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Reading: Falling Out Of Love


My life as a reader has had its ups and downs and not-sure-if-up-or-downs, but there’s always a deep affection for books. I’ve never gotten into magazines, lose patience with blogs, and rarely make use of books on CD. But to wander through the universe of a book is still as compelling an experience as it was when I hid under the blankets with a flashlight after my childhood bedtime.

Reports on how many people are reading or not reading seem ambiguous and contradictory; but there’s no question that these days, book-lovers and interested persons are wondering about what fate the book will face in coming days. Some of us are wondering about what fate books and reading are already facing in our personal reading lives.

“The sad truth is, I am unable to think seriously about any writer,” lamented Arthur Krystal way back in March of 1996. His article “Closing the Books: A once devoted reader arrives at the end of the story,” published in Harper’s Magazine, was his mournful account of falling out of love with reading.

Krystal reflects on things that might account for the loss. For one, he proposes, literature has become ordinary because our expectations of it are ordinary. Another cause, as he says, is his current inability to focus seriously on literature. “Instead I think about what every middle-aged, nonliterary person thinks about: family, health, health insurance, money, property, time running out, etc.”

In May of the same year, Sven Birkerts gave a lecture at the New York Public Library, later printed in the Boston Review as “The Time of Reading: A meditation on the fate of books in an impatient age.” Birkerts took up Krystal’s lament and reflected on it further.

Birkerts suggests that people aren’t purposely giving up on reading; they’re being affected and driven by “a whole array of forces working through our society.” These forces, he suggests, are changing actions, habits, and indentities — with one consequence being a loss of interest in reading. Birkerts lists four specific ways this plays out:

Distractedness and diffusion caused by “sensory and informational overload” that Birkerts links to some degree to electronic technology.

Loss of solitude, due to the pace and expectations of life and the fact that society doesn’t expect, provide for, or model “meditative isolation” or “ideals of reflectiveness.”

Disconnect from the past — “There is no feeling of connectedness,” Birkerts says. We distinctly separate now and then. “So far as many of the young are concerned, books and print are mainly then.”

Decreased awareness of a higher goal — Progressing toward a higher goal would mean, for the individual, “a sense of telos beyond the attainment of irrefutable financial security; would involve, in fact, leaving a mark — on the culture, on history, at very least on the community he or she belongs to.” More communally, it means “believing that society is progressing in some direction, toward some goal, that its members are charged with some sense of mission.” Birkerts’ feeling is that we’ve generally lost this.

Birkerts is clear that the loss this poses is not just the distribution of ideas conveyed by books, but also the whole system of values that reading books embodies. “The iconic book — tome — whether pictured in paintings or used as a backdrop detail in home decorating catalogues, represents, among other things, knowledge, wisdom, tradition, cultivation and inwardness, and the image of the reader figures for us an immersion in these values.”

These pose some deeply intriguing questions for the Christian, with some special applications perhaps for Adventists. Each of these things that he thinks we’ve lost (or were losing 13 years ago) would also deal blows to the traditional practice of Christian community, devotion, and spirituality. Perhaps the big question is whether they’ve dealt the same blows to Christianity as to book-reading; or whether the solidarity of Adventist traditions and ideals has preserved in our midst a pocket of people still deeply dedicated to the art of serious reading. I’d hope it was the latter answer, but I’m doubtful.

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