He attributes this to the internet, and the tendency to read a paragraph or two and move along to something else, and to skip around from one thing to the next, and be easily distracted. He also notes the constant interruptions of emails and other messaging that wants a reply now.
He quotes a Charles Chu who estimates that it would take approximately 417 hours over a year to read 200 average sized books. Chu is walking proof that it’s possible, having read 400 books in the past two years. He notes that the average American spends 608 hours on social media and 1642 hours watching television. It is not a question of time.
Rather it is a question of seduction. And this is where the battle to read comes in. Between distracting notifications on smartphones, and the temptation to go from there to different social media can consume a lot of time. It’s mind candy, kind of fun really. There’s a video–was that really ten minutes? It lures us away from our books, and makes it harder to concentrate when we sit down to read them.
Yancey joins a chorus of people from Senator Ben Sasse who is trying to cultivate practices of reading in his family to Rod Dreher in his Benedict Option who are urging us to lay aside, or even fast from our technology to make time for deep reading of the printed page. Many business are arguing for setting aside at least an hour a day for reading.
Why does it matter? Isn’t this time one could more productively employ elsewhere? Personally, I reached a decision in my forties, that having passed the peak of my physical powers, I needed to take more time to read, and think, and pray if I was going to be spiritually and intellectually vital and fresh in my work. I could not just keep recycling what I learned in college and the first years out in the work force. I was changing, the world was changing, and the advance of years brought new questions, and questioned previous assumptions.
More than that, I came to realize that there really is something grand about this collective project called humanity–noble and sometimes hubristic dreams, great ideas like the freedom of conscience, and not so great ones like race theory, and great works of art and literature, that capture in a particular piece aspects of the universal human experience. I came to discover in the Christian faith not only the two to three millenia-old sacred scriptures that are our rule of faith and practice, but that conversation of great minds from Augustine and Athanasius to Barth and Niebuhr and Kuyper that sought to understand and apply these truths to their times. Many contemporary writers and speakers, as compelling as they seemed, were pretty thin fare by comparison.
Most of all, what I think I am trying to do as I read is to live an attentive life. I want to listen for God’s voice in the things that I read, and to be open to the possibility that a word of scripture, or an idea on a page might transform my perspective, question my ways of doing things, or lead to insights into how to live or work more in sync with God’s workings in the world. More than that, if God is the real hero of this story and mine but a small supporting role (and even that is something), so much of reading is a walk in the wonder of understanding the works and ways and majesty of God, whether in a book on the latest discoveries in physics, a history of a people, or a biography of a leader of the past.
There is so much more to life than what can be expressed in 140 characters or displayed on my smartphone screen. If we are dissatisfied with the banality of our public discourse, then perhaps a good beginning is to attack our own lack of attention to deep reading of ideas that matter. We might even discover that there is great joy to be found in a rich interior life. We might want such people to be leaders in our communities, and maybe our nation. We might even become them.
In the next days, I want to discuss more of what we can do to give substantive reading a greater place in our lives, and some practices and sources that can get us started.