My wife recently read me some appalling statistics on how little people read these days.
I have no doubt that people are reading in the most basic sense—they are reading traffic signs, restaurant menus, and text messages—but this is hardly what people are referring to when they cite appalling statistics. No one glories in the most primitive skill of interpreting a combination of letters. People aren’t reading books (despite Thomas Tipp’s assurance that “people will read again”).
Books are an important reading source because writing a book has certain standards, built into the publishing process, that insure quality. Not everyone can or should write a book. And even if you do muster the time management skills and endurance needed to churn out 40,000 words (the minimum length for a novel), there’s little chance that someone will publish you.
Lengthy Thought Exchange
Beyond the quality control benefits of reading books, there is the length. Reading a book requires you to engage in a lengthy thought exchange that reading a blog, magazine, or article doesn’t require. Of course, there IS a good measure of thought exchange going on with these other mediums, but it’s just not that sustained (I think somewhat of an exception is if you regularly read a blog from the same author—this way you interact with more of their thought process). In general, the Internet has conditioned us for the ephemeral. If you do most of your reading on the Internet (excluding a commitment to a blog), chances are you’re a flighty, inattentive, and tenuous reader. You probably don’t actually read; you scan, which means you are merely looking for information rather than comprehension, and would probably be very happy with a bullet list of the pertinent points instead.
I know of one blogger who uses density and length as defense mechanisms against reactionary reading and as means to develop his desired reading audience:
Given the nature of our context, I have purposefully chosen to communicate in a manner designed to shape the discourse according to my principles. When the length of my writing alienates people with short attention spans and little self-discipline, this is as I intend. My writing is written for people who recognize that, when you read a text, you are the servant of it, rather than being written for people who see the author as someone who always has the duty to make their reading as effortless as possible as word consumers. I write as a way of selecting and producing readers who are attuned to my patterns of thought or prepared to become so, readers who approach reading as a discipline and seek to be attentive, sensitive, and responsible to the authors that they read. Readers accustomed to reading texts on their own ease of consumption driven terms are the most inclined to use texts against their authors’ intentions.
Lengthy and dense prose stifles the processes of reactivity. It temporarily removes people from reactive environments and challenges them to think and to control their impulses. It doesn’t lend itself in the same way to mere ‘like or dislike’ reactions, calling for processed response, rather than instant reaction.
If we are reading for comprehension, we should view a paragraph as an invitation to discovery. Certainly this is one thing I’ve learned from reading Proust. We should accept the author on his terms without suspicion. Often modern readers waver before a long paragraph. However, a well-developed paragraph is visual proof of an author’s commitment to sustained interaction with the reader. I imagine authors echoing Aladdin, “Do you trust me?”
In this second ‘preliminary investigation’ the co-operation of the serious reader is once again required…
–Karl Barth, Preface to the 2nd edition of The Epistle to the Romans
Making Intellectual Friends
Books expand your capacity, confront you with sustained reasoning, but best of all introduce you to intellectual friends.
Stanley Hauerwas offers these thoughts on the benefits of reading books:
For the most part, our intellectual friendships are channeled through books…. Books, moreover, are often the way in which our friendships with our fellow students and teachers begin and in which these friendships become cemented. I’m not a big fan of Francis Schaeffer, but he can be a point of contact—something to agree with or argue about. The same is true for all writers who tackle big questions. Read Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and John Stuart Mill, and not just because you might learn something. Read them because doing so will provide a sharpness and depth to your conversations. To a great extent, becoming an educated person means adding lots of layers to your relationships… Think of books as the fine threads of a spider’s web. They link and connect…
Books are touchstones, common points of reference. They are the water in which our minds swim….
The curricula of many colleges and universities may seem, and in fact may be, chaotic. Many schools have no particular expectations. You check a few general-education boxes—a writing course, perhaps, and some general distributional requirements—and then do as you please. Moreover, there is no guarantee that you will be encouraged to read. Some classes, even in the humanities, are based on textbooks that chop up classic texts into little snippets. You cannot become friends with an author by reading half a dozen pages.
This then is one of the greatest benefits to reading books- the opportunity to make new friends.
It’s only by reading an entire volume of Proust that you can get to know him. Same with Saint Augustine. Familiarizing yourself with only excerpted, famous quotes, wrenched from their original setting, is like studying St. Peter’s or Hagia Sophia in an art history book—you know it as non-spatial, selective in detail, and devoid of a constellation of complex relations. Hardly a real or impressive introduction. Studying an author in this way will also make him appear flat and colorless. You have to enter his literary world and interact with him in time and space. You have to put him down and pick him up over a course of weeks, much like you would pick up and drop off a friend. This long term commitment builds up something between the two of you and lets you in on a critical insight that others are blind to.
After saying all that, here is my very ambitious reading list for this year!
My 2014 reading list:
The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification, by David Vincent Meconi
Augustine of Hippo, by Peter Brown
Church Dogmatics in Outline, by Karl Barth
Great Christian Thinkers, by Hans Küng
The Story of Christian Theology, by Roger E. Olson
Christian Theologies of Scripture, edited by Justin Holcomb
City of God, by E. L. Doctorow
Mind and Cosmos, by Thomas Nagel
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by Watchman Nee
Other books on my horizon:
I’m not really set on reading any of these this year, although I have already bought a number of them and have started to flip through or even read a couple of chapters in them.
The Trinity and the Kingdom, by Jürgen Moltmann
Against Calvinism, by Roger Olson
For Calvinism, by Michael Horton
Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart
Why Study the Past, by Rowan Williams
The Theology of John Calvin, by Karl Barth
Delighting in the Trinity, by Michael Reeves
The Road Trip that Changed the World, by Mark Sayers
Do You know Kevin J.Vanhoozer? His book “Is there a meaning in this text? The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge” I can recommend. Küng and Barth are surely some the most prominent thelogians in Germany, as well as Moltmann, but not represantative for evangelical theology ( Karl Barth maybe in part). Pannenberg , Hugo Rahner, Eberhard Jüngel and especially Gisbert Greshakes book
on the Trine God I would prefer. Anyway , we have to be selective and in the vast field of christian books, that is not an easy task. And don´t forget Bengel and his “Gnomon”. And Tersteegen, and …
I know! There are so many authors and books out there, selecting who to read is another task. That’s why having a reading community is helpful- recommendations and advice go along way. I got exposed to Vanhoozer through an article on hermeneutics in Affirmation and Critique but have never read anything of him directly: http://www.affcrit.com/pdfs/1999/03/99_03_a1.pdf
For me, it takes a lot of endurance to read a certain book (or even a post). My usual experience is that even if I like the topic of the book, whenever I see a threateningly long paragraph, I lost appetite. Before, I can find time to read books other than my school books but now, it seems that school books (and scientific journals) are so demanding I can’t find time reading other materials (like spiritual books). Or maybe I’m just another “flighty, inattentive, and tenuous reader”?
I think it just comes down to finding an author that you enjoy reading. I started reading the Redwall series in 4th grade and those were like 300 pages each! But I loved them so I didn’t even notice. I remember that when I finished all that he had written at that time, I told my mom that I had read all the good books there were (we were at the library at the time). Obviously I discovered some other authors I liked. Other things that help me are reading a book at the same time as a friend so you can stay motivated and have someone to discuss it with. I did that with Atlas Shrugged in college. I don’t think I would have made it through otherwise, and I almost stopped at the 4th to last chapter where she basically spews her philosophy all over you. Another thing I’ve started doing is make a schedule, so I know I just need to read a certain number of pages a day to finish by a certain date. That keeps me making headway. Recommendations by friends or people I respect also inspire me. If someone I like, likes it, then I might too. But in the end it comes down to fighting against the way the internet and social media condition our brain (I try not to look at my phone when I’m reading). Books air out our minds and let them expand! Hope that helps!
Thanks! And you’re right! I remembered I finished the whole series of Harry Potter and books by Paolo Cuelho when I was in high school. Well, because I liked the story, I could finish a book within a few days. But those were novels which I could just read anytime and anywhere I wanted. What I found difficult is sticking to a schedule like what I have with my Life-study and Bible reading schedules. Perhaps, reading spiritual books must involve some kind of a battle unlike that of novels, isn’t it? By the way, because of the inavailability of actual books, I just read from the internet which can be so tempting and distracting. This boils down to self-discipline, I guess. Building up a reading habit is not easy!
After reading this post and the one before it my burning question is, how are you able to read so many books? In the last year I managed to get through 16, but most were fiction, and maybe only a couple nonfiction were nearly so dense as the ones you’ve listed. Are you just a fast reader, do you not need much sleep, or is it some kind of schedule you hold to rigidly that gets you through all these? I LOVE books and have unending lists of what I want to read, but between a slow-reading pace (like 2 min for 1 page), needing much sleep, and busy days on campus, it’s always a challenge for me to push through. How do you do it?
There are definitely bigger readers than me out there, so I don’t think I’m doing anything too different than other readers. I’d say 16 is a lot! As far as the density, yes, this list I put up DOES look dense, but I kinda like that pseudo-philosophical stuff, and reading Proust kind of conditioned me for density. I really loved architecture reading in college too, which can be very similar to theology books- the power of jargon, rich history, important names, lots of theories. I’m half way through The Story of Christian Theology right now and Olson is a super easy read. I’m not a super fast reader. I underline in everything I read, fiction included. And I do love fiction too, I’ve just gotten sorta away from it the last 2 years. Partly I feel that there’s a little education I need in certain areas of Christian theology so I’m hitting some of that stuff right now. Two things that have recently really helped me- 1) having someone who is hitting some books hard right now and loving them. Discussing them and getting ideas from each other. 2) Making my schedule. I only have to read 6 pages a day to get through this entire list!
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When the time I got my hands on books like The Triune God in Christian Thought and Experience, by James A. Fowler; Christ Prophesied in the Old Testament, authored by James Reetzke; Earth’s Earliest Stages, by George Hawkins Pember; and the writings of Witness Lee and Watchman Nee. Reading all these books aren’t a piece of cake at all. It took me for about 2 months to read a single thick book. However, if I could have a time for them to read thoroughly; I probably would finish a bit of them. I somehow find myself difficulties in them. But, if I were such person who is a quite a studious reader like Watchman Nee and the like. That will build my Christian understanding on various truths in the Bible.
I also would say that English is not my primary language in terms of reading English materials. Hence, that will take for me to merge myself into them.
Books like that are well worth the time and effort! Even if it takes you 2 months to finish one you will benefit from it from the rest of your life. I actually don’t like reading books too fast. Two months sounds like a perfect amount of time for me to go through something sizable. I like being IN a book-soaking it up, reflecting on it, thinking through it, and being engaged. So don’t be discouraged! Witness Lee once said that with being constituted with the truth, “the tortoise wins the race.” As long as you are reading and building up a solid framework for understanding the truths in the Bible that is awesome! “Blessed is he who reads.” -Revelation 1:3