I’m not a Luddite, but I’m not a technophile either. Technology brings us great privileges and opportunities, but with it great risks and losses, too. One of those losses is serious reading. Despite a plethora of blogs, journals and big, fat books, deep reading is tough in the age of the tweet.
But I would argue that Christians – indeed, all humanity – are called by our very nature to be deep readers. Our highly developed brains and contingent imaginations are hungry for input, and we aren’t long satisfied with the tidbits of social media.
Sure, we can nibble on Facebook endlessly, but the reading that makes a difference in people’s lives tends to be the deeper stuff. Whether that reading is online or in physical book or magazine form may not matter (although many people seem to have reached the conclusion that deep reading is best done in analog). What matters is having a long disengagement from the world of the senses and real engagement with the world of the imagination.
Reading changes us, so we need to realise that we are taking that risk whenever we open the cover (or click on the link). Let’s take risks that are worth it.
Deep reading does something to you. Everyone says so: the books people claim had the most impact on their lives tend to be the ones they studied extensively in high school. To Kill A Mockingbird. Pride and Prejudice. Lord of the Flies. Insert your own school texts.
Why have these books stuck with people? Presumably, because they are often the only time that we have really engaged in deep reading. We had to; there were exams.
Reading well should make you more empathic. We’re not all naturally empathic, but reading should help most of us to put ourselves in others shoes. It should crack open some of our prejudices and enable us to be “more” than ourselves. Reading should turn us into citizens and neighbours, because we escape our own small visions of life.
Reading should help you come, perhaps kicking and screaming, to the realisation that you don’t know everything. In fact, you don’t know a lot about a lot of things. Some of the most arrogant people I’ve met are those who haven’t had the privilege of this discovery through reading. It is a huge and humbling advantage to sit at the feet of an author and learn and experience something new.
Reading requires choices. You can’t read everything, nothing like it. And you have limited time. You really do have to choose between TV, YouTube and reading. Or sport and reading. Or sleep and reading. If reading is important, it has to be a priority activity for you. Otherwise, you simply won’t have time to do it.
Our unique, God-given capacity for inward meditation is like a muscle that needs exercising, lest it becomes flabby and useless.
So we need to think of reading with more care, treat it as more precious. It feeds our brains, and so deserves arguably even more attention than what feeds our bodies. It changes us, so we need to realise that we are taking that risk whenever we open the cover (or click on the link). Let’s take risks that are worth it.
Thankfully, what I am saying here is not an elitist claim that only bookish smarty-pants can be truly human! This is not about doing postgraduate study before you can claim to be a deep thinker. The key is diving in, immersing yourself in what you are reading, allowing it to roll around in your brain until things start to click. Slowing down to process things properly in our mind, soul and imagination. In a sense, what I’m talking about is proper meditation on the word.
We need deep reading more than ever. It gives us the opportunity to understand the increasingly diverse people we now call neighbours. It stops us from coming to rash judgments on the basis of a Facebook post or YouTube video. And it provides the all-important sense that there is something more to life than what we see.
We are at the very beginning of understanding how digital technology changes the way we read and think. And we haven’t even begun to properly research how digital habits affect our engagement with Scripture. But that’s what we need to do, because that is what’s happening in the world right now.
Whatever the changes that come, the need to read deeply won’t change. Our unique, God-given capacity for inward meditation is like a muscle that needs exercising, lest it becomes flabby and useless. Like all exercise, deep reading is a mixture of pleasure and strenuous effort, but without it we are poor versions of ourselves, earthbound blobs when we should be soaring spiritual specimens.
Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.