Practicing the Ancient Art of Reading Well!

In Christian Leadership, Contemplation, Culture, Discipleship, Formation, Spiritual Formation by BizgaineyLeave a Comment

‘This is alphabet soup, Mom. I don’t use the alphabet in the summer.’

We are not born readers.  If we were, then focusing on how we read would be unnecessary.

The art of reading well is one that has to be developed over time.  It’s not native, or instinctive, by a longshot.

Reading is a learned art or skill.

If you doubt what I am saying, then you’ve never raised a child.

Melissa and I have raised – or are raising – three beautiful children.  We’ve always wanted them to be readers because reading opens us up to worlds we may never be able to visit but can experience through the imagination as we read the tales told of adventures in and experiences of those worlds.

Therefore, we initially sought to create a desire for reading by storytelling.  We did this for years.  In fact the earliest years of their lives were littered with whimsical tales of swashbuckling heroes and stories of tragedy, victory, suffering, and pain – often told just before bedtime.

We then began reading them novels.  Great novels of old that have inspired people for centuries.

And yet, even after all that, getting them to read – at all – proved to be a herculean task.  Every time we’d ask them to read for an hour you’d have thought we were asking them to skin themselves alive.  They’d literally wail in agony at the thought of spending an hour a day inside the world of literature.

Read Deeply, Delight Greatly

It’s one of our hopes as parents that our focus and emphasis on longer sessions of reading – designed to produce an experience of deep joy and delight – has prepared them to read deeply and delight greatly in the love of the Lord as revealed in His Word.

Indeed they have, each in their own way and time, developed a taste for – even love of – reading.  While one prefers biographies, the other, classic literature and another, romance and sci-fi, they each have found a level of joy in reading.

During the course of their lives, however, they’ve also battled the many advancements within modern technology that actually discourage reading.  These reading-discouraging devices are known as social media apps.  While one may not be aware of how deeply such devices shape how we read, the more we research, the more we discover, they are having a negative impact on reading development.

Devices That Dumb Us Down

Nicholas Carr notes this impact in his excellent essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is Doing to our Brains,” lamenting,

“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.  My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.  Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

I resonate well with Carr’s words and have noticed similarities of “zipping along” rather than “sinking in” in my own experience of reading or taking in information.  Others like Carr have noted the flattening effect the Net is having on our brains.  They point to the existence of mundane news, sensational stories, and heart wrenching crimes all within close proximity to one another on any given web page.  In other words, if I am reading about genocide related to a war in a remote part of the world as well as checking the box scores to last night’s baseball games, then my brain is, in a way, equating the two.

At the very least I am giving equal weight to the two given the equal access I have to each.  Multiply this a thousand times over every day and you begin to nurture a populace that interacts with everything and reflects on nothing.

Zipping Along More than Sinking In

It seems that this “zipping along” rather than “sinking in” affects how we react to reading online as well as the way we relate to material offline.  Author Tony Reinke, writing in Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books, notes four temptations to which we must all be aware in this modern area of information overload.  They are:

  1. Fragmented Browsing vs. Sustained Comprehension. The web encourages us to browse its content for information we deem useful to us.   Think about your own use of the web.  In all likelihood you spend most of your time “browsing” in a fragmented and distracted way.  You likely click from one link to the next, hoping along from headlines to images, clicking ‘trending now’ link as you go.  Such behavior actually chips away at our ability to hold a thought in a sustained way.
  2. Reacting vs. Thinking. Facebook, among other social media apps, could well be renamed “Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah.” We’ve all been on the receiving end of one of our Facebook friends opining a toxic response in the comment section of a link we’ve shared.  Statistics show that it’s rare that folks actually read the link itself.  Rather, they respond to the thumbnail and a quick skimming of the content.  The internet may not create a reactionary citizenry but it is certainly contributing to our lack of patience with others and our latent refusal to hold our own opinions or views up to the same scrutiny we impose on someone else’s.
  3. Ready Access to Information vs. Slowly Digesting Life Wisdom. Wisdom, it seems, is never gained via ready and easy access to information.  If that were so, we would be the wisest people in the history of the planet.  We do, after all, have access to more information – at the touch of our fingertips – than anyone has in the history of the world.  If you want to know something or find out facts about someone or something, all you need to do is Google it.  Yet, we fail to grow wiser.  In fact it seems that we grow colder, more anxious and less receptive of others and their opinions these days.
  4. Skimming with the Head vs. Delighting with the Heart. This has of course always been a problem but a lack of delight seems to be the way most experience life these days.  This category is pretty much a bucket for the other three.  The internet stifles joy, delight, awe, and wonder.  It flattens everything into the same thing.  When this occurs on a regular basis, then our ability to delight with the heart in other areas of our life – family, school, neighborhood, church, etc. – is negatively impacted as well.

Think about it: when do you last remember sensing the emotions delight, joy, awe and wonder.  Likely, it’s been a while.

The Power of Habit

Melissa and I may have underestimated the power of social media to train our children’s reading habits.  This training – always present and ever-tutoring – may actually be rendering them quite incapable of deep and meaningful reading.

I think, in fact, we’ve underestimated the power of social media to train our reading habits as adults.  This training may be shaping our approach to reading anything at any time.  This may very well be devastating to those longing to be transformed into the image of Christ, which comes primarily by reading and receiving His Word.

My hunch is that modern reading development is not adequately teaching or habituating us in patterns of deep meaningful reading.  This “zipping along” type of reading is not enough because we skim over the topic rather than dive into the deep end of the subject we are considering.

Reading – deep reading – and receiving His Word are two things we are no longer capable of doing.  It’s time, I believe, we learn how to read – all over again!

If these indications point to a shallow society that is unable to engage in deeply meaningful ways, then our greatest spiritual discipline need is to learn the practice or rhythm of contemplative reading!

Next week we will begin to explore – slowly – the ancient process of Contemplative Reading.

Or, as I like to say, the art of reading well!

Disrupting to Renew!


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