On Recovering the Art of Reading
“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read” (Mark Twain).
Reading is a dying art, and that is not a good thing. Books are shelved while technology is worshipped. We have apps for everything, and if we could, we’d even turn over our reading and studying to apps themselves. But the more we outsource the disciplines necessary to nurture the human spirit, the further we fall from glory. I think reading is the essential battleground for reclaiming our humanity from an increasingly robotic, zombi-fied world.
There are basically two types of people: readers and non-readers. Readers think they are better than non-readers, and non-readers think readers only read in order to show off their random knowledge at cocktail parties. Neither know what they don’t know. But one constant that needs clarification is in the understanding of reading itself. I’ve found that reading as a discipline is far too undervalued and misunderstood, even by us “readers.” I hope to right that wrong in some way.
I’m Not a “Reader”
I’m that guy. For my entire young life I told people (and myself) that I just wasn’t a reader. I read the bare minimum for school and rarely went to the library. I distinctly remember only two books from that time. One was about the civil war (an abridged version of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage that had pictures on every other page), and the other was a Peter Rabbit storybook (also with pictures on every page). I can remember putting off research projects to the last minute, again only reading enough to get the minimum word count for the assignment.
So what changed? Over the past 3 years I’ve read over 300 books and spent countless hours daydreaming, studying, and writing books myself. Instead of making time to watch movies, I make time for books, often leaving what I’m watching to go read instead. Books have captured my soul at a deep level. But my relationship with books is not purely romantic, like what I imagine a bleary-eyed English professor has who collects old books just to thumb through gold-gilded pages and smell old leather and musk (although I do love an old book!).
If we aren’t careful, we can easily make books about books. But that prostitutes the art of books and the discipline of reading. Books are about content, about communicating a message and changing someone’s life in some way (hopefully for the better). Books have captured me, not because they make me look a certain way or feel good about myself, but because they make me more intelligent, more discerning, and more empathetic. Books have changed me, not through some mystical process, but by the regular, mundane means of wrestling with ideas. A book isn’t a waste of your time; it’s an investment. I believe a book is one of the greatest gifts humans can give each other in this world. Let me prove it to you.
The Surpassing Value of a Book
Most modern Americans don’t know how to value books. Those who read read very little, very slowly, because by and large they are bored with books. Every now and then something will come by that excites them, but if you were to trap them in a library, most would foam at the mouth before exploring those big, intimidating, “boring” books.
Very few people (these days) ever really get what books are here for. They literally don’t care, happier to turn away in ignorance than crack the covers of those dark, scary books with all those intimidating words, words that are likely to rock their worldviews and make them feel uncomfortable.
Redefine a Book
Books communicate a message; they convey ideas (even–especially–fiction books). If you consider life as one huge story, full of ideas, then you will see the value of a book. It is just one thorough argument about one topic someone worked through for months and years, shaping his thoughts into one logical flow. A book is a train of thought that is anywhere from a year to a couple thousands years in the making, and you can pick it up in less than 8 hours.
Reading a book is like sitting down with an expert in his field and listening to him give a lecture for 8 hours, a lecture he prepared for years and years, which is the result of hundreds if not thousands of years of scholarship on whose shoulders they are standing. I can’t get over how amazing this is. And yet you can’t find time or discipline to just… listen to his voice? Come on now.
The problem for us Americans isn’t time–or resources for that matter, like money, availability, nourishment for a healthy body and brain, etc. The problem is we don’t believe. We simply do not believe that a book will change our lives for the better. If we did, we would make the necessary sacrifices to make reading a regular activity. We are prideful. We think our thoughts are just as good as the author’s.
But you have to redefine and re-associate a book with good values. You have to convince yourself that the value a book can add to your life is worth a significant tradeoff. But you also need confidence in this decision. You have to feel empowered and challenged. You need to read book after book in order to reach some intellectual goal. But mostly you need to see a book as one argument among millions. The book is a model of how you should think and the more you read the more thorough thoughts you will have. Reading isn’t about appearing smart at cocktail parties; it’s about enlightenment, about coming to know the Truth about life and its grand story.
Wisdom is the art of skillful living, and wisdom comes from the application of knowledge into daily life. Knowledge comes from the accumulation and connections of great ideas across disciplines, and great ideas are communicated, one at a time, in prose, right there in books which transcend centuries, cultures, languages, and mental abilities. Wisdom begins with reading books.
Reading is hard work. So not only do we have our pride fighting us from reading more, we also have our laziness: the two armpits of humanity. But, like any great achievement in life, everything worth having is hard to get. Reading is a discipline just like any other, just like sports and music and learning to read another language. Just because you can speak and read English doesn’t mean you can track an argument through a book into its great idea. You must train your mind, but first you must accept the fact that you are a baby reader. Everybody has to start somewhere, just be honest with yourself and try to improve, no matter what that looks like.
One of my favorite quotes on reading is from Mortimer Adler, the author of How to Read a Book, literally the manual on reading. He said that if you come to a book with any other purpose than to think, you fail. Books put forward thoughts, and if you aren’t thinking about them along with the author, you are wasting time and energy, just running your eyes across words (and therefore, you’re doomed to be that guy at the cocktail party who name-drops to prove he’s done his time in the books, as if reading were akin to a prideful jail-time).
Why “I’m Not a Reader” is a Cop-Out… with Deadly Effects
Neglecting books is like neglecting to think. In order for civilization to prosper, we need thinking individuals who truly believe in something they think to be true. Democracy itself relies on the education of its people, otherwise it will fail. The failing cultures are the ones who censor documents. An example of this is the censorship of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Communism can’t handle thinking people, because it is predicated on subduing the free will and voice of its people. China sensors tons of documents because they know that thinking people are bound to see the truth and stand for it, and the only thing more powerful than a martyr is his ideas.
Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the commencement address to the graduating class of Dartmouth College in June, 1953. In the speech he condemned book burners on the grounds of cowardice. He was absolutely confident that Truth would prevail. He said:
“Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book as long as any document does not offend any of our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship. How will we defeat Communism unless we know what it is? What it teaches, and why does it have such an appeal for men? Why are so many people swearing allegiance to it? It’s almost a religion, albeit one of the nether region. And we’ve got to fight it was something better, not trying to conceal the thinking of our own people.”
Eisenhower’s main point was about neglecting the Truth. He said that in order to defeat Communism, you don’t hide it, you defeat it in broad daylight. It is the sign of weakness to hide, to conceal. It is the nature of truth to be unashamedly open, because Truth speaks for itself. Good always wins, even in logic and the Capital-T Truth of all the elements of the story of life.
But an even more indicting concept than the literal burning of books is this from Ray Bradbury: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." Think about that. Merely neglecting books is essentially the same as burning them. Whether they be covered in dust or gasoline, both relegate the best ideas of mankind to concealment., undermining democracy and a free culture.
I began this post with this quote from Mark Twain: “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” It should be very clear that choosing not to read is making a choice about reading. No one is exempt, especially not the Christian. It is our duty to discern from right and wrong, to lead the culture in the way of Truth: the way that aligns with God’s purposes in the world. How can we do that if we are not willing to learn, to put aside our personal comfort and take up the mission we’ve been given?
How Should We Then Read?
How do we regain our footing as a civilization? How are we to reverse this powerful trend of book neglect? One answer comes from Paul Miller: “Only a sustained, generation-long pandemic of stupidity, ignorance, and willful neglect could create a population so intellectually and spiritually vacant that it would allow itself to be treated like sheep by its rulers and markets. Reading the great books keeps the chaos at bay; it is the first step in the renewal of civilization.” His essay calls us to become book hunters, an occupation held in the middle ages where scholars would go around in search of dying manuscripts, seeking to preserve them from decay.
We need modern-day book hunters. We need people to put aside the American IV of entertainment and money and start chasing a new currency. But all of this is held in the tension of Eccl 12:12. Books aren’t God, nor will they feed your family. But what books will do is give shape your mind to think, give you ideas to think with, and provide you with the thoughts that shape you and your culture, enabling you to become not just another consumer, but a shaper, a visionary, a herald of Truth, no matter where you might find it.
These articles by Mike Leake (“Are Books Your Shell Collection?”) and Marshall Segal ("You Cannot Serve Both God and Theology) are wonderful reminders to keep the cart of theology behind the horses of knowing and worshipping God. ↩
Watch Eisenhower speak this quote. The movie begins at 28:20, just when he begins his second main point, which is courage. I think it’s important to see that he places the call to reading everything, even books on communism, in the context of courage. It is the coward who burns books (or merely turns away from them, letting someone else carry that load). ↩
One implication of this is in religion, especially the anti-intellectualism of modern Christianity, which has at its center a mystical, super-spiritual hermeneutic and worldview. It is the practice of simple Christians to hide error, to run from conflict. They run because they aren’t smart enough to handle the error with Truth, and they really, at the core, don’t believe the Truth is powerful enough to prevail. This is why I consider no book off limits, except what will offend my conscience and sensibilities. ↩