Reading as a lost art may sound strange. After all, you’re reading this article, and nearly every adult you know can wield the reading wrench from their skills tool kit.
In reality, thoughtful reading is becoming a lost art. Even if we’re reading more, it’s primarily on screens. We scroll through social media and scan online text, barely processing one thought before a hyperlink jerks us to the next. Artful reading is dying. Many people believe it’s drawing a final breath on its deathbed.
But recovery is possible! When we recognize our manifold losses and why they matter, we can implement ways to recover artful reading.
Is Reading Lost?
Most people believe reading is worthwhile and they should read more. But nearly a quarter of adults cannot name one author or haven’t read a single book in the previous year. Retirees read more than other age groups in America, but even they don’t average as much as an hour per day. Compare that to the average of five to six hours spent daily on digital media. Many people believe technology has detrimental effects on reading.
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr supports his claim that Internet use causes negative brain changes. Online reading impedes analytical thought and fractures focus.
In Carr’s article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,”1he grieves his own loss: “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” His mind now expects to receive information as the Internet “distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” He writes, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Michael Harris goes even farther to confess, “I have forgotten how to read.”2Unable to complete one chapter in a book, he found other people shared his problem. “This doesn’t mean we’re reading less” in our “text-gorged society,” he writes. “What’s at stake is not whether we read. It’s how we read.” He states: “In a very real way, to lose old styles of reading is to lose a part of ourselves.”
What Are We Losing?
Failures to read or read well cause us to lose life’s balance and multiple means of sharpening minds and shaping character. We may even lose crucial aspects of our spiritual lives.
A primary casualty is the loss of meaningful leisure. Finite humans need rhythms of work and rest, both of which God ordained for our good. Reading refreshes more deeply than leisure activities that fail to engage the mind and imagination.
A related loss is self-transcendence. Immersing ourselves in the reading experience lifts our minds above self-centered thoughts and concerns to focus on other people, or large themes, or God.
If we neglect reading, we lose contact with the wisdom and enrichment from the past. The voice of the past speaks with a stabilizing influence into the tyranny of the secular and politically-correct present. A weighty consideration for Christians is that their sacred book and salvation’s redemptive acts are rooted in the past.
Another loss is our failure to connect with essential human experience. A disconnection with biblical and bedrock aspects of humanity thwarts our understanding of enduring values, norms for living, and self-identity concepts. Rejecting connections with the past and essential human experience prevents our participation in civilization’s ongoing conversation.
These disconnections contribute to our loss of an enlarged vision. C. S. Lewis writes that “we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. . . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own.” 3Dismissing literature’s vast sweep of viewpoints and experiences limits our outlook and stunts our spirits.
Not reading also results in the loss of a primary means of edification. Some literature affirms the Christian faith, while a larger body embodies truth congruent with it. Even literature contradicting Christianity can edify the believer who sees through its despairing unbelief to our joyful hope in Christ. Failing to read prevents new avenues of edification.
The decline of reading has impoverished our culture and individual lives. In the process, we lose our capacity to discern the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Why Should We Care?
These losses are important for everyone, but particularly Christians. As children of The Book, we should passionately seek the true, the good, and the beautiful in every book.
If we—like Michael Harris—have forgotten how to read, we’ve lost more than delight in literary treasures. We’ve lost the ability to read the Bible consistently and attentively. What then happens to the way we live and to our relationship with God? We lose part of ourselves in ways infinitely worse than Harris imagines.
Philip Yancey conveys the extent of this risk in the title of his article, “The death of reading is threatening the soul.” 4He views a commitment to reading as a continuing battle, advocating protection against temptation and an environment that nourishes reading and meditation.
Artfully reading the Good Book and other good books is a treasure we dare not lose.
Christians are called to quiet our souls and commune with God through an open Bible. What keeps us from meditating on God regularly, receptively, and thoughtfully? Artfully reading the Good Book and other good books is a treasure we dare not lose.
Is Reading an Art?
We begin to consider reading as an art when we think about what we read and how we read. Informational reading and online skimming require only simple decoding. Imaginative literature involves complex thinking. But artful reading involves more than this basic differentiation.
Receptively and thoughtfully reading a novel or a memoir or a poem makes us an active participant in its art. An imaginative current flows between the written words and the mind’s eye. An author creates a work of literature. A reader receives and responds to it, empowering participation in its art.
In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers identifies a book’s threefold aspect. The book as Thought (the idea in the writer’s mind), as Written (the image of the idea), and as Read (its power on the responsive mind). We participate in literature’s artistic experience by pondering the author’s idea, receiving the energy in the words, and responding to the work’s power. Such participation propels reading into the realm of art.
We discover the power of creativity with the context of a biblical aesthetic, which can be defined as a perspective steeped in scriptural knowledge and informed by artistic awareness. A foundational concept in developing a biblical aesthetic is looking for the true, the good, and the beautiful.
This triad, usually credited to ancient Greek philosophy, is actually rooted in God and his word. Philippians 4:8 urges readers to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent—a list encompassing the true, the good, and the beautiful.
The Bible teaches that God is truth and his word is truth. Because truth is integral to God’s character, Christians must search for it and walk in it. Christians prize all that is true, wherever we find it and whatever its secondary source.
As God values what is true, he equally values what is good. God is good and the origin of goodness. The Bible is our ultimate sourcebook for morality. But literature influences readers with moral (or immoral) prompts. When Christians accurately assess these prompts, we share God’s love for the good.
In addition to the true and the good, a biblical aesthetic includes the beautiful. The Bible teems with depictions of God’s beauty, details for beautiful worship items, and the beauties of creation. Beauty in our world reflects God’s beauty and his love for it. We glorify God when we delight in his good gift of beauty.
Reading is an art that we cannot afford to lose. And recovery is within our reach.
How Can We Recover Reading?
When we acknowledge the problem and its importance, we begin to recover reading by nurturing positive perspectives. Rather than view ourselves as unliterary people, we can think of ourselves as readers. Instead of stressing about not having time to read, we can exercise our freedom to choose reading’s pleasure and refreshment.
An obvious step toward recovery is to read. The more we read, the better readers we become. We learn to read carefully, immersing ourselves in the story before us. Attentive reading increases awareness of the work’s artistry, which generates joy.
Many people enjoy repeatedly reading favorites, but community with other readers through book clubs or discussion groups can introduce us to new genres and authors. Part of discovering a good book includes asking how it is true, good, and beautiful. Such evaluation helps artful reading surpass mere enlightened humanism to move into the realm of the spiritual life.
The Spiritual Component
Although the Bible is God’s authoritative and inspired word, he can work through human words to bring spiritual renewal or even conversion. Christians frequently notice ways literature resonates with our faith or nurtures our spiritual lives. This makes perfect sense because the Bible conveys its truth predominately through literary form. Obviously, spiritual growth can flow through literature. The Bible proves it.
Artful reading enriches our corporate and personal lives in countless ways. It often brings the reader closer to God. We lose it at our very great peril.
Glenda Faye Mathes