Bubbles by John Everett Millais

Bubbles by John Everett Millais

Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

I’m impressed that this is true not only in the world of academia but within some of the church and ministry circles in which I work. One of the dubious results of getting onto Twitter is to learn of some of the kerfuffles that arise with nationally known figures and ministries. There is one that broke this week, for example in which one blogger accused another, who works at a fairly conservative institution, of taking a position contrary to one this person actually holds, because this person participated in a dialogue with those holding a different position. It actually became a trending topic on Twitter!

You will notice that I have not named names. I really do not want to fuel this silliness, nor engage in what I would consider gossip, which really is a sin. What I want to call attention to is the “bubble” people engaging in these kinds of kerfuffles operate in.

My son, who is a pretty thoughtful Christian and an active blogger helped me see this last night. I was mentioning some of this stuff and he gave me this frown, and basically said, “you know dad, most of us really aren’t interested in this stuff.” Thanks be to God for a son who keeps me grounded in reality!

It reminded me that most people are really concerned about making ends meet, caring for aging parents or sick children, and more concerned about what kind of country, and what kind of world their children will inherit than in the latest intramural Twitter and blog war, particularly if it is between supposedly religious people!

What is also disturbing is that the individual attacked is actually trying to do something desperately needed in today’s climate — to walk in the tension of living by conviction and engaging in civil discourse without compromise rather than culture wars, with those who differ.

I suspect that the attacker might fall in the category of what is known in the social media world as a “troll”. And it strikes me as sad that such people live in a bubble of incredibly small stakes, mostly those of getting lots of notice, of stirring up controversy and gaining views.

Might it make more sense to get out of this blog and Twitterverse bubble and take food to a family dealing with someone sick, take time to listen to a friend who has just lost her job, or join a local prison ministry or even a choir making beautiful music.

It’s really easy to make one’s home in one or another social media bubble. If, like the academics, we become vicious in those bubbles, it is real and not virtual people we hurt. And the One who bursts all bubbles will call us to account one day for every hurtful word.

Is Reading Solitary or Social?

I probably drank too much caffeine yesterday and so had a restless night. So I was up for about an hour and read a couple essays in a recent book titled The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age? edited by Paul Socken. One particular essay caught my attention: “Solitary Reading in an Age of Compulsory Sharing”.  The author extolled the glory of reading as a solitary activity in an era where social media tracks most of our activity (including the books we read if we use vehicles like GoodReads). He worried that linkages between sites like Amazon and Facebook could mean that all the books we purchase could become “updates”, and even the use of e-readers could provide information about our reading habits. Print books purchased offline and read privately preserve that wonderful solitary experience, which he differentiates from loneliness.

As an introvert, I get this. Sometimes, having my nose in a book is the equivalent of posting a sign that says, “Leave me alone!” (though I also find that this often doesn’t work!). More than that, reading as we usually practice it, is a solitary act in the sense that words on a page engage and evoke thoughts and emotions in my inner person–sometimes enjoyment, sometimes perplexity, sometimes intense interest in a novel idea that rearranges my mental furniture. I can be in a coffee shop or alone in the family room and no one knows what is transpiring–unless I tell them.

At the same time, I note that the author of this essay differentiated being solitary from being lonely. I would contend that in fact, reading is never solitary because we are always engaged with another mind, and that is why we are not lonely. Last night while my wife was in dream land, I was mentally engaged in an argument with this essay’s writer. I was alone, yet not alone. While I was the solitary figure in my living room, I could not engage in reading alone–I needed another in order to have someone to read.

And so I would contend that reading, even apart from reading aloud, discussing books in groups, blogging and posting about books, is an inherently social activity, and one of the profoundest because in reading, I enter deeply in the thought world of another. I guess this is where I struggled with the essayist. To me, it seemed to be all about his experience of the book alone. For me, reading is about entering the world of another–someone I may never meet physically–but someone who I’ve become intimately involved with in the sense of entering their thought world, their vision of the world, their arguments. I both do this, and step back and think about what I admire, what I would want to explore more, what I would question.

I also found the writer kind of snarky about social media–particularly the idea of social media monetizing the things we share (which I will concede happens). At least he wasn’t being snarky about social media on social media! Certainly I’ve seen some of the same things he does–the people on GoodReads who never read anything, the mean-spirited reviews on Amazon that substitute attack for critique. Social media, like all our technologies, is a double-edged sword. What I am intrigued with is the project of using social media to foster a community of those who love significant conversations, who want to share what they are reading and thinking. I work in a national organization and I have the chance to interact with colleagues across the country who I may see once a year or less. I’ve had the chance to intersect with like-, and differently-minded bloggers. I’ve heard from total strangers who found a book I reviewed of interest or help to them. And my interest in a book has been piqued by the review of another.

Moreover, I love discussing books with my Wednesday morning book group. My wife and I sometimes read devotional literature aloud together or read aloud on car rides. So I would contend that, apart from the fact that I’m not talking to the human beings around me when I read, reading is an inherently social act, and one that is even richer with the personal and virtual social interactions we might have around our books.

But this brings up a question that might be the subject of a future post: can we be in solitude without books or any other form of external input? This may be one of the greatest challenges for us in an age where we undergo a 24/7 bombardment of media.



Seven Minutes a Day

Seven minutes a day. That is the amount of time the average American spends reading according to Jason Merkoski in Burning the PageWhat I suspect this means is that many Americans do not read at all, other than texts on their phones and Facebook status updates. The truth is though, even our spouses may be getting shortchanged by our addiction to our phones and social media.  A Daily Mail story indicates we spend more time on our phones than with our spouses (119 to 97 minutes per day).

What I wonder about is how this changes our capacity to think and imagine. Visual media does so much of our imagining for us. What happens to the richness of our interior lives when our imaginations are not captured by great stories? And what happens to our capacity for critical thinking and dealing with complex ideas when everything is reduced to soundbites and 144 character snippets?

Reading more is not a problem for me (!), but here are some thoughts (assuming one wants to read more) for finding a few more minutes to read in a day (just don’t take them away from a significant other!):

1. Online and smartphone activity can be a huge time sink. Don’t always carry your phone, particularly when you come home from work. Consider setting limits to how often you check messages.

2. Find something your really like to read–don’t force yourself to read something that you think you “should” read.

3. Carry that book, or magazine, or the e-reader it is loaded on in your bag so you can pull it out when you have a few minutes over lunch, on public transportation, at the airport or while you wait for an appointment.

4. Some find they can read and work out on an exercise bike or treadmill.

5. One less TV show a week could mean 30 minutes to an hour more time to read. Do you really need to watch another season of American Idol?

How have you found time to read? When were you last engrossed with a book? And what was it your were reading? Chances are, finding time wasn’t a problem…