Holding Your Books

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Have you ever thought about how you hold your books? Most of the time, I suspect our book holding maneuvers are subconscious as we shift a book from one hand to another, or re-position a book or ourselves.

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Ladakh” by Christopher Michel is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I didn’t think about this so much in the past as I do now. Depending on the print size, my lap is too far away for these aging eyes and holding a large book in my hands gets tiring. Or I will cross my leg, and prop the book on my lower leg, until I uncross and recross my legs the other way. Resting the book on a table is another solution, but that means sitting at a table, hunch over if it is flat, or I hold the book propped up on the table

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Photo by r._.f from Pexels

I’ve always been a bit of a fidgeter. Sitting in a chair for very long and I have to move around. Sometimes I read standing. Sometimes laying down–until I fall asleep. Sometimes even laying on the floor.

Then there is the challenge of holding the book open. Many will not lie flat and so need to be held open.

Yet for some weird reason, I still usually prefer print to e-books, except for walking on my treadmill.

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Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Apparently people have been devising ways to cope with these challenges for years. Winston Churchill often worked and read at the standing desk pictured above–the original hands free reading. The desk here holds several open at once. I’ve seen some use drafting tables in this way. You just need some kind of ledge at the bottom to keep the books from sliding off.

Alternately, people have used book pillows to rest the book closer than a lap. There are acrylic book stands that can be placed on tables or wood book podiums that can be placed on a table.

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Photo via Pikrepo licensed under CC0 1.0

A variety of bookholders have been created for those who like to read in bed. These vary from lab desks and pillow desks to various bed tables, and even bedside tables like those whose in hospitals where the base is wheeled and slides under the bed and the stand tilts and can be adjusted to the ideal height and angle to “consume” your book. Here is a BookwormGadgets post that features a number of these products.

There is still the problem of holding your book open hands free, ideally in a way where it is easy to turn the page when you are ready, but secure. While some better books lie open of themselves, and are easily held, many either have to be held by one or two hands, and hardbound books can be awkward.

There is a Flipklip book holder that holds the book open but allows you to turn pages easily. There are various other page clips which are great at holding books open but need to be removed as you turn pages. If you are reading on flat surfaces, there are various types of bookweights, which probably work better than the stapler I sometimes use to hold a book open when I’m writing a review. Another BookwormGadgets post describes a number of these products.

Maybe this all seems fussy, and there are times when the book, the chair, the lighting are perfect, allowing us to lose ourselves. However, the existence of all these products suggest that I’m not the only one who finds holding a book in my hands or on my lap is not always optimal. All the items we have devised actually are quite ingenious, and many diehard readers end up using one or more.

It also reminds me of what an ergonomically exquisite thing an e-reader is–easily held, allowing one to set fonts. lightweight, and capable of holding not one book but thousands. It makes me wonder why so many of us still love print books–and reminds me what peculiar creatures we bibliophiles are.

 

A Bibliophile’s Top Ten For Thanksgiving

happy-thanksgiving-3767426_1280Thanksgiving is the traditional occasion for recalling the many good gifts of life for which we are thankful. With that holiday approaching, it occurred to me that bibliophiles have particular reason to be thankful. Here are ten:

  1. The gift of words. In well-crafted sentences and paragraphs, filling the imagination with ideas and stories films only poorly capture.
  2. The feel of a well-made book in one’s hand.
  3. The smell of books: fresh paper and ink, or the faint mustiness of an older book.
  4. The discovery of a good series and the thought that there may be two, five, ten or more to follow, where characters become friends (or hated enemies).
  5. That moment when light and seating, beverage and book merge into a seamless flow of pleasure as we lose ourselves in a story.
  6. The insight that the world, both real and imagined, is larger, more complicated and interesting that we’d previously thought.
  7. The re-reading of once, or twice, or thrice-loved books that are never the same book because we are never the same reader.
  8. The finding of a book on the shelves of a bookstore, or a book sale, that one has always wanted to acquire, as if both you and the book were just waiting this moment.
  9. The thought that there are professionals, booksellers and librarians, who share our love of books, and work to connect book and reader; where their employment and our enjoyment allow us both to flourish.
  10. Finally, there are those, usually teachers and parents, who ushered us into the love of story, the printed page, and the wonder of books. Perhaps for these we reserve our greatest thanks, for without them, the rest is not possible.

I could go on and I’m sure you can think of reasons to be thankful connected with books. Why don’t you add them in the comments below, and perhaps share this exercise with your book-loving friends and loved ones this Thursday. Happy Thanksgiving!

A Facebook Conundrum

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I ran into a conundrum yesterday in posting the above meme, of all places, on my Bob on Books Facebook page. It is a page that gather readers to talk about books and share their common love, and offers everything from humor to serious articles about book-related topics.

The conundrum, as some who are on the page noted, is the act of posting something like this does the very thing it discourages, taking us away from the book we were intending to read. It could probably be argued as well that hosting the page, and blogging about books,  takes me away from reading.

It may be observed that there are other things beside books, including the communal act of talking about books and ideas, hopefully civilly and substantively, rare things in our society, and even rarer on social media. I also post humor, because I think it is a healthy thing to laugh at ourselves as the quirky creatures who love books and reading and all things related, like libraries and bookstores.

But I also realize that it is possible to help dig reading’s grave with digital distractions. Apps like Facebook are exquisitely designed to do just that. Of course, we can say we are “reading,” and sometimes we really are. I find a number of great and interesting articles, that in the reading, enhance my understanding of authors, bookselling, and you name it connected with books.

Perhaps this is another aspect of the double-edged nature of many technologies, maybe all technology. Atomic energy can kill cancer, or kill people. Opioids can provide a merciful release for those in intense pain, or addict and kill.  Likewise, social media can point us to worthy books, and distract us from reading them.

So what is one to do? Perhaps the best I’ve come up with is to have social media time, and book time. It may mean having the phone in another room while one reads, or to turn off all notifications. Of course this is a problem for those who read on their phone or tablet computer with non-reading apps. Probably most of us need to set some boundaries on social media. Increasingly apps can even be set to allow us only a certain amount of viewing time per session.

I think managing digital distractions, which is really self-management, is just a reality of our modern lives, at least for most of us. Such self-management is what allows us to appropriately and not inordinately use such technology.

At least that’s what I tell myself as I curate my page. I assume we’re all adults and have learned, or are learning to set our own boundaries of social media use. It does seem that this is so from the titles and numbers of books people report having read. Maybe the meme above is nothing more than a “gotcha” moment we all laugh about.

But I’ve not stopped thinking about the conundrum, and trying to discern the line between ordinate and inordinate. I’d love to hear from others who host social media or blog sites as to what they think about this.

Reading When Others Want to Talk

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Screenshot of GIF posted on BookBub

Have you ever been trying to read when others want to talk and you end up reading the same paragraph over and over again? Do you find yourself internally “clinching up” and having to stifle your impulse to scream “shut up!”

Unless we decide to become hermits (who still depend on others for the necessities of life), a reality of life is that there will be times when we want to read and others want to talk. Even more, sometimes they want to talk with us!

Here are a few thoughts of how I (very imperfectly) deal with this dilemma:

  1. Sometimes you just need to give it up and choose relationships over books. Especially with spouses or partners or children who want to talk with us. Does it really pay to lose those you love to lose yourself in a book? I hope you don’t have to think too long about that!
  2. This also applies to social gatherings. Most people don’t assume this is a time for reading unless it has been arranged as a reading party–yes there is such a thing, and I’ve written about it.
  3. Try reading when others are sleeping, although this means sleeping on a different schedule.
  4. Agree on times that are “reading times” as a family. For the sake of the talkers, don’t exceed them! People will more readily allow you time to read if they know when you will be available–and you are.
  5. Sometimes, finding a quiet place, like a library reading room can work if that is the shared expectation. It only takes one loud talker on a cell phone to spoil it!
  6. If you want to read where there are conversations going on that don’t involve you but can be distracting, choose books that engage your attention, and don’t involve careful reading of densely articulated ideas.
  7. Depending on how you and other people in your household feel about it, and their bodily needs, the bathroom can sometimes offer a temporary refuge–emphasis on temporary!
  8. Weather permitting, is there a place outside your home that might be secluded, perhaps a “readers garden”? (I draw this term from a nearby bookstore of the same name).
  9. Speaking of bookstores, these also sometimes have alcoves or seating that allow for reading, and should be places that respect that.
  10. Sometimes, the best answer that combines reading and sociability is to read aloud together. Maybe you can even give each member of the family or group a chance to share a passage of what they are reading.

Reading is a conversation with an invisible author and requires our full attention. So do conversations with people. Most of the time, trying to multitask means we end up doing both badly, present to neither conversation. At least part of our screen time on cell phones is also reading–texts, comments, news, and shopping sites. Perhaps the offense of not being present happens here more than anywhere. Sometimes we are more present with what is on the screen than the person we are sitting with.

It all comes down, I guess, to which conversation we really want to be in.

 

Young Readers in Love

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Children reading, by perfertdaysphotography via Pixabay

The other day, I asked the Bob on Books Facebook Page membership “when did you discover you loved reading?” As of this writing, thirty-six people responded and it was unanimous that they fell in love with reading in elementary school or before. The oldest was in sixth grade. Some always loved reading, enjoying being read to and even learning to read before they went to school. One woman claimed she read at a twelfth grade level in first grade!

There were several things I learned from my informal survey:

  1. Time spent with parents or another adult reading stories contributed to a love for reading for some.
  2. Learning how to read opened up the wonderful world of reading for some.
  3. One reader shared how she didn’t learn to read until sixth grade due to issues related to Aspergers, and how dedicated Special Ed teachers persisted when she started falling behind and resented reading. Now she loves reading and commented, “I enjoy reading so much now and will continue on for more years to come.”
  4. For many, it was a particular book that opened the wonderful world of reading. People mentioned Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte’s Web, the Little House books, A Wrinkle in Time, Nancy Drew mysteries and monster books.
  5. Trips to the library and bookmobile were important for a number of individuals, and getting a library card of one’s own was empowering.

The funniest reply I received was, “When I realized I wasn’t getting siblings, ever.”

Just yesterday, I came across this in How Neighborhoods Make Us Sick:

“Learning to read in first grade is the start of future academic attainment that has significant implications on adult health status. By third grade, students transition from learning to read to reading to learn, meaning that an inability to read hinders learning across all subjects. A study in the Chicago Public School system found that 80 percent of children with above-average reading scores in third grade graduated high school compared to 45 percent of those with below-average reading levels.” (p. 65)

Elsewhere in this book it was noted that life expectancies in the U.S. can differ by as much as 14 years between those who fail to graduate from high school and those with sixteen or more years of education. Often, these differences are associated with zip codes and a complex of challenges.

Years ago, two friends co-wrote a book titled Read for Your Life. I wonder if they realized how literally true their words were. It seems that fostering the skill of reading, and hopefully with it, the love of reading, ought to be a national priority. How I wish a president would be willing to shut down the government for adequate funding to ensure  every child learned to read. God bless the Special Ed teachers of my one respondent who persisted until she learned not only to read but to love reading!

So what do we say for the adults who did not develop a love of reading as children? Actually, I don’t think we are so different than children. We don’t like being lectured that we should read. Far better to read a book on something they find interesting and love that makes them want to read more. Far better to discover that talking about books can be enjoyable (do we need book groups for reading neophytes?). Sometimes there may even be a learning or visual difficulty that has made reading a chore all one’s life. Wouldn’t it be great if employee health plans included help in these areas. I suspect it would more than pay off in productivity.

I do suspect we who have always loved reading need to be careful with adults just learning to love books. We should not intimidate them with an avalanche of book recommendations or be book snobs looking down on choices that we might think are “mind candy.” After all, who doesn’t enjoy candy at times? And as we watch the child-like birth of a love for reading, we may recall our own first love.

 

“I Could Read Were It Not For All Those Distractions!”

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“The Distracted Reader” Rick&Brenda Beerhorst, 2013. (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Does that sound like you? It sure sounds like me some times. You settle into your favorite chair with a warm beverage and just get into the flow of a book–and the phone rings, or a child comes out of the bedroom with an upset stomach, which he proceeds to launch all over the room. For those of us who love to read, it often feels like a tug of war to find time to read, or to read well when we do, because of distractions from things, people, and sometimes our selves.

Here are the distractions I and some of my friends on my Facebook page have run into, and some thoughts of how we might deal with them:

  1. Thoughts. Perhaps this is one of my main distractions. Sometimes they come from what I’m reading, and might be worth pursuing. After all, don’t we read to enrich our minds? A notepad to capture those golden thoughts (or maybe brass) might be a good idea. Other times, thoughts just pop into one’s head. In that case, most of the time, just telling them to pop back out is good enough. Sometimes, we are thinking about a troubling life situation. That may be the time to lay aside the book, and pay attention.
  2. Life obligations. Many of us have to work. There are lawns to mow, houses to clean, meals to prepare and enjoy, and bills to pay. Usually the stage of life when we no longer have these obligations comes with advanced age and physical decline. Perhaps we should be grateful for life and health, and find ways to reward ourselves with time to read when our work is done.
  3. Sleepiness. That’s the one problem with reading as a reward for finishing our work. We sit down, and we crash. Standing might be a good alternative. I have a high dresser with a good lamp at which I read sometimes. Many of us sit too much anyways. At the same time, our bodies are telling us something, and most often, it is that we are not getting enough sleep, which for most of us is at least seven hours.
  4. Smartphones. This is a big one, and one I struggle with. I shut off notifications which can nearly constantly distract one. Even better is to put it in another room if you can’t resist checking in on Facebook every ten minutes. Don’t have it sitting by the book–if the book is the least bit dull, or closely written, guess what wins the attention war? If you want to share something you’ve read, bookmark it and come back to it at the end of your reading time. It has been suggested that smartphones are changing the way we read, and our attention span. Finding time to read “unplugged” may be critical for our attention to extended narratives or arguments.
  5. People. Keeping a sense of proportion in our lives and remembering what matters more is important. I don’t think I regret a single hour I spent with our son as he was growing up. As a result, there are some seasons when we will have less time to read. And we don’t want to miss those moments for various forms of intimacy with our significant others! Sometimes, people find a momentary reading retreat in the bathroom–as long as no one else needs the facilities, and people don’t start worrying that something has happened to you! Sometimes, we take some time to turn off the TV and read, and then talk about what we’ve read. Take advantage of different rhythms. I wake much earlier (and crash earlier) than my wife. That early morning time is reading time.

There is life beyond reading, and reading is just one aspect of a richly textured, well-lived life. But taking deliberate steps to set aside undistracted time to savor a book and think about it can enrich the whole of our lives. It is when books occupy an inordinate rather than ordinate place in our lives (something that will be different for all of us) that we have problems. There may come a day I cannot read. Have I cultivated both friends who might read to me, and an inner richness that sustains me when they are not present? There is an episode (here is a short clip of the ending) of The Twilight Zone where bookish Henry Bemis finds himself the only survivor of an apocalypse in the midst of a library full of treasured books and he cries out “time enough at last” only to be cruelly disappointed. We don’t want to be this guy.

The Month in Reviews: July 2017

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I opened the month with a bookImpossible People, which explores the calling of Christians in our modern culture. Subsequently, I read a couple of books about the challenges millenials are facing in engaging both their faith and their culture. A couple of books dealt with death–exploring suicide from the perspective of survivors, and what the Bible says happens to us upon death. Then there were a couple books concerning the Middle East–one concerning reading the Qu’ran, the other a fresh approach to “Christian Zionism.” The rest were hardly “miscellaneous.” There was a wonderful book on curiosity and questioning as transformational practices, a far-reaching collection of essays responding to various facet’s of N.T. Wright’s work on Paul, a delightful collection of Marilynne Robinson essays, a book on nuclear energy as key to buying time in our energy transition, and a prescient book on White House chiefs of staff and their critical role in the success (or failure) of a presidency. Here’s the tally:

impossible people

Impossible People, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Delineating the advance of modernity and its negative consequences, Guinness calls upon Christians to be the “impossible people” who both resist and positively engage the culture to “serve God’s purposes in this generation.” (Review)

becoming curious

Becoming Curious, Casey Tygrett (Foreward by James Bryan Smith). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. Commends curiosity as essential to transformation and helps us cultivate the practice of asking questions as a spiritual practice. (Review)

vanishing american adult

The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017. Concerned about the passivity he observes among many emerging adults, the author proposes five character building habits to foster resilient, responsible adults and wisely engaged citizens. (Review)

abandoned faith

Abandoned FaithAlex McFarland and Jason Jimenez. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2017. Explores the reasons unprecedented numbers of millenials are leaving the church or are religiously unaffiliated, and what parents and other thoughtful adults can do to address this challenge. (Review)

when I was a child

When I Was a Child I Read BooksMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2013. A collection of essays reflecting on the state of the nation and our culture, the values of literacy, liberality, and Christian generosity that have shaped us, and what the loss of these values to austerity, utility, and secularist atheism might mean for us. (Review)

buying time

Buying Time: Environmental Collapse and the Future of Energy, Kaz Makabe. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2017. A study that looks at the world’s increasing energy demands and the environmental challenges these pose, and makes the argument that nuclear power, even with its risks, needs to be considered in the energy mix. (Review)

The Qu'ran in Context

The Qu’ran in Context, Mark Robert Anderson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. A study by a Christian theologian of the Qu’ran in its seventh century AD context exploring its teachings in relation to Christian teaching, noting both similarities and points of divergence in the hope of encouraging open and honest dialogue between adherents of these two faiths. (Review)

god and faithfulness of paul

God and the Faithfulness of PaulChristoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt, and Michael F. Bird, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017. A collection of papers assessing N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of Godby scholars from a number of fields of theological study, with a concluding response from N. T. Wright. (Review)

the gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, Chris Whipple. New York: Crown, 2017. A study of the White House Chiefs of Staff, from the Nixon through Obama administrations, and how critical the effective execution of this role is to an effective presidency. (Review)

What Happens After You Die

What Happens After You Die Randy Frazee. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017. An exploration of the Bible’s teaching on what happens to us after death, if we know Christ or if we don’t, both before he returns, and after. (Review)

Grieving a Suicide

Grieving a Suicide (Second Edition), Albert Y. Hsu. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. A narrative of how the author learned to deal with the trauma of his father’s suicide, the questions it raised, and the movement through grief toward healing. (Review)

New Christian Zionism

The New Christian Zionism, Gerald R. McDermott ed. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. Argues that the Old Testament promises of restoration for Israel, including restoration to the land, can be supported in the New Testament, and that Christian Zionism enjoys a long history of theological support not rooted in premillenial dispensationalism. (Review)

Best book: I really liked Casey Tygrett’s Becoming Curious. I work with people who spend their lives being curious and asking questions and found this book such a welcome encouragement that our curiosity and our questions are essential to our growth and transformation. There was a freshness about this book that seemed, to me, to arise from the author’s own willingness to question the familiar, enabling him to see with new eyes.

Best quote: I could equally have given my “best book” nod to Albert Y. Hsu’s Grieving a Suicide, a deeply thoughtful, yet gentle exploration of what it is like to survive a suicide rooted in the author’s personal experience. He writes:

“In most literature on the topic, “suicide survivor” refers to a loved one left behind by a
suicide—husband, wife, parent, child, roommate, coworker, another family member, friend—not a person who has survived a suicide attempt. It is no coincidence that the term survivor is commonly applied to those who have experienced a horrible catastrophe of earth-shattering proportions. We speak of Holocaust survivors or of survivors of genocide, terrorism, or war. So it is with those of us who survive a suicide. According to the American Psychiatric Association, ‘the level of stress resulting from the suicide of a loved one is ranked as catastrophic—equivalent to that of a concentration camp experience.’

. . .

Such is the case for survivors of suicide. We have experienced a trauma on par psychologically with the experience of soldiers in combat. In the aftermath, we simply don’t know if we can endure the pain and anguish. Because death has struck so close to home, life itself seems uncertain. We don’t know if we can go on from day to day. We wonder if we will be consumed by the same despair that claimed our loved one. At the very least, we know that our life will never be the same. If we go on living, we will do so as people who see the world very differently” (p. 10).

What I’m reading:  Currently I am delighting in a Dorothy L. Sayers mystery, Have His Carcase, as puzzled as Wimsey and Vane as to the identity of the murderer. I’m in the middle of my baseball book for this summer, written by Jane Leavy, one of my favorite baseball writers. It is The Last Boy and chronicles both the greatness and tragedy of Mickey Mantle, one of my boyhood heroes. I enjoyed When I Was a Child I Read Books so much that I’m reading another Marilynne Robinson essay collection, The Death of Adam which has a great essay on Ohioan William Holmes McGuffey as well as one on Puritans and prigs! Ethics at Work is a study guide for groups exploring three pillars of ethics: commands, consequences and character. I also have several “on deck” books I am looking forward to dipping into: Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake, a book on ministering in honor-shame cultures, and The Loyal Son on Ben Franklin’s difficult relationship with his own son.

I hope these last weeks of summer afford you the opportunity to put your feet up with a cold drink at your side and a good read in your hands.

Walking While Reading

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Reading While Walking”  by Vonderauvisuals, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is an older gentleman in my neighborhood, not unlike me in appearance, who likes to read while walking. I find myself chuckling to myself that here is someone even more fanatical about reading than I am! The only place I have ever read while walking is on my treadmill at home, to while away the monotony of wracking up those steps. Actually, even there, I often prefer to pray or meditate on my day. I’ve never gotten “read-walking.” (I will admit that sometimes, when I’ve had to read something and I’m sleepy, I may pace back and forth and read.)

Partly, it is the fact that when I am walking, I like to really give myself to the physical world around me, to savor and enjoy the smell of the air, the rustle of the leaves, the blueness of the sky, the bubbling of the nearby creek, or the variety of people in more crowded areas. All the delights in the world are not to be found between the pages of a book. Wherever they are, in a book, or in my surroundings, I want to savor them as fully as possible. At least for me, a multi-tasking approach of read-walking diminishes both.

I’ll also confess to a bit of clutziness. I’m near-sighted of eye and not exactly agile of foot. I probably need to pay attention when I’m walking or I’ll be endlessly scraping knees and hands and walking into trees, or other people. Perhaps there is a bit of an element of not wanting to appear even more of a book nerd than I am, but that is a minor concern.

So what has provoked my thoughts on this subject? Like many of my posts “on reading” it was a recent BookRiot guest post by Ilana Masad titled, “Readwalking: A Reader in Motion.” While she acknowledges the downsides–the hazards and the taunts of teenage boys among them, she also recounts the reasons why she loves to do this. One is that she really is a book nerd, and wrestles with the reality all of us do–that there are so many books, so little time. She’s an introvert, and sometimes the external world can be overwhelming and the retreat to a book a way to cope. Finally, and we really differ here, she likes the duality of real world/book world at the same time.

Obviously, there are people who see this differently than I do, enough apparently that there is a “WikiHow” with tips on “How to Read While Walking.” Some of the tips confirmed why I don’t do this–things like “have one hand free in case you fall” or “try to look up in front of you every couple of sentences or “every paragraph.” It seems to me that this makes for pretty distracted reading.

A few things do make sense, if you are still inclined to do this–don’t do this with books you want to mark up or write notes in, find books that are light weight, have large print, don’t read library books that could be damaged, particularly if it is threatening to rain, and don’t try to do this on a windy day. The books that have worked best for me on the treadmill are the page-turners, the same type of book that works well in an airport waiting area. You want something that you holds your attention, and that you can easily pick up when you are distracted with things like crossing streets, or stopping to talk to a neighbor who insists on talking with you even though you are giving off your best “I’m reading vibes.”

For me, a walk is its own joy, even in a crowded airport or city street. And curling up with a good book is a different one. It seems that too often we sacrifice savoring for just “getting things done.” We too often seem to define life by how much we can cram into it rather than by how fully we’ve lived each experience, each moment.

But that’s just one way of seeing it. If you are a reading walker, I’d like to hear your take on this. There are obviously a few of you out there!

Long-Form Thinking

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James Patterson, by Susan Solie-Patterson – http://www.libarything.com/pic/156833, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15593339

I draw my title from a recent essay by best selling author James Patterson, titled The Literacy of Long-Form Thinking. His essay raises the question of what kind of republic will we be when the average amount that first time voters read is less than ten minutes a day? He is concerned that a tweet-length attention span is inadequate to give careful attention to the complexities that face our nation.

This brought to mind my recent reading of The Wired Soul (reviewed here) and the finding that how we interact with the digital media in our lives literally re-wires our brains, and does so in ways that dispose us to lots of short bursts of disconnected information in tweets, Facebook posts, and scanned articles on screens. There is more and more evidence that these habits of reading make it more difficult for us to give extended attention to a text–whether it be the Bible, a long-form essay, or a book. We are losing our ability to give extended attention to anything.

I wonder if this applies not only to text but to our interactions with people. How many times have you heard the phrase, “cut to the chase?” How many times have you felt that you needed to say something faster, because the other person seemed impatient, distracted, eager to get to the “next” thing, whatever it is. How many times have I (or you) been that impatient person?

Yet how many times are the most important things we want to say to another person reducible to 140 characters? This is even more the case when two people (or parties) cannot see eye to eye about something. Real understanding requires far more communication than a tossed-off slogan. Patterson’s concerns seem pretty valid to me–if we cannot engage in long, attentive conversation where understanding a different point of view, wrestling with complexity and nuance are involved, we might be in real trouble. Consider, for example The Federalist Papers, which lay out in a series of extended arguments, the reasons for the particular form of government that was being proposed in our Constitution. I cannot imagine where we would be if we had to depend on a series of tweets!

So, what is to be done? Patterson, to his credit has put his money where his mouth is, providing grants and scholarships, and funding for reading programs and bookstores. His challenge in his essay is that those of us who recognize the value of the “long-form thinking” involved in being able to sit down with a book and follow an argument should get off our duffs and do something about our functional illiteracy as a culture. He suggests:

“Are you upset about this election? Are you upset about the direction of this society? Then fix it. You’re a reader. You know what reading does for your ability to think things through. Get out there and make this your No. 1 priority. Got a kid? Make her read 20 minutes a day. Got a neighbor who stares at his phone all day? Get him a good book. Volunteer at the library. Volunteer at a school. At the very least, subscribe to a newspaper or magazine that supports long-form journalism and stop reading stuff for free through your screen.”

The last one got me. I have been thinking about subscribing to The Atlantic I’ve clicked on so many good articles from this publication recently and continue to be impressed with the thoughtfulness of the writing I find there. So, before writing this paragraph I decided to subscribe. Apparently there are others who are thinking this way as well. According to a Fortune article, at least 132,000 people have subscribed to the New York Times since the election with other publications like The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post also seeing rises in subscriptions.

Given that I am writing during the holiday season, this sparks some other ideas of what we could do:

  1. If you are taking vacation, take a book along and take at least 20 minutes a day to read uninterrupted, preferably stashing your smartphone somewhere else.
  2. Buy at least one book for each child or grandchild. If appropriate, read it together, snuggled up on a comfy couch or chair. You will never regret it.
  3. Many libraries and bookstores have programs where you can donate a book to a child. Giving the gift of reading to someone else is a great way to celebrate the season.
  4. If you are retired and looking for ways to volunteer, go to your library, or local elementary school. In many cases they have opportunities to help children read.
  5. Buy a book you think your circle of friends would like to read and give it to them. Suggest reading it by a certain date (maybe by the end of January during the winter doldrums) and get together to discuss it. If you like the idea, you could form a book group. If not, you can say you read at least one book in 2017 (something that 28% of the population has not done).
  6. Give a gift subscription to a magazine you like to a friend. It helps them, and helps magazines subscribe as well. And for the digital natives, most magazines offer both print and digital versions with a print subscription.

I think Patterson is right. The trends in the decline of functional literacy are alarming, and the implications even more. It might mean we begin with ourselves. And if we already have cultivated the reading habit, it might mean being creative–and not insufferable–in inviting others to begin to re-wire their brains through the delights of long-form reading with physical texts. We may not have the millions Patterson is putting behind his conviction. But we all have social capital–other people whose lives we influence. We all can do something.
 

 

Books During Troubling Times

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????What part do books play in your life during tumultuous times? Right now, we are in the midst of political convention season with harsh words both inside and outside the convention halls that are symptomatic of our national fault lines. Our news seems an endless stream of violence and hate and the angry responses of others. How do you deal with all of that? And what part do books play?

Some of us may simply decide these are not times when one should bury one’s nose in a book. We get caught up on CNN, or Fox News, or NPR, or the endless bits and bytes of information on Facebook and Twitter. Truthfully, I think most who follow this route simply ratchet themselves up to high levels of anxiety, anger, or depression.

Books offer a great escape for some of us. For a time, we can imagine ourselves in imaginary worlds, on fantastic voyages, or in idyllic settings. Maybe there are wars, but they are far off and imaginary with clearly drawn lines of good and evil–orcs versus men, Romulans versus Earth. These are worlds with heroes and villains. Or we join a clever, iconic detective like Hercule Poirot as he (or she) ferrets out the murderer, as in the Agatha Christie mystery I am reading at present.

For others, we read to understand–whether it is books on Islam, on race relations, on political processes and past presidents. We read to be able to understand how we’ve gotten to this place, to reflect on our way forward and what may be learned from the past. We want to go deeper than the news story soundbites and the ponderings of pundits. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns opened my eyes to the huge internal migration of Blacks from the south to the northern cities of our country between 1915 and 1970, and how it has shaped race relations to this day.

Sometimes we need books that help us step out of our own situation to get perspective from another time and place. While I am disturbed by the unrest in our own country, reading Rohinton Mistry’s account, in A Fine Balance, of India during Indira Gandhi’s time as Prime Minister and the country was under a state of emergency, I gain a renewed appreciation for living in a country where there is still a commitment to the rule of law, that serves as the basis or ground for protests of injustice, where law could not be bought, sold, and enforced by strongmen. It reminds me that if we become complacent about advocating for the living out of a nation’s highest ideals, either at home or abroad, we risk losing something precious and rare in the world.

Finally, it seems to me that we sometimes respond to troubling times by going back to sacred texts as well as the great works of literature. A recent book on lament pointed me back to the biblical language of lament that allows me to give expression to grief and sadness over the paroxysm of violence we see in the world and the bitter enmities that fuel that violence. Troubling times remind us that we can’t live on mass culture pablum, that we need to keep company with those who have wrestled with the deepest questions of the human condition.

I am not going to make particular recommendations for what you ought to read. What I might suggest is that all these different types of books have a place in our reading in troubled times. Books help us confront the deep questions our troubles raise, give us perspective and spiritual resources, and help us lay aside questions that cannot be resolved in a day when it is time to do so. Read well in these times, friends.