time after weary time stemming from a grievously illiterate church. And most often the answer given is rejected out of hand because the person is not steeped in truth they wanted a quick and tidy answer. Sadly the church is so separated from her history and her theology because of laziness, good fellowship, and the daunting bulk of the protestant if not western canon of literature. It is time to dive in.
“Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also taught the people knowledge; he pondered, searched out, and arranged many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find delightful sayings and to record accurate words of truth.
The words of the wise are like goads, and the anthologies of the masters are like firmly embedded nails driven by a single Shepherd. And by these, my son, be further warned: There is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body.
When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: Fear God and keep His commandments, because this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, along with every hidden thing, whether good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:9-14
There is no end to the making of many books. But that should not cow us because God has generously given guides who have written much on how to fear God and how to keep his commandments. In point of fact the general malaise of the church stems from only checking in once a week for our three songs and a pep talk. Dear Christian, read.
*And ironically I have considered publishing some of my wittiest drafts into a book
**Cards on the table Dickens is a terrible example. He was paid by the word and wrote to increase profit. As much as I love Great Expectations three pages on Mrs. Havishams rotting cake is really stretching it.
***If this suggestion surprises you then clearly you missed the word reformed in the title of the blog.