The Battle to Read?


By Omarfaruquepro (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

This week, Philip Yancey posted a blog “Reading Wars” that was picked up in the Washington Post under the title “The Death of Reading is Threatening the Soul.” Yancey begins the post noting the change in his own reading practices, from about three books a week (about what I typically read) to much less, and that he is reading far fewer works that require hard work.

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.


The Dangerous Practice of Reading in Bed


“The Bed-Time Book, written by Helen Hay and illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. Photo by Plum Leaves, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr (unedited)

Do you like to read in bed? I do. Most of the time, I only read a few pages before nodding off. Usually my wife comes to bed after I do and turns out the light, and I usually wake up just enough to mark my place and put the book aside. Pretty harmless, huh? It wouldn’t have been thought so at one time.

I recently came across a blog on the evils of reading in bed, by Kristen Wardowski, who posts some great stuff about books, reading and writing. She, in turn points to an article in The Atlantic by Nika Mavrody. The gist of both posts is that there were two dangers, one very real and one feared.

The very real danger had to do with how people were able to read in bed. They did so by candlelight. Readers falling asleep could be the cause of fires as candles burned down, or set fire to flammables like curtains in the vicinity. This was the equivalent of smoking in bed, and was considered a form of negligence.

The other danger reflects a shift in the nature of reading from communal to solitary. Sleeping arrangements also shifted in the same way from a time when a family shared a bed or slept in a common room to greater privacy in sleeping arrangements. Reading at one time was something done aloud, in the family circle, and of course needed to be suitable for the various members of the family. Often, it was the Bible that was read (although sex and violence are hardly absent from its pages).

Private, silent reading was feared to lead to private fantasies that distracted one from household duties, particularly those of women. It sounds obsessive that there was societal concern over what someone thought about in solitude. Yet is this so far from concern over what can be viewed on screens which may be obliterated with a swipe or a mouse click, but not erased from our minds?

These days we don’t condemn reading in bed with a broad brush, and that’s an advance. But does what we read in our last waking moments matter? I think of a somewhat humorous incident from early in our married life. I was reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and had dozed off and my wife came in, and I turned to her with a scowl and not fully awake and asked her, “why did you kill all those Indians?” She was not sure she wanted to join me that night.

What we read in bed can entertain us and relax us. But it can also anger us, disturb us, arouse us, or keep us awake far after we should be sleeping. A while back I was reading Kirsten Hannah’s The Nightingale, one of the best books I read last year. But the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France were profoundly disturbing, and not the best things to consider right before I wanted to sleep. This was good reading–for another time of day–at least for me. I would not dictate for anyone else, but I’m coming to realize that some types of reading in bed aren’t helpful.

One type of reading that has been helpful are to read some of the prayers that have been prayed by many others as they close their days. I love these words from the Wednesday compline of the Northumbria Community:

Calm me, O Lord, as You stilled the storm.
Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm.
Let all the tumult within me cease.
Enfold me, Lord, in Your peace.

The prayer concludes with these words:

 The peace of God
be over me to shelter me,

under me to uphold me,

 about me to protect me,

 behind me to direct me,

 ever with me to save me.

I love to think of being enfolded in the peace of God before slipping into the oblivion and helplessness of sleep. To read, and pray, and turn these words over in my mind is good reading. Sometimes it is all the reading I have energy left to do. If that is dangerous, then bring it on. That’s reading I can live with…and sleep with.

Reading Rituals


One of the most famous Presidential readers

The pleasure of reading for so many of us is not simply the book itself but also in the rituals that surround our reading. I often read early in the day, before my wife awakens. Before I read, I pray, exercise, and shower. I brew a pot of coffee, unload the dishwasher and set out our breakfast dishes. By then the coffee is done. In the morning, I will sit in the rocker my wife usually sits in. I understand why she likes this chair so much. It is comfortable, and the fidget-er in me is satisfied because I can move.

After the first sip of coffee, which sits comfortably at my right side, I open the book I’m reading, pull the marker out and pick up where I’ve left off. Often, this is the time of the day when I do my most challenging reading. My mind is clear, the house is quiet, and I usually have an hour before I plunge into the day. Gradually, the light outside the front window brightens as the sun rises. I read for about an hour, maybe 30-35 pages and finish that first cup of coffee.

Some evenings or Sunday afternoons, I like to go down to the family room, also known as “the man cave.” Often I will bring a cup of decaf coffee or tea, a mystery or biography or history, and put on some good music, which could be anything from a Haydn quartet to the Modern Jazz Quartet. If I want to mix a nap in, I’ll stretch out on the sofa. If I really want to read attentively there is a nice cloth chair with a firm cushion and the best light. And if I really want to savor the music, I’ll choose the leather chair situated just right for the full stereo effect. I’ll kick my shoes off and hopefully get lost in a good story.

I’m one to read myself to sleep. Often I take a few minutes to read compline, a prayer to end the day, and read something light on my Kindle, which I can do without my glasses. This works well because I often will fall asleep after a few pages–the Kindle shuts itself off, my wife shuts off the light and I wake just enough to put the Kindle on the nightstand and kiss my wife goodnight.

Sure, I may read in some other times and places, but these are my favorites. None of this is terribly dramatic or exciting, but the rest of life has enough drama and excitement. Perhaps what these reading rituals have in common is the savoring of simple but good things, a mug of something in the hand, a comfortable chair or perhaps my bed, a moment of quiet, or perhaps of musical richness, and a good book to inform, to provide material for reflection or insight, or just a good means of stepping into another world to get a better perspective on life in this one.

What are your favorite reading rituals and what do they add to the reading experience?

Books and Beverages

20160218_170703Book Riot has run a couple of posts (Part 1 and Part 2) on pairing brews and books. It was quite a creative idea pairing different beers with different titles (for example, Dogfish Head Higher Math with The Martian). That is, if you are a beer aficionado, which I am not. I really cannot explain the difference between an IPA and a pilsner. When someone comments that a particular beer is “hoppy” I nod knowingly while in truth am clueless what this means. I know imperial stouts have higher alcohol contents and are served in smaller glasses. These days, there are almost as many beers as there are books, and so the possibilities are endless–for those in the know.

It seems that one could do this with a variety of drinks–wines, mixed drinks, types of coffee and tea. I actually have the same problem in Starbucks as I do in the local beer emporium. The variety of coffee drinks can be bewildering. Occasional I’ll venture out and order some special drink, usually what they are featuring. But my default is the default, a Pikes Place black coffee. I know, b-o-r-i-n-g!

But this got me to thinking about the fact that one of the pleasures of reading is to do it with a beverage at hand–a sip of this, a page of that. It may seem pretty prosaic, but the simple pleasure of any good book with a good beverage is enough to reassure me of the basic goodness of life.

I do a good deal of my reading in the early morning hours with a fresh mug of coffee at my side. Savoring ideas and savoring the taste of the coffee go together. Later in the day I might switch over to a cup of decaf or some chai tea. Or in the summer, a glass of lemonade or iced tea would be the perfect accompaniment for me, sitting by our front stoop on a summer evening.

I guess for me, beer and wine are social drinks (what do they say about drinking alone?). Truthfully, if I had an alcoholic drink while sitting alone with a book, I’d be snoozing! But that’s just me.

So, do you like to read with a beverage at hand? What is your beverage of choice? And do you have any creative book-beverage pairings to propose?



How Much Do You Read?

How much do you read? This was a question posted on Facebook as a comment on my review of Theodore Roosevelt’s The Bully Pulpit. The truth is, I read a good deal, but even so, it took me a month to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book. And the truth is, I enjoyed every minute of it! That might be as good an answer as any for how much to read — as much as you enjoy without interfering with other obligations in life.

rooseveltTeddy Roosevelt found time to read for several hours most days, interspersed through his days. He was known to read a book or more a day. The Art of Manliness has an article on Roosevelt’s reading list — some of which he read multiple times.

What do I do? Most days I try to read for 60 to 90 minutes in the morning in a couple different books. On evenings when I don’t have commitments I do the same, usually with a mug of something hot and listening to some good music. I read most of Sunday afternoons, unless the weather is so inviting that you just have to get out. I usually have a book or two (or my Kindle) in my bag and will “snatch read” when I have some spare moments. I have several books going at once. (You can see what I’m reading on the Goodreads widget on my home page.)

This may be thought odd, and if so, guilty as charged. But is it any less odd that watching three to four hours of TV a night, or a number of two hour or longer movies every week? Or what about the time we spend on the internet or on our smart phones (doing something other than reading)? My point is not to criticize those choices. We choose what we value. One of the things I value is good literature. If you decide to read more, it may mean deciding to do something else less.

I try to read when I can best concentrate. I don’t try to read something overly heavy if I’m listening to music. That is a tug of war. I think I read relatively quickly, although speed is not the issue. If someone is taking a lot of time to elaborate a point he or she has made, I will read that more quickly.

How much to read is as individual a choice as your favorite flavor of ice cream. Years ago, so, someone told me that if you read 15 minutes a day, you can read 15 books in a year. (I probably average 120 minutes a day, and I read about 120 books a year, so this might be a good rule of thumb.) It’s not good to read beyond your ability to absorb what you are reading. It ceases to be enjoyable at that point. For me, that usually comes after an hour of uninterrupted reading. That’s a good time to do something else, or at least refill the coffee mug. So in the end, I come back to the idea I began with, read as much as you enjoy without interfering with the other obligations in your life.

How much would you say you read?

How Many Books Did You Read in 2013?

Book Riot recently published the results of poll of its followers on questions around their reading habits in 2013. Here is what they discovered:

Responses: 2483 (overall)

Mean-Average of books read: 75

Median number of books: 50

Respondents read anywhere between 2 and 1500 books!

Nearly 75 percent read e-books this past year

Print books still outweigh e-books by roughly 70 to 30 percent read.

Book Riot connects predominantly with an 18-35 year old college-educated constituency. Compare their numbers with a Pew study that found the mean average of books Americans read is 12 with a median average of 5 in a year.

One of the things these numbers suggest to me is that there is a big gulf in reading between a small cadre’ of people who really read a lot, and the vast majority who read little. There are some questions this basic gulf raises for me:

1. Was it always this way or is the gulf widening?

2. Do numbers tell the whole story? What are we reading? Is there greater worth in reading one great work of fiction than fifty romance novels?

3. How much time are people spending in any type of reading? Are we reading more online posts, magazine articles?

4. While we know that more are reading on tablets and e-readers, and even smartphones, does this translate into any more books being read?

I participated in the Book Riot poll. My own totals were 121 books read and for me it was roughly an 80% to 20% split between print and e-books.  I’d be curious for those of you who track such things, what were your reading numbers like in 2013 and what are you observing about how you read?