I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. I am writing this blog in my office, surrounded by 27 tall bookcases laden with some 5,000 books. Over the years I have read them, marked them up, and recorded the annotations in a computer database for potential references in my writing. To a large degree, they have formed my professional and spiritual life.
Books help define who I am. They have ushered me on a journey of faith, have introduced me to the wonders of science and the natural world, have informed me about issues such as justice and race. More, they have been a source of delight and adventure and beauty, opening windows to a reality I would not otherwise know.
My crisis consists in the fact that I am describing my past, not my present. I used to read three books a week. One year I devoted an evening each week to read all of Shakespeare’s plays (OK, due to interruptions it actually took me two years). Another year I read the major works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work.
The internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from The Atlantic or The New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest Tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.
Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, “If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…” Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.
Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up. In a famous experiment, rats keep pressing a lever to get that dopamine rush, choosing it over food or sex. In humans, emails also satisfy that pleasure center, as do Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.
Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows analyzes the phenomenon, and its subtitle says it all: “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” Carr spells out that most Americans, and young people especially, are showing a precipitous decline in the amount of time spent reading. He says, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” A 2016 Nielsen report calculates that the average American devotes more than ten hours per day to consuming media—including radio, TV, and all electronic devices. That constitutes 65 percent of waking hours, leaving little time for the much harder work of focused concentration on reading.
In The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts laments the loss of “deep reading,” which requires intense concentration, a conscious lowering of the gates of perception, and a slower pace. His book hit me with the force of conviction, intensifying my sense of crisis. I keep putting off Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and look at my shelf full of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology books with a feeling of nostalgia—why am I not reading books like that now?
An article in Business Insider* studied such pioneers as Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg. Most of them have in common a practice the author calls the “5-hour rule”: they set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) for deliberate learning. For example:
When asked about his secret to success, Warren Buffett pointed to a stack of books and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will…” Charles Chu, who quoted Buffett on the Quartz website, acknowledges that 500 pages a day is beyond reach for all but a few people. Nevertheless, neuroscience proves what each of these busy people have found: it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.
If we can’t reach Buffett’s high reading bar, what is a realistic goal? Charles Chu calculates that at an average reading speed of 400 words per minute, it would take 417 hours in a year to read 200 books—less than the 608 hours the average American spends on social media, or the 1642 hours watching TV. “Here’s the simple truth behind reading a lot of books,” says Quartz: “It’s not that hard. We have all the time we need. The scary part—the part we all ignore—is that we are too addicted, too weak, and too distracted to do what we all know is important.”**
Though Chu underestimates the average book length at 50,000 words, his conclusion still applies. Now I really feel guilty. In the last two years, Chu has read more than 400 books cover to cover. Willpower alone is not enough, he says. We need to construct what he calls “a fortress of habits.” I like that image. Recently I checked author Annie Dillard’s website, in which she states, “I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.” Now that’s a fortress.
I’ve concluded that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle, somewhat like the battle against the seduction of internet pornography. 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. Christians especially need that sheltering space, for quiet meditation is one of the most important spiritual disciplines.
As a writer in the age of social media, I host a Facebook page and a website and write an occasional blog. Thirty years ago I got a lot of letters from readers, and they did not expect an answer for a week or more. Now I get emails, and if they don’t hear back in two days they write again, “Did you get my email?” The tyranny of the urgent crowds in around me.
If I yield to that tyranny, my life fills with mental clutter. Boredom, say the researchers, is when creativity happens. A wandering mind wanders into new, unexpected places. When I retire to the mountains and unplug for a few days, something magical takes place. I’ll go to bed puzzling over a roadblock in my writing, and the next morning wake up with the solution crystal-clear—something that never happens when I spend my spare time cruising social media and the internet.
I find that poetry helps. You can’t zoom through poetry; it forces you to slow down, think, concentrate, relish words and phrases. I now try to begin each day with a selection from George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or R. S. Thomas.
For deep reading, I’m searching for an hour a day when mental energy is at a peak, not a scrap of time salvaged from other tasks. I put on headphones and listen to soothing music, shutting out distractions.
Deliberately, I don’t text. I used to be embarrassed when I pulled out my antiquated flip phone, which my wife says should be donated to a museum. Now I pocket it with a kind of perverse pride, feeling sorry for the teenagers who check their phones on average two thousand times a day.
We’re engaged in a war, and technology wields the heavy weapons. Rod Dreher published a bestseller called The Benedict Option, in which he urged people of faith to retreat behind monastic walls as the Benedictines did—after all, they preserved literacy and culture during one of the darkest eras of human history. I don’t completely agree with Dreher, though I’m convinced that the preservation of reading will require something akin to the Benedict option.
I’m still working on that fortress of habit, trying to resurrect the rich nourishment that reading has long provided for me. If only I can resist clicking on the link that promises 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl…
Dear Mr. Yancey,
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to interact with you. I agree with your post and got a bit out of those who replied.
I, too, loved to read (past tense) – especially for pleasure or personal growth/ knowledge. Reading took me to places and introduced me to the things I only dreamed of – media now takes me there with another dimension or two. I mourn the days of sitting under the tree for hours of my summer day and getting lost in the latest Newbery Awards.
As I teacher, I spent hours convincing students to “try it” with a commitment that (at times) work would not follow. I have concluded that movies, social media, texts and email serve a purpose – that is sometimes clouded when reading. The response is immediate and done and the commitment is minimal. I believe that we crave reading, but the reading time has been pushed aside by technological and societal demands. I recently turned to someone and remarked, “I need to shut my book off” I was in a plane and we were landing. Hmmm… I have never been handed a clipboard of questions when attending a movie either, maybe that’s why alternatives to reading are more appealing to some; reading is so often equated to work, reading for pleasure is passe.
I agree that time, sacred time must be set aside- unfortunately the precious time is also set aside for work, family, worship, and community service; we are also called to be the cheerleader at the football game, the Uber for the family, tutor for the new math, and chef and banker – all jockeying for a position in the 24-hour day. Agreed, my attention is pulled in more directions than yesteryear and my brain is distracted by with the notifications and impulsive invitations to respond.
Deep reading is necessary for stimulation and learning and I do covet the importance of reading. I too commit to time set aside for learning and much more importantly for quiet meditation – but it is at a cost – I am not on Facebook. The cost is I will be at peace, creative and informed. I am not a soldier in the technology war, I consider myself in the ROTC. I respond to technology, but it does not hold me a prisoner. About a year ago, I committed to what is alluded to in your post – deep reading, a reading that is meaningful. I am not longer “reading the Bible in a year”, I am concentrating on a small portion of text and incorporating dialogue with God to foster a deeper understanding and edify my prayer life.
With the crazy demands on our lives, I am comforted that my meditation remains a priority – but also a struggle.
Thank you for this thought-provoking post.
Grace and peace,
I love to read. I have at least 12 full bookcases in my trailer. When younger I read to my children from the time they were born until they were nearly out of high school and the last 3-4 years my husband joined in to listen.
However, I have declined in my reading habits. I still read a lot, but spend too much time on the computer. On face book I dropped my friends list to about 17. I read a lot of my favorite books over and over and often just go to the last 2-3 chapters and reread.
I am going to try to start reading other books. I do tithe my time to the Lord and spend 145 minutes each day reading and studying the Bible and praying. I agree that the internet has reduced the amount of time we read and time we spend with others. I am trying to set levels I hope to attain, that are within my scope. I will start small – one book a week – and then extend from there. Pray I make it soon.
Wait – I wanted to read that Amish article – why didn’t you include the link? 🙂 Just kidding – but I’m so glad I found your article because I’ve been having the same problem lately and wondering if there is anything wrong with me! It comforts me to know I’m not alone, but also makes me think I need to figure out how to get over this! It’s especially hard since I’m an author, blogger, and podcaster – I need to be on the computer for work so it makes it harder to set boundaries and keep them since I’m constantly around clickable links! I’m reading a good book on this subject that I’m finding helpful called “The Power of Off” by Nancy Colier. And I’m reading it in the paperback version so I’m not tempted to play solitaire instead of reading. 🙂
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New and shiny is no match for old and ornery. I read books and that’s how I like it. Okay, usually on a Kindle, but still…
I am going to say that this entry in your blog rung in my ears tonight.
I have been taking care of a 6 year old most nights. She didn’t show up today, but she is so far behind, because her mother is a texter and an internet focused person and she is ambivalent to this little girl, who couldn’t go to Kindergarten until she was 6, and even then, didn’t know the alphabet by heart or how to write her own name. She is so distracted by every little hook of culture and is missing the most important thing I could even think of, next to Jesus.
The little girl still didn’t really know the alphabet when she came earlier this Summer, but I have been trying to teach her phonics. A few nights I was late and found the little one playing computer video games and I thought, “We have had so much fun up until now, but now I have lost her ability to pay attention, but I was wrong.” The young one is so in touch with the fact that she is desperate for someone to pay attention to her. She saw me and never turned on the computer again and I thought, “She gets it.” This sweet little one looked up at me and whispered so quietly, “I am going to miss you” and she does “get it” because she lives in a different State and will be going home soon…. [pyasst]
I love this combination: exposing yourself to deep reading and deep thoughts in a way that equips you to better serve six year olds and elder care. You get it, Deb! –Philip
I don’t disagree with you Philip, but I wonder if it is as bad as we think. Maybe the rapid transition from one topic to the next, a sort of reading attention deficit, is non-restorative, but maybe it is only a different type of learning. My children are very attuned to today’s social media and technology, but are also very well informed and compassionate towards others. These are areas in which I struggle, despite reading much daily. I prefer written word over screens, notes over ‘tweets’, and actually love to write on paper and read letters. However, I see great traits in those that interact with the world quite the opposite. I don’t know, but your writing makes me think. Thank you,
I share your struggle with this.
However, as part of my reading, I added in “How to repair the mitochondria in the brain articles” and YouTube documentaries like, “The Brain That Heals Itself” and found out that I had specific nutritional deficiencies, which come with age and that I needed to take care of things like getting enough Co-Enzyme Q10 and PQQ and work on brain plasticity and it helped.
I’m very grateful one of my grad professors included Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) in our required reading list: https://books.google.com/books/about/Amusing_Ourselves_to_Death.html?id=zGkhbPEjkRoC&source=kp_cover
I’m also reminded of something I heard from a teacher over 20 years ago, referring to the influence of “educational TV” upon young children. He said that when preschoolers learn the alphabet from a 7 foot yellow canary, it is hard for them to compete for attention in the classroom.
I’m finding the same things, and for the same reasons, and it’s making both my reading life and my writing life more difficult. I have less stamina and less focus, and I hate it. And I also hate not knowing what happened in the world or my inbox in the last 40 seconds. I’m headed to the mountains next week, where I will have no choice but to be shut off. I’ll read, and I’ll write, and I’ll try to remember that it’s still possible to do this, even in our culture. And I’ll hope that, like you, there are other people who still measure their lives not in nanoseconds, but in books.
I have fallen for the same pitfalls and I read fewer books for myself these days. However I do read a lot to my daughter and we listen to audio books together as well. She gets at least 1 hour/day (often more) of quality literature; not too bad for a 7 yo.
I wrote this essay about my own relationship with books and why I share them with my daughter: http://www.sarahbadatrichardson.com/an-army-to-keep-her-safe/
Lovely essay–you’re well on the way to providing a fortress for your daughter.
Thanks for sharing your insights.
I forced myself to quit “boredom shopping” online and took up crossword and cryptogram puzzles. Now I am addicted to those, but they are cheaper and better for me.
I cherish reading from slightly used books (not devices) just as you cherish your old cell phone; no unnecessary distractions!
👍🏽excellent analysis! How true, the habit of reading is fading faster & wondering whether the “transformation of one self through the renewal of the mind”…….as in
Romans 12:2. ……..”…………but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect”, ………..
will cease to happen to Christendom! TA
Great article! I have a question: Did you read Rod Dreher’s book (The Benedict Option)?
Portions of it, though not the whole book…yet. –Philip
I shared this article with a Facebook group of readers who take deep reading seriously. They read the classics and many are giving their children a classical education. However, several took umbrage with the Rod Dreher quote in your article, believing that it mischaracterized his book. Perhaps in this instance it wasn’t a case of deep reading?
Hi Mr Yancey,
Your thoughts on the death of reading were published in The Sunday Independent here in Ireland – 30 July 2017. I was always a slow reader because of a poor start with my reading yet always loved reading. It’s late here as I write having looked up most of the references you gave in the article and read some of what other writers had to say. Look at the ripple effect your prescient words have had on me across the ocean. So thank you for putting pen to paper on the topic. It has brought me into your website and those of other smart writers. Reading does expand ones horizons.
Like one other person above who has made a comment, I too have a 17 year old who when very young appeared to love reading. Then along came the digital ‘i’ product range in her own very lifetime and her love of all things digital evolved with the technology and away from reading. You can’t wind back the clock but in keeping with the sentiment of your article, it will be interesting to observe how her brain evolves with the intense digital world of today along side good writing past, present and future.
Thanks so much for “The Death of Reading Is Threatening the Soul.” I feel exactly the same way as you do. Reading is about all I want to do, now that I have reached the age of 73. If you look at my blog, Books to the Ceiling, you’ll see what I mean. I deeply appreciate your advice, and your spiritual orientation.
Ironically, though you may not currently be meeting your own reading expectations, it was your book (Soul Survivor) that opened up a world of authors to me that I may not have otherwise been exposed to and I learned that your impact was preceded by voracious reading. To that end, I have aspired to do likewise. Your legacy of reading has not been lost on me. Thank you.
If we are not careful, we will begin to denigrate ourselves for performing the type of reading that involves collecting quick information bites. Just because we may become absorbed in books (if we don’t get distracted by barking dogs, crying children, or the kitchen timer) doesn’t mean we are thereby engaged in a superior type of reading. It’s just a different type of reading. Absorption in propagandistic treatises or racist screeds does not a better person make; nor does absorption in the popular novel of the moment.
Whereas it is probably provable that clickbait and superficial skimming are affecting the way we read, please step back and realize that some people would consider spending a lazy afternoon in a hammock with Shakespeare, Melville, Jane Austen, a scientific analysis of brain function, or a sociological study of children and their use of technology is not a productive use of one’s time. By the way, I love all kinds of reading and I am also a retired librarian; but I caution against characterizing reading books (the printed page is the medium, not the content) as an activity that warrants self-congratulation, or that should be mourned when it is absent from one’s life temporarily. Who is the boss of your reading habits? You are.
Thank you for putting “my painful struggle” with my first love into words. I have loved reading more than anything since age 3. At 70, you would think that I would be “strong enough” to fight the technology wave easily, but for last year or so, my precious book collection is just collecting DUST. I will prevail however.
Thank you for speaking the truth and explaining why! I loved the article!
It really made me to wonder when was the last time I read a book without any interruption. This article really made me to set up reading goals to resurrect my reading habit rather than skimming through articles. As you said, those “6 Highly effective exercises to have lean thighs”, “A magical mixture to have lustrous hair in 30 days” are a great distraction. Thank you Mr.Yancey for this wonderful article.
I too am afflicted. for or against, Trump captures far too much of our time. I have noticed in your writing a drift towards humanism. Maybe that is the corrective of the hate/fear agenda of today’s Washington. Being a Borthwestern graduate, I particularly like your. Chicago days. I was on the Medical campus very near your pastorage.
I have always been a voracious reader and I tell young kids that the reason I did well in school was that I was downright NOSY!! Even in grade school I read history books, science books, fiction, etc. A lot of the time I would have my textbooks read in the first 6 weeks of school. I did the same with my math homework.
But, I have discovered that, except for Christian books, I am not reading many new books. I have spent my time going back over the things I enjoyed reading the first or second time and skipping a lot of the slow stuff. The only good new habit I am forming is to spend at least a tithe of my time daily (145 minutes) reading and praying. It is time spent with God. You have given me a push to start reading a lot of new books that I have heard of but never tried. I have been reading some G.K. Chesterton and Chuck Colson. Lots of creative stuff.
Thank you for all your works also. I have several of them. I will buy a couple of books you mentioned that I never had an interest in reading. I may be missing some amazing stuff.
I have seen references to studies about dopamine release, but not the idea that focusing on one task leaves us feeling more rested (though I certainly have noticed that). Could I get the citation for that study?
I’m not sure I kept the original source, but here’s a related one: https://qz.com/1020976/the-scientific-link-between-boredom-and-creativity/
I struggle with this as well. I used to read 3 books a week. However, I’m even more worried about my 17 year old daughter who used to be a voracious reader. I don’t think she’s picked up a book on her own in months.
What will happen to our society if we lose the education capital of books? I’m afraid we will have leaders who can’t think critically and won’t have the depth they need.
I’m also just sad that my daughter will miss out on the joy to be had in reading as a part of life.
I really enjoyed this piece, so much that I didn’t look at the slide bar once — until I reached the comments section. 😉 It relieves me to know I’m not the only one who struggles with attention and reading disciplines.
I have a question for you that may seem a touch off topic. You mention your computer database of annotations and notes from your reading. I have long wanted to create something like this, but have yet to find a workable, well-organized system. Would you share a little more about this? I have files and files of notes; bound journals and all sorts of post-it flags in my books, but finding something with ease is a challenge, to say the least. A digital database will surely take time to create, but I’m not sure where to start nor how to create it. I’d love to hear how you do this.
I use FileMaker Pro. It has the following fields: Topic (which can contain multiple words); Note (a brief summary or quotation of what struck me); Source; and Subtopic (a blank field I use when I start to compile the notes into some kind of outline as I begin writing. Hope this helps.
That is helpful. Thank you!
Tanya, I came to ask this same question but you beat me to it. 🙂 For what it’s worth, you might also check out Microsoft OneNote or Evernote, which are very powerful tools that might be right up your alley.
Thanks for your reflections. I come from a family of readers, surrounded by books, yet I succumb to the successive clicks in internet searches.
I read your biography on this site and, seeing as you spoke about reading books, thought you might be interested in my recent novel, Terrifying Freedom. It delves into many issues you bring up in your bio. It’s also received positive reviews on Goodreads. If you have a chance to read Terrifying Freedom, I would love to hear your thoughts.
All the best,
When I looked up Terrifying Freedom it was a novel. Is that the one you were writing about?
Just kidding. I feel much the same, sometimes.
Dear Mr. Yancey,
Thank you writing this article. Not only does it validate my own struggle with concentrating on reading, it makes me feel that I am not alone in the fight. I am inspired to fight on (and win), because of the importance of expanding the mind. Especially reading the most life altering book of all, The bible. Of all the books that I have read, God’s Word has brought life to the dead places.
Thanks for drawing attention to this growing problem. I find myself having many of the same issues when I’m reading on the computer. I actually built a web browser plugin designed to help people maintain focus when reading online. It displays text using color gradients, which wrap from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, pulling the reader’s eyes through the text. It sounds odd I know, but it works very well for many people (it has 100k users). There’s also a feature which visually dims the distracting “read this next!” and advertising blocks on websites, which also helps with focus while reading. My goal is to help people read online with the same endurance that we used to be able to read books.
Would love to hear if it is helpful for you! It’s called BeeLine Reader, and it’s on Chrome, iOS, and PDF.
“The internet and social media have trained my brain….” I’m confused, couldn’t those that lived when Gutenberg invented printing argue that printed books trained their brains to not listen to the oral traditions and decry books? Oh, wait, they did!
True, we need to evaluate our lives especially how we learn by our own disciplines not that this or that technology is doing us harm. Look at the harm cars and horse and buggies have done to our weight as humans. It’s not particularly the technology but the marks of discipline we choose or don’t choose. In all your examples Bill Gates, Mark, etc. they chose the discipline of learning new things. Dopomine comes not from whether the learning is on the Internet or Social media but the learning of new things itself. A person will get the same rush from a book, from Scripture from a sermon regardless of the technology used.
Let’s not decry the medium, let’s decry our own lack of choosing to be disciplined in learning and growing.
Yes! The struggle is real. And honestly, sadly, I guess I thought I was the only one. But evidently it’s a phenomenon, huh? Our new reading demands have weakened our resistance…and we’ve lowered the bar. I even found myself skimming your well-written and resonating post…when I wanted to linger with it and soak it in. I think you’re right: It’s worth building a fortress and protecting the time and effort we give to really reading something. We need to linger and mull and read carefully, not just look for the bullet points or subheadings. Thanks for the encouragement…and the personal stand on reading well.
Really crucial thinking here. Thank you! I cruise the internet to give my brain a break way too often. It is so tempting, especially when the tools of one’s trade are only a keystroke away from distraction (I work on a lap top as a writer).
I’ve shared your article with family and on Twitter. I’ll go over to Twitter now to make sure it’s there. Just kidding! Thank you again for your good work over the decades.
Thanks for the insightful post. As a writer myself, I feel that reading is an especially important discipline. I’m continuing to work on my “fortress.”
In reading your post, I can’t help but think of my two teenage kids. They are “digital natives” and spend a lot of time on their phones. We draw some boundaries for them (e.g., no social media for now, and limited screen time in general), but I also don’t want to be constantly saying “no” to them or to make them feel like complete social outsiders. Fortunately, they are both readers too (mostly fiction), but I sometimes worry that they don’t choose to read things that challenge them very much, and I wonder whether this is because of the digital world’s relentless assault on their attention spans. We are conducting a grand experiment on ourselves by so hungrily adopting digital technologies. I worry that side-effects like the one you point out are only the beginning…I guess we’ll find out.
Thanks Philip, I love to read books that are well written & the words flow, somehow that is how my brain works. In Jr. High I would visit the school library almost daily, I would find an author I liked & read all his books, yes, reading was an obsession, at 8-10 yrs old I read Egermeiers Bible Story Book & then could beat everyone, no matter the age in Bible quizzes. At 81 I still read a lot but am also in 2 Bible studies because they continue to push me to study. I have been asked to read a fiction non-Christian book on vampires because the author liked my Christian conservative opinion on his 1st book, (my comment was I felt like I needed a bath in the Bible after reading it!). A book I am slowly reading is “The Suffering Savior” by Krumacher, a German theologian in the 1850’s who wrote this to combat the ‘new thought’ (liberalism) of the day, it was a favorite of my dad (a pastor) who read it each year before Easter. Thanks for your blog, makes me feel better about not upgrading my phone.
Great article, but I got distracted and couldn’t read the whole thing. 😉
Actually, I agree completely. As a pastor I read a book a week and it’s hard than ever to keep focused. The media and instant information available on the Internet makes it harder to concentrate on just one thing as I used to do.
Grateful for your honesty.
Thank you for a very interesting and enlightening article. I have had that illness 🙂 since my mid 40’s. I think the last book I delved into was Watchman Nee back in the 80’s. I read a lot up until that time… Mostly related to Christian Living and the Bible.
Thanks for sharing!!
My fortress of habit is the One Year Bible. For 30+ years I have gotten up early each day to just read this formatted Bible. My favorite translation is the NLT and have read it a dozen times or so. I am not studying the Bible during that time. I’m reading it. So many times God has opened a passage that I have casually read fo 30 years and in an instant, I see God’s grandure as I had not experienc before. I use paper books, not digital. I mark signifacant events on the Dailey pages that have happened or that I’m praying about. Years later, I can see snapshots of Christ touching my life when reading those notes. My One Year Bible is the 1st thing I pack when going on a trip. I carry my fortress of habit with me wherever I go. Probably 6 people have been influenced and followed this example. They cannot not read their Bible every day. You must maintain your fortress each day.
Thank you for your thought-provoking article. I have a physical problem that requires me to be down in bed for a few hours every day. What a blessing that problem has turned out to be, and what an awesome gift my sisters gave me years ago when my hands could no longer comfortably hold a book, a bookstand that holds my book for me by my bedside. I read constantly nowadays, but I understand your point about our hesitancy to read “heavy” books. God has given me a tremendous gift – time to read, that others don’t often have – and I need to use it to the best of my ability.
I have just read your blog. It distracted me from my fairly regular “first things,” so what you say about distractions applies to me. My crisis is similar but different. I feel guilty reading on my ebook device–my phone, tablet and computer–instead of “real” books. I recently donated a box of books to Goodwill on which I had written “books I will never read” several years ago. More years before, I had bought them intending to read them “someday.” I love to underline and think about what I underline and quote it to others with whom I am talking about the subject I had read and in which they too are interested, or I think they should. I considered 3×5 cards but found that excruciatingly tedious and hard to reference in the future. I usually settled for a bad paraphrase starting with “I read something really…” then stammer through what I thought about when I read. It works better when you have the book or your 3×5 card file in your briefcase (I carry a backpack now), but finding it on my phone is getting easier than it used to be! I have some “real” books which I also have in e-book. A couple of yours. So I have in some very small way helped you to buy some of your”real” book library. I may read some of my “someday” books in the future but for now while my life is as “busy” as it is, I’m going to live with the crisis as it is for me. I look forward to your next book to download.
In an experimental Speed Reading (semester length) class in 10th grade (1960), I started reading at 257 words per minute. At the end, I was clocked at 12,500 words per minute and I was not the fastest student.
I read, and enjoyed, as though I was watching a full-color movie and had a 93% comprehension rating to boot.
Alas, I lost that skill over the next few years and regretted the impact on my later (lacking) study habits. In spite of this, I managed to navigate my way through a successful life!
Enjoyed you reopening of my eyes to the value of paper book reading!
Thank you for this article! It was well written, and it gives insight into why we are this way (with our phones, social media, etc.) and practical steps as to how to get out of being that way.
My concern is that I get most of my news from social media sources (mainly Twitter). And a lot of those tweets include links to those quick-fix articles that I like to read so that I have more insight into something than the 140-character limit in a tweet allows. If I want to cut back the amount I look at Twitter and read those articles, how should I get my news? Is there a certain website you trust and check daily, or do you simply limit time spent on Twitter? Any insight would be appreciated.
Another semi-embarrassing admission: I don’t use Twitter and know nothing about it. For news I’m most likely to check the BBC website, as they have excellent international coverage. –Philip
You could try what I do – my radio alarm is set to go off in the morning just two minutes before our national radio station broadcasts the news. Despite a liberal agenda, I find it has the most balanced international news. I am awake enough by then to listen to the news headlines, and then I generally turn it off, unless there is occasionally an item of particular interest to me. That way, I hear of the major events in the world in the past 24 hours, and that is actually all I really need.
I also set my alarm to wake me with the morning news recap on a local station. If I want more info, I check in on a favorite website later.
Great article there. I am deeply challenged. Thanks Philip.
Yes, I feel that way also. I haven’t read a book in ages, and I struggle to find inspiration to paint too. I think I will make an effort to read a book for at least one our a day, even if I have to set a timer on to hold myself to it. It’s not the lack of books that’s the problem, although I tried twice to read Crime and Punishment and dropped out about 100 pages through, and that was a long time before social media. The antics of one of the characters just reminded me too much of my late dad’s temper tantrums, and I lost interest. Similarly with War and Peace by Tolstoy. At the beginning of the story the count tries to teach math to his daughter, and when she doesn’t get it he becomes verbally abusive, so she comes to dread those sessions. When I was in elementary school, if I needed help with math assignments it often ended in verbal abuse, so I stopped taking math classes as soon as it stopped being a compulsory subject, or my parents would pay for an unrelated tutor to help me out, and coming across this sort of experience in classic fiction turned me off those novels for good.
Wow, I wouldn’t aspire to Tolstoy if your reading skills are rusty. 🙂 Unless you have another reason to enjoy him? Maybe start with Jane Austen…or even Francine Rivers. Each excellent in their own time!
I’m a devout reader with a library of about 3000 books. My friends ask me all the time, how do you read so much? A few things –
– you MUST read paper books. They have no links, etc. MUST. I hear people talk about saving space by throwing away their paper books. Space for what? Knick knacks on a shelf?
– you must read at least 30 pages a day.
– those 30 pages HAVE TO come before other things. Don’t do the dishes. Don’t turn the TV on. But READ.
– quit any social media that is not essential to your job.
Actually, no. Dead tree editions aren’t a MUST. Had 2 hours of downtime today, with no paper book with me. Spent the entire time reading a book (not social media) on my phone. The only links were footnotes, and I chose not to follow them.
See also: poor craftsman, tool-blaming
Thanks for this Philip! Your transparency continues to call me to a more integrated self.
Thank you, Mr. Yancey. This was a very refreshing commentary. I apparently suffer from the same thing as I too, checked the side bar.
Dear Philip, I just read your article on the Washington Post. You accurately describe a problem that I have been confronting as well in my professional and personal life. If you come across any other tips for keeping the post-literate world at bay, please do share. Thanks for this message of resolve and hope. All the best, Henry
I have eschewed social media and website temptations for the reasons you’ve stated. Valerie gets frustrated with me at times because I miss something she has posted. I’m still in love with books and generally read two to three per week.
I don’t have the compulsive reasons to be active online that you have, being an author. I don’t know how you, or anyone, can easily avoid being affected by the many online distractions that can’t be avoided when we visit a web page. We can experience “digital detox” but it requires a determined effort and does have side effects in the beginning.
I don’t think about it much anymore and don’t spend a lot of time online (outside of my work requirements.) When I first realized I needed to call it quits and experienced self-frustration at letting myself get so caught up in online wasted time, I read a series on digital detoxing. My magic thought became pondering how sweet it was going to be to curl up with a cup of coffee and biscotti while I read a book. It worked! I’m no longer tempted to be distracted with the internet. I have a few sites I visit regularly, yours included, and I spend less than ten hours per week online.
I’ve also become a heavy audiobook listener for most of my light reading. I can enjoy a book while I knit, cook, etc. Sure beats TV!
Go grab a book and enjoy 😊
My husband is thoroughly hooked on
Audible. We have listened to many wonderful books in bed at the end of the day. The life of Ben Franklin was wonderful. We are listening to the life of Hamilton now. He reads deep theological books (paper) during the day. We enjoy listening to fiction when we take a day trip.
Wow! Just Wow! it is a long time I read such a refreshing article.
Being in a fairly pressurized business environment for most of my life, I learned the incredibly bad habit of skim reading. Only after I had retired was I able to force myself into”deep reading”again. In this I have only been partly successful I’m afraid to say!
When I was young I developed this ability to completely ignore the real world if I was reading. I can still do it and I hope that never changes. Of course folks around me would rather they be able to easily get my attention but if I am lost in a good book it may be hours before I surface again. I work with computers as a programmer so at the end of the day, I leave that world behind and put the phone aside and I am able to then do what I really love, read. I very rarely look at my email or phone over the weekend…that is my stress free, technology free time.
I read Carr’s book about two years ago. It is dead on the mark.
Language is innate but reading is wholly learned and the cognitive skills that sustained deep reading foster is what bootstrapped us into the modern world.
Smartphones are eroding that. Rapidly.
People who can’t put down their Smart Phones can always download Nook . It’s great as you can preview a book and if you like you can buy it to your phone. I prefer the real version (paperback or hardcover) myself but my Daughternlaw likes Nook! It’s a Win Win situation!
I skipped through this aricle. I agree. I don’t read as much as I used to. Even pleasurable reading (forget the hard stuff). I still like to read long theological books, but I do about 10 pages a day. I am addicted to many things. My phone and electronic media are among them.
Thank you so much for the post. I am going through the same crisis. The issue is compounded with needing to look after the needs of a young family and with a demanding career. I do buy the physical copies of books that I am interested in reading and keeping. My ebooks are relegated to mainly light reading. I am taking time to read the Bible, slowly and taking time to try to understand. But it is true, it takes commitment and efforts to build an internal fortress to allow for quality reading.
Once again you challenge me dear friend. It is easy to fall out of the habit of adding fresh insights to your reservoir by reading. Look forward to seeing you soon and always look forward to your posts.
I am in total agreement with the article and will file it in my good-articles file. I’ve read every single one of your books (unless you’ve sneaked some in on me) and get so much out of them.
I too have read all of the Philip Yancey Library ! He is among the few authors I had enjoyed for over 20 years as his books are always so inspiring. So I needed to expand my readings and came across a book called ” The Ragamuffins Bible” and ended up reading all of Brennan Manning books. Christian Book Distibutors is a great place to expand!
Thank you for again hitting the nail on the head about the need to fortress time to do serious reading. I have benefited so much through my life reading the thoughts of great men and women of faith all down the ages. I get a perspective that is sometimes missing from modern Christian life.
I rarely experience what you write about as far as being distracted by media; however, I can identify with failing to read challenging material. I read a couple of books a week, but for the most part, I read fiction. I just can’t seem to get motivated to read things that require real concentration. Previously, I have told myself that I am retired and deserve to do what I want to. However, after reading this post, I am going to try to get myself motivated to read something with more depth.
Thanks Phillip ,
I enjoy reading and a book a week is about the norm for me but I do find that I can easily waste time reading stuff online that is just a waste of time. The best thing I ever did was to reduce my FB time down to 2 minutes or less a day … and I really do not miss it at all !!!
Thanks for the encouragement !!!
Thanks for this compilation of insights and thoughts, Philip. I see this play out every day at the university where I teach. Students come to college confident in their ability to succeed; however, most have not developed the ability to read for pleasure or learning. Oftentimes they have learned their high school lessons from hand-outs instead of textbooks. Many of them are devastated when the first college exam or paper is graded and the grade is far lower than they expected. The students eventually begin to realize (and it is a only a gradual realization in spite of faculty assertions and attempts to help) they have no idea how to ‘study’, and much of the problem is rooted in what you share in this article. They are completely unaccustomed to reading material deeper and lengthier than texts, emails and social media postings. Having to learn to read deeply at the same time they are carrying 15 credits of college work – work that requires an ability to already think and read deeply – is extremely difficult. A number of these students become discouraged and depressed; some leave college considering themselves failures.
Regardless of whether a young person is going to college or not, the ability to read and communicate effectively is essential. Our global society is dependent upon it, and we are losing ground quickly.
Thank you again for writing this; I will be sharing it with friends and colleagues.
Dear, dear Mr. Philip Yancey. You, in your writings, introduced me to Dr. Paul Brand and his awesome work. I will forever love you for that, no matter what. : )
Yes I love a good book but now I am in my 50s I don’t want to read anything that is a time waster. I’m a Jane Austen fan so I’m going to read those again this year. Too many modern books are R rated for me.
Go to “Christian Book Distributors ” online. You can also join their mailing list and get a catalog of sales they have books, gifts etc. Many times I have found wonderful books for $5! That too introduced me to AutoBiographies on people who are so inspirational but I’ve never heard of before! Example : “Frederick: A Story of Boundless Hope” Books are too expensive these days that why I buy from CBD!
Thanks for sharing that. It makes me see I’m not the only one, and it was very informative as well!
I feel the same about how much time I read, and the quality of my reading skills, especially after motherhood, and after leaving my work as a translator for three years. It takes me ages to take in a paragraph. I mean, I can zoom over my twitter timeline and pick what to stop and read, but when his anything longer that 140 characters, oh gosh it feels like it never ends.
I hear you on the habit. I’m developing that too. I just started to take paper books to read again, and I’m making a point about reading a certain length of time every evening. It has been productive 🙂
This helps me understand why studying the Bible is a challenge. I can zip thru pop fiction, mysteries, and some non-fiction but don’t seem to have the concentration to study. Time to change some habits. Thanks for the info.
You have spoken to my soul in an affirming voice. Thanks.
This helps me understand why I struggle with Bible study. I can zip thru pop fiction, mysteries, and some non-fiction. But studying, concentrating, learning – my brain seems to resist. Time to change my habits. Thanks for the info.
I feel a certain hunger for those challenging books that force me into meditation.
I joined a Book Club when I moved here recently. I liked the idea of reading books that club members chose and this has stretched me to read books I might not ordinarily choose.
We were at The Cove a few days ago and I decided to commit myself to less media and more reading particularly my Bible.
Thank you for sharing …let’s Read!
Billy Grahams place?
I identify with the decline in attention, and have probably found that (Christian) meditation has helped greatly. After a year practicing, I’ve been exercising my concentration muscle to the point where I can ignore distractions much more easily, and I currently read about 45 minutes a day – mostly fiction – and I’m loving it!
Thanks for this article – great stuff!
This is a very good and timely article. And there is one glaring out of place sentence disrupting what is otherwise a a substantially well written piece. “Christians especially need this sheltering space”.
There is no one of thoughtful, intelligent and mindful thinking and feeling that does not need meditation, contemplation and time to do so.
This is not true more for one race, religion, or culture. It is universal. Sentences like this are not only limiting they actually detract from what is an important message and what is indeed a universal difficulty in the human condition.
Strike that sentence and the thesis stands on firmer ground
Thank you so much for putting into words what I also have been feeling. So I haven’t imagined it. I think I’ll go right now and make a reading list (a reading fortress).
Thank you for this piece. As young man I read books…but the reading habit waned. I used to buy books from my income but things have changed because of the economic situation we are in. However, I decided recently to go back the book reading path. Good books are expensive…
Libraries are still free! 😁
Thanks for this article. I’m still reading every day, but the electronic forces do pull on me. I appreciate the idea of building a protective fortress.
…and to me, reading books with ink on paper, likens itself to visiting fine art on a gallery instead of digital images that flit… the ‘actual’ painting and or book seems to open the door of the soul of the author/painter in a way that digitized media disallows… blessings Philip… I have many of your actual manuscripts and my side notations help me recall the wisdom derived…
So true. I’ve wondered why I now struggle to read completely through an article or chapter of a book, when it used to be so easy. You have answered that question and challenged me to set up a fortress for reading time. I admit it will not be immediate, but worth the investment! Wish me luck, and thank you! Will definitely pass this one on!
Love, love, love this article. Indeed, it seems that reading is a lost art in today’s world. I, too, am working on that fortress of habit in this techy world. I so enjoy your books, Phillip. What a wonderful, God-given talent you have! May the Lord continue to bless you and use you for His glory .
enjoyed this article, identified with parts of it
I love your article. I’ve never been able to stick with long works unless they were absolutely brilliant. May I suggest 2 books that expanded for me what I thought was humanly possible in writing? Thomas Pynchon, “Mason & Dixon”, and David Foster Wallace, “Infinite Jest”.
-sent from my phone, which I check probably 1000 times a day. Ugh.
Wow, have you been camping in my backyard?
I know all too well the battle you are facing. It has been going on in my head for several years, and I am a 77 year old retired pastor.
I also do an online bookstore just for fun and to keep myself out of mischief.
Now I battle for time to read anything worthwhile, and it sometimes seems such a loosing fight.
Hang in there, good sir. It will get better as you continue in the fight, and you will again find the battle is the Lord’s, not yours. The determination, however, must be yours.
I admit it: I looked at the slide bar a number of times while reading this post, Philip. And I groaned because it was moving so slowly. How relieved I was to reach the end! Please don’t be offended – it’s me, not you.
Hey, as long as that slide bar keeps moving, I’m happy!
Haha, I did it too! I do it all the time. Not much different from glancing at the clock. Hey, life is finite and we’ve got only a certain amount of time even for a good article. 🙂 It was a relief to discover that it was only the dozens of comments making it seem so long. I did read an article yesterday on a news site that actually WAS that long…but it was so good, I finished it. Oh, and this one, too, Philip!!
Thanks for the article! I have always loved your books. I chuckled at your comment about Chu underestimating the number of words in a book. If you only use your books as a standard, then yes, that is underestimating. 😀 But I trust your knowledge and experience to actually know what your talking about.
Your book on prayer has probably been for me the most influential book – aside from God’s Word – I have ever read. Thank you for writing so boldly and with such depth.
I can look back over my life and remember the books I have read that have greatly impacted who I am today. Yours, Ortberg, Stanley (both of them), Piper, and more.
Thank you! And I think I’m going to make a plan to get back into fervent reading again.
I admit it: I looked at the slide bar a number of times while reading this post, Philip. And I groaned because it was moving so slowly. How relieved I was to reach the end! Please don’t be offended – it’s me, not you. 😋
Great. For me poetry = old hymns. They are inspiring, ravishing and produce joy.