person with watch reading a book

Don’t Throw Reading Culture A Funeral Just Yet

Bring out your best black clothes — it’s time to eulogize the age of books. Or, according to Philip Yancey, that is. Yancey, the noted American Christian author, recently wrote a column in the Washington Post lamenting the loss of what he calls “deep reading” to the attention-sapping morass that is social media. “I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work,” Yancey writes. “The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around.”


The author describes a new culture where our minds are constantly flitting from one click-bait fluff piece to another, where putting actual thought into what we consume, and how we consume it, is a constant struggle. “I’ve concluded that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle, somewhat like the battle against the seduction of Internet pornography,” he posits. To do so, he suggests, is to commit to living a truly spiritual life. He says he pities “the teenagers who check their phones on average 2,000 times a day.” The only way to recapture what has been lost, he claims, “will require something akin to the Benedict option”—shutting out the outside world and pouring over our books like monks.”


A medieval monk reading

Image courtesy of Unil


From my perch on this side of the generational divide, I take in Yancey’s doom and gloom with both empathy and skepticism. I know what it is like to feel like my mind is being pulled in 80 different directions, to gaze in despair at the unread books lining my bookshelf (and floor). Lately, when I find myself losing interest in a YouTube video or an article, I’ll force myself to pay attention for the duration of piece instead of immediately looking away to the next thing.


But I don’t agree with Yancey when he says the glory days of deep, uninterrupted reading are over. I especially can’t abide his statement that young people have no understanding of what it means to commit, heart and soul, to a reading experience. All around me I find young people—family, friends, acquaintances—putting away their screens for half an hour, an hour, a train ride, to read a book and learn something new. We swap book recommendations and take peeks at book jackets when the other isn’t looking. As a matter of fact, we are reading more than our counterparts over 30.


a young person reading a kindle on the subway

Image courtesy of Late Night Learning


It’s true: we may tweet too much, or check our texts too often, or prioritize surface over substance in the form of the perfect picture or the most side-splitting status. But I really don’t believe this is a trait unique to my generation, or any generation of young people. We are trying to make sense of a world we can inherit but not control. Some of us will do that through social media; others will do it through books and philosophy. Many, if not most, will do both. Curiosity and the thirst for knowledge didn’t die with the advent of the microchip.


We aren’t hermits locking ourselves away with our tomes, or monks turning our backs on the excesses of secular civilization. But still, we try. Let’s not ring the death chimes of reading culture just yet.


Featured image courtesy of Cassidy Kelly.