Review: Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books
What I have learned from about twenty-years of serious reading is this: It is sentences that change my life, not books. What changes my life is some new glimpse of truth, some powerful challenge, some resolution to a long-standing dilemma, and these usually come concentrated in a sentence or two. I do not remember 99% of what I read, but if the 1% of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don’t begrudge the 99%.3 When 1 percent of what you read is life-transforming gold, the labor of sifting through the other 99 percent is not troublesome.
Interestingly, this is the one thought that has really stuck with me from reading Lit! by Tony Reinke. It may sound a little discouraging: are those little nuggets worth the effort? Yes, I know they are. And I think the 99% is still shaping me, even if not always in conscious ways.
Instead of providing a review, let me just share with you the other thoughts and lines that I highlighted—even if none of them managed to stay in my active memory (that’s why we take notes, after all)!
Wait! After going through these notes, I realized that there is another thought that really stuck with me:
I read books on a Kindle e-book reader for eighteen months. In those months I discovered that I could read faster and that I could read more easily on jet planes, at the park, and in bed. I could download new books instantly. Never before had books been more accessible, and never had one hundred books fit more comfortably in one hand. With all these books I found myself flipping between multiple titles at the same time, becoming quickly tired with one book and switching to another, more promising, book. About a year into my friendship with Kindle I noticed that my online reading habits were creeping into my e-book reading habits. All my distracted fragmented browsing habits began appearing as I read books on my Kindle. I noticed:
• I was less discerning with the e-books I was reading.
• I experienced a persistent feeling of being rushed.
• I found it difficult to maintain sustained linear attention.
• I rarely meditated while reading an e-book.
• I reacted to what I was reading, rather than stopping to think and meditate.
• I found myself tempted to flip to a different book unless the book arrested my attention at all times.
• I found myself browsing and skimming books….
You may be more disciplined that I am (actually, there’s a good chance of it). But in my life I noticed several unhelpful reading patterns emerge. No matter how I tried, I could not reverse them. After eighteen months I went Kindle-free, and I recommitted my life to printed books.
This, of course, caught my attention. Interestingly, his experience appears to be the opposite of Alan Jacobs’, who said in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction that the Kindle actually rescued him from distraction. Because it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of an iPad, it forced him to read in a linear fashion. My own experience falls in between Reinke’s and Jacobs’: the Kindle helps me read in a linear way without distractions, and it’s great for helping me just read more, period. It’s always available and always holds something interesting—and I don’t find myself bouncing around. But I do think—and here’s where Reinke helped me—that it contributes to an overall, persistent feeling of being rushed. The Kindle makes so much available that I feel overwhelmed with it all—and I feel like I have to finish what I’m reading fast so I can get to those other things.
I believe that society will find e-readers to be good ways to read some books and bad ways to read others. Those in the gray area we may read on an e-reader for convenience. What I haven’t figured out how to do yet is rid myself of the stress of “so much to read, so little time!”
Okay, here are the other quotes I saved. Their quality may give you an indication of whether or not you ought to take some time out to read Lit!
The strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading . . . is the search for a difficult pleasure.” (Quoting Harold Bloom).
Literature is a form of discovery, perception, intensification, expression, interpretation, creativity, beauty, and understanding. These are ennobling activities and qualities. For a Christian, they can be God-glorifying, a gift from God to the human race to be accepted with zest.
By appreciating the beauty of literature, we honor God, the Giver of all beauty.
The best Christian novelists write from a biblical worldview, one that is not afraid of digging into the soil of common human experience. O’Connor once addressed what she called “sorry” Christian fiction: Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. His feeling about this may have been made more definite by one of those Manichean-type theologies which sees the natural world as unworthy of penetration. But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is.
God’s “amazing grace” is especially displayed when it “saves a wretch.” To some degree, the author must paint a picture of the wretchedness of sin in order for grace to emerge in its brilliance. Thus, grace-filled literature is often not “clean” literature. In fact, God’s redemptive grace is hard to capture in “clean” fiction. This is especially true of conversion stories, because conversion is about contrast. So how much sin is required for the contrast to become clear? What type of realism is permissible in fiction? Where are the lines drawn? These are very difficult questions, and the gutters are deep on both sides of the street. On the one side of the road, we cannot merely shut our eyes to depictions of sin and evil in literature. We find depictions of evil in the Bible. On the other side of the road, we cannot affirm fiction that glorifies sin or applauds unbelief.
Christians should neither undervalue nor overvalue literature. It is not the ultimate source of truth. But it clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks.
For many of us, reading is more a matter of desire than of a lack of free time. C. S. Lewis wrote, “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”
Meet David Ulin. David is the book editor for the Los Angeles Times newspaper. David reads a lot of books because he gets paid to review a lot of books. It’s David’s job. But one day David noticed something alarming—the task of reading books was becoming more and more difficult. That’s bad news for a professional book reader. The problem was not the lack of will to read, but the lack of concentration. He wrote about his experience in the autobiographical article, “The Lost Art of Reading”: Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. . . . In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.1 Ulin pointed to the Internet as a primary cause of his withering concentration. And he is not alone. In the summer of 2008 journalist Nicholas Carr published an article in The Atlantic that brought these concerns to popular attention under the provoking title, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He wrote, Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. . . . And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
The Internet offers us streams of fragmented information that must be quickly browsed as they pass.
Social media (like Facebook and Twitter) and online browsing patterns will train our minds to hunt for information in small, isolated bits. In fact “reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet,” writes Susan Jacoby. “What we are engaged in—like birds of prey looking for their next meal—is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information.”
The Internet is designed to encourage us to browse information, not to slowly read and digest it. Carr writes, “Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.” And we like distraction. We want distraction. Distraction is how we stay busy enough to avoid the self-discipline required to read books.
Traditionally, a reader selected one book and sat alone in a reading chair. When great ideas were encountered, the reader internalized those ideas and reflected on them. If the reader encountered points of disagreement, the reader also stopped to reflect on what made the point disagreeable. In other words, traditional readers engaged with a book and engaged their thinking. This has changed with online social interaction. Now, when we come across an idea that we like, we are tempted to quickly react, to share the idea with friends in an e-mail, on Facebook, or on a blog. Or when we disagree, our initial response is to ask for the input of others. With online access to so many friends, the temptation is to react, not to ponder, and it’s a problem Kevin Kelly notices. In his article “Reading in a Whole New Way” he compares reading from a book page to reading from a screen. Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it.
The point of this chapter is pretty simple: as Christians, convinced of the importance of book reading, we must periodically gauge the effects of the Internet and social and electronic media upon our lives. The concentration and self-discipline required to read books requires years of practice to build and consistent exercise to maintain. If we are careless, this concentration and discipline will erode, and we will find ourselves in a losing battle—losing our patience with books and losing our delight in reading. The skill and concentration needed to read books is a skill and concentration that’s worth fighting for.