Reading: Rarer and Rarer

04.15.21 | Coffee Stained Notebook | by John Jones

Reading: Rarer and Rarer

    I’d like to think that everyone has read a tall stack of books during the pandemic (thus far). I have read several books this past year. Several. But not everyone does. This is not a problem per se...


    I’d like to think that everyone has read a tall stack of books during the pandemic (thus far). I have read several books this past year. Several. They have often been pleasurable books, the sort that often get pushed to the back of the desk in otherwise frenetic busyness. (If I’m honest, much of this reading should have been set aside for other tasks, like dissertation-writing, or protecting my backyard from an encroaching forest of poisonous vegetation.) 

    After I was converted (and not a moment before), I began to read booksAnd when I met my wife, clearly seeing my deficit of sanctification, I read even more books 

    But not everyone does. This is not a problem per se. I chomp through large numbers of books pretty rapidly and derive real joy from (almost) every page. I know others that read fewer books, at a slower pace, and have to somewhat compel themselves to the end of each volume. No matter. They’re readers. 

    When I say, not everyone does, I’m thinking of a panel discussion in 2014, hosted by Canada Reads. Alex Good writes about the event at The Walrus, in his 2019 article, The Rising Tide of Educated Aliteracy. The event invited a panelist of celebrities (politician, comedian, athlete) to talk about life, their careers, and books they love. Unfortunately, none of them read books. The host finally joked, “I’m glad we populated the panel for Canada Reads with a bunch of people who don’t read.” 

    Not only do people not read, but educated and otherwise notable leaders show us, you don’t need to. Not even to be an editor or author. Not even a significant editor or author.  

    Some of the quotes in Good’s article are very entertaining. Author and journalist, Tom Bissell, former editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, reviewer for the New York Times Book ReviewHarper’s Magazine writer, admits that I have never actually finished a book by any of these writers.” Who are the writers? Well, Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Henry Jamesand Samuel Beckett. Aside from sometimes indecorous language, Good cites several key figures in the world of literature who confess to not reading very much at all (like Philip Roth!). I particularly like Dan Piepenbring, editor of The Paris Review, writing in 2014,  

    Then there’s the larger circle of books that arouse mere indifference in me: the top three novels on the New York Times’s hardcover best-seller list at the moment are fine examples. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, and Anthony Doerr’sAll the Light We Cannot See—I have no plans to read any of these. Each has, through the vagaries of the marketing process, done something to recuse itself (see On the Pleasures of Not Reading). 

    I really like, All the Light We Cannot See, and think Piepenbring missed an opportunity. Yet I understand the point that, even if one wanted, you can’t read everything, which means you have to draw the line somewhere. 

    Christians are a people of the book. We read. We also listen. Two testaments, 66 books, 1,189 chapters, 31,202 verses. What is slightly troubling me in readingThe Rising Tide of Educated Aliteracy, is that Christians are called to speak into the world with the written (and spoken) authoritative word that is the power of God for salvation, but the world no longer reads. I had a similar feeling reading Timothy Larsen’s 2009 article, “Literacy and Biblical Knowledge: The Victorian Age and Our Own” (unavailable online). Here, Larsen shows that the average Victorian, believer or not, knew the Bible rather well, whereas believers today are likely to know less than nonbelievers then. Twelve years on, I suspect we’re no better off.  

    As think of Good’s contention that even educated elites excuse non-reading, what about Christians and their book, the Holy Bible? And what about holding forth a book, to people who don’t read? 

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