Friday, July 13, 2012

Who Needs to Read?

"What have you read lately?" I often ask anyone I happen to be talking with."

I haven't read anything for awhile busy...don't have the time..." they trail off. This doesn't surprise me anymore. It is truly the most common response. In fact, I feel a little shocked if anyone even talks about a book, whether read or not. Reading is just not popular. A study done by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005 published in a report called, "Reading At Risk" indicated that less than half of Americans read anything of any kind that they don't have to read. Less than one-third of college graduates read at or above a proficiency level.

Why should this be disturbing? It is disturbing because reading is not just at risk of extinction, but culture is, freedom is. Historically, people who don't read are destined to live under tyrants.

Sure, reading is a relatively new phenomenon, the printed word being made widely available only in the past five hundred years. How did people get along before that? Well, there was a several thousand year long history of oral tradition prior to the printing press. Stories were passed from one generation to the next literally by word of mouth. People were skilled in relating verbally the stories and information they knew, to others, even more skilled at listening.

The danger for our time is that if the reading of books dies out, we do not have this oral tradition either. Without stories, we are reduced to the level of animals. Our humanness is distinctly set apart from the animal kingdom because we have been made in the image of God. Part of that God-like personality we have inherited is that we communicate through words. God has chosen words to make Himself known to us. Jesus is The Word. In the beginning, "God SAID." He spoke and the world came into being. Jesus reminded us, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

Jesus demonstrated this in his ministry. "Without a parable, he did not speak to them." Parables were the stories, the teaching tools, he used to communicate truth. When he asked the disciples if they were going to leave him, Peter exclaimed, "Where would we go? You have the words of life!" Jesus' life was the story made alive for us that we might know the whole plan of God for man and see, touch, and believe that God's story includes us.

A favorite Bible teacher of mine is fond of simplifying God's story down to the three essential components:
1) life in the garden
2) man being expelled from the garden
3) man getting back to the garden -- only better.
It's a simple plot. It's an incomparable story. So incomparable, as a matter of fact, that every story is some variation or imitation of this one.

But we'll never know if we don't read any of them.

The problem with reading is that it is work. It requires effort, energy, even practice. As Dana Gioia, poet and essayist points out, it's like playing the piano. You can't become proficient at making music without time and practice. Neither can you be a reader without spending time acquiring and practicing the skill.

Maybe we are too busy. Maybe we don't have the time. It does take staying home, sitting down, withdrawing from the hustle of life to read. Reading also requires being alone, either individually, or as a small group, and that is something few of us know anything about. We are never alone: the TV is there, the iPod is in the ear, the CD or radio is with us in the car, the computer and movies and YouTube entertain us. Yes, we sit down and are still. We watch and listen and mimic. Certainly we are learning - quietly, just a minimal movement required to click the mouse, slight pressure to touch the pad that brings us new images. Our conversations have been reduced to quoting movie lines and sharing links. Even our friendships are invisible, text on a screen, little tweets.

Reading is not like that. You have to hold the book, turn its pages, move your eyes continuously in one direction, use your brain to consider its content. Before that, you have to work to choose a suitable book to read, walk to a shelf and find it, even drive to a library or store and spend time searching for just the right book. It's so much harder than pushing buttons and letting the machine do all the work.

Why should anyone bother? Because you were made for more than this. You were made to know and think and learn and live. You are alive because there is a story going on and you are one of the characters in it.You are not a puppet. Your mind was made to be more than a receptacle of information, but is just one aspect of who you are, a living, breathing, moving, feeling, active person. Books are not a pastime.> Reading is essential to inspiration, to creativity, to the joy of being alive and involved and giving and beauty.

Don't passively submit to the tyranny of time and empty living! Make the effort. Learn to read. Make it a habit. Meditate, ponder, consider ideas. This quiet, personal activity of reading will fuel your spirit and energize your life. Stories were made for real life. You were made for stories and real life. Don't just assent to the possibility that what I say is true. Open a book and discover for yourself.

For the joy of reading,



  1. So very beautifully said! I just relaxed while reading this post. I am ready for my cozy chair, hot tea, and great book! I am currently reading a biography on Jane Austin, Pilgrim's Inn by Elizabeth Goudge, and a special little book I found at a used bookstore recently titled: A Peculiar Gift, Nineteenth Century Writings on Books for Children. In this book, some of my favorite authors write about some of my favorite authors!

  2. If you don't mind...I am going to copy and print this and give one to both of my children and post one in our library.

    1. Cheryl,

      You have my permission and my blessing. Be kind enough to print the source on the copy you make.