The Death of Reading

I read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis for the first time last December. A lifelong Christian and Narnia superfan, I’m late to the party, I know. But as the dust settled from an election that shined a glaring spotlight on our cultural divisions—political, social, economic, theological—I was feeling out of sorts. Christian leaders I respected as well as people close to me who had helped shape my own faith were on the other side of the divide, and I needed a touchstone, something to help reorient me in the foundations of the faith, so I could move forward. I reached out to one of the great Christian thinkers of the twentieth century and found the solace I needed in his book.

This is the power of books. They let us escape, try on new points of view, and explore what it means to be human. The great works give readers a shared experience and a shorthand for big ideas. Describing something as Orwellian is a big hit lately, if you haven’t noticed. We return to old favorites again and again when we need the familiarity of a trusted friend. Books can heal the spirit and soothe the soul like nothing else can.

In her lovely bestselling book, The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George explores the healing power of books. She tells the story of Jean Perdu, a bookseller who has a knack for uncovering just the right book to heal whatever is ailing his customers. He is so good at dispensing bookish remedies a local therapist sends patients to his bookshop, the Literary Apothecary, with a “prescription” for their literary needs. One person might be described as “Kafkaesque with a touch of Pynchon” and another as “a splendid example of Potter-under-the-stairs syndrome.” Perdu can always find just the right book to soothe anxiety or help mend a broken heart.

Literature can be a healing agent. Unfortunately, Americans are reading less today than they have in the past. Philip Yancey lamented our shift away from reading and toward digital distractions in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “The Death of Reading Is Threatening the Soul.” Technology and social media have combined to retrain our brains to graze along the surface of information rather than hone our concentration to delve deeply into meatier content. Neuroscientists tell us finding new and interesting information gives our brains a little dopamine hit, and, like lab rats, we keep clicking those web links to keep that happiness hormone flowing. The average American spends ten hours per day getting their media fix.

I am as guilty as anyone else is. A “quick” look at Twitter turns into thirty minutes or more of following links through articles across the web. I can’t remember the last time I got truly lost in a book where hours passed without me noticing. Where I once devoured books, I now “take a break” after each chapter or two to see what’s happening on Twitter. Five minutes turns into ten, and then, well, it’s time to put the book down and make dinner.

Our time online is not making us happier either. The more we use social media sites like Facebook the less happy we are. Looking at our friends’ carefully curated online lives leaves us with a sense that maybe our lives aren’t so great in comparison, plus the time we spend on our devices takes away from the face-to-face interactions we need to build a strong social network. We know our time online is making us unhappy, but we still struggle to kick the habit.

We need to find our way back to the deep, focused reading so many of us enjoyed in the past. “Commitment to reading is an ongoing battle,” Yancey declares. “We have to build a fortress with walls strong enough to withstand the temptations of that powerful dopamine rush while also providing shelter for an environment that allows deep reading to flourish.” In an age of information overload, we could use the soothing balm of a good piece of literature; we need to tune out digital distractions and pick up a book. I’m making a commitment to myself to carve out more time for distraction-free, focused reading. I hope you will too.

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  • Alicia Westberry

    I haven’t read the books mentioned here, but I used to be a voracious reader. I haven’t read many books since college. I had so much required reading then, not reading became my luxury. I definitely need to get back in the habit. Society might actually improve if everyone read more. It’s too easy to stay in one’s own echo chamber.

  • SheRa

    I can definitely see the validity of this article. Reading is a sanctuary from the outside world that as of lately, a good chunk of the population is ignoring (myself included). We spend too much time plugged in to social media and even though we are not engaging in face-to-face interactions, we are interacting with more people than ever. It’s hard to recharge our batteries with alone time when we are technically not alone.

  • Mack

    No.

  • Robert Blair

    Sorry, but it is done. Reading a “book”, physical or digital, is over.

    I am a man with 5000+ books, a lifelong reader. I totally understand and agree with your assessment of the good that books can do.

    But – it is over.

    Universal literacy and mass publication sparked massive social upheavals as the effects wound their way through society.

    They will be as nothing to the upheavals as society comes to grips with the ubiquitous electronic panopticon we have created.

    I have to admit that none of the dystopian fantasies I read in the 20th century had the masses clamoring to sign up to the controlling systems, as they do now with Facebook and Google.