Karen Swallow Prior spoke at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference in a breakout session titled “Why, How, and What to Read.” The relationship between God and his people, she argued, has always focused on the centrality of the Word with a specific emphasis on written words. In fact, it may be said that reading is a supernatural gift from God—one that can be accepted, rejected, or lost. It is therefore incumbent on all believers to cultivate the ability to read the right things, in the right ways, in order to steward the wonderful gift of reading that both enriches our lives and also deepens our relationship with the Word who took on flesh and dwelt among us.
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Karen Swallow Prior: So, I’m here to talk about… Let’s see what’s the title of my talk. How, Why and What to Read, I think. I do want to tell you that I’ve run out of space and time a little bit at the what to read part and that’s really hard for me because I’ve written books about it. So I’ll give you a little bit of what’s at the end, but also I love Q&A. So I think there will be a good amount of time for me to take some questions and answers, I think that’s allowed. So I would love for you to be thinking about some questions that you might have. That’s my favorite part. That’s the best part, Q&A. All right. So let’s start with the why. Why read? Christianity is a religion of the Word. We Christians are a people of the book. These distinctives have defined the faith from the beginning, even before the age of print that has brought us so many books. And if you don’t believe that just go downstairs, there are many, many books down there.
As we enter what many critics are calling a post literate age, we need, I think to be reminded that the essence of the Christian faith centers on the Word. Being a faithful reader of the text, any text, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it, reading parts in the context of the whole, allowing text to interpret text is a skill that requires both learning and practice. And it’s a skill we have been practicing throughout the world for over 500 years. Literacy has changed the world and changed the way we live. Even long before the printing press and this widespread literacy, God was cultivating a relationship with his chosen people focused on the written word. From the carving of the 10 commandments to the writing of the Torah, to the copying and distribution of scrolls and letters in the early church, God’s plan was for his people to read. However, as the way we read and what we read in this digital post-literate age changes, so too will the character of the church change.
How will our reading habits affect the way we interact with the Bible? How will the way we read the Bible alter the church body? The words God carved into stone at Mount Sinai, included a caution against images. Setting up a peculiar word based relationship with his followers that contrasted starkly with the image worshiping pagan nation surrounding the Israelites. This is actually a famous point made by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. So, I’m channeling him here and I highly recommend that book if this point intrigues you. And even before Sinai, in the Garden of Eden, the skins with which God covered Adam and Eve after they sinned were a type or foreshadowing of the skin that would cover God himself in the incarnation, who then thus incarnated, would cover the sin of all believers. As David Lyle Jeffrey explores in depth in his book, People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture. Even the animal skins or the vellum on which early scriptures were written also, remind us of this covering.
And it’s fascinating to think even if we go a little bit forward in history, even to today of how a leather bound book can remind us of ourselves as people who are covered in skin that is dead really, unless it is filled with the presence of the word. This motif and place of the book has continued through church history and medieval painting, something Jeffrey also talks about a lot in his book, frequently depicted Mary and other biblical figures and church fathers later on anachronistically holding the Bible. Now, if I were really good, I’d have had a PowerPoint thing up here, but I’m not that good. But you can google it later. Many of these medieval paintings will depict early church figures and biblical figures holding a Bible. Such images, even or especially when they’re anachronistically presented because obviously they weren’t bound books in the time of Christ, symbolize the centrality of reading to Christian faithfulness and point out the concrete tangible nature of the word. In many of these paintings the subject is depicted with a finger inserted into the books pages, suggesting interactive reading.
The images reflect how Thomas needed to put his fingers inside the body of Christ before he would know and believe. God’s Word, both written and incarnate beckons us to come close and engage with it with him in a tactile concrete incarnational relationship. Despite the centrality of the Word and words from the beginning of God’s revelation, many generations of believers of course, were unable to read the Bible for themselves. Before the reformation, biblical words pass through priests and were supplemented by images depicted in stained glass windows and in itinerate drama troops performing biblical stories as they went from town to town. These symbols, images and portrayals offered rich beauty, but images alone… So the reformers asserted, cannot convey the abstractions of doctrine. Thus, in the pre literate age preceding the reformation, the Bible was delivered and understood only in pieces not as a whole body. The reformation is focused on reading and the resulting age of literacy that at birth we’re in some ways, the combination of what philosophers and literary critics call the logo centrism that runs through the Bible and God’s relationship with creation.
In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God. This passage from John 1:1, is a direct echo of Genesis one, when God created the world and revealed Himself through His Word. And the Word of the Lord, as spoken of in the Bible, refers to all the ways that God reveals Himself, not just written but also spoken. Still, there is something about His Word that always reflects the written Word, logical, linear and coherent. And likewise, the key feature of a literate age is the cultivation not only have the ability to read, but have the propensity to think in a lot logical, linear, coherent fashion. And it’s significant to note that the act of reading is actually not natural to the human brain. Language is natural, but reading is not. While scientists see reading in terms of evolution and adaptation, I would say we can at least acknowledge that reading is in some way, because it’s unnatural, supernatural. It is a gift. It is something given to us by God and as a gift, it can also be not only received but it can be rejected or lost.
Now, after I wrote on reading well, actually, just maybe a few weeks ago, I discovered this is… If you’re a writer, this is the worst. You discover a book or a source that you never knew about that is almost everything you wanted to write about. So I discovered this book called The Gutenberg Elegies, by Sven Birkerts. Anybody know this? I don’t know how I never came across it. So, I’m actually going to draw heavily from Birkerts here. In his book, which was written I think, somewhere in the 90s and I have an updated edition from 2006. So, he was writing really just when the internet was starting to take off and… Well. So, in it as the title suggests, he’s referring to Gutenberg and the passing of the print culture. He examines the many differences between a print culture and an electronic culture and laments, again, as the title suggests, the losses of human culture and even our own humanity that he sees as we transition from a print culture to an electronic culture.
So, Birkerts defines reading in both the literal and the metaphorical sense as this. And I’ll quote, “As a filtering of the complexities of the real through artistic narrative reflection and orchestration of verbal imagery.” That’s a little… That’s a lot, but I’ll be talking about his observations a little bit more. In extolling the gifts of reading, he writes, “Through the process of reading…” And by the way he’s not as far as I know a believer. But I don’t know anything about him, but he sounds like. If he’s not he’s going to be. In extolling the gifts of reading, Birkerts writes, “Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation marked by distractedness and sufficiality into the realm of duration. Only in the duration state is experience present as meaning. Only in this state are we prepared to continue our lives under what the philosophers used to call, “the aspect of eternity.” Whatever that is. “To question our origins and destinations and to conceive of ourselves as souls.
Reading, pledged to duration refuses the idea of time as simple succession. Reading argues for a larger conception of the meaningful and it’s implicit injunction is that we change our lives, that we strive to live them in the light of meaning. What reading does ultimately, is keep alive the dangerous and exhilarating idea that life is not a sequence of lived moments, but a destiny that God or no God, life has a unitary pattern inscribed within it.” This is how philosophers talk about the meaning that comes from God when they do don’t want to admit God, but it’s true. And then in another book that came out in the past year or so, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. The neuroscientist, Maryanne Wolf explains that reading is not hardwired in the human brain, the way languages. Not only does the remarkable plasticity of the human brain make reading possible, but the activity of reading she shows, creates new circuits in the brain. These aid in learning abstract and creative concepts that go beyond the brain’s genetically programmed functioning.
Reading demands “extraordinary cerebral complexity.” And she says the brain requires years for deep reading processes to be formed. Our reading habits therefore… This is me, have the potential to shape our brains for good or for ill. Now, I’ll just stop here and I’ll talk about this in the reading well, but the opposite I think is also true. I’ve experienced this myself and you probably have too. The more we spend time doing the superficial reading that we do on our phones, reading tweets and Facebook updates, the harder it is to do that deep reading that we need to do when we’re reading a complicated text. Again, Wolf explains that deep reading activates regions of the brain related to touch, motion and feeling and helps develop the background knowledge that we bring to further reading and living. The consistent… This is her quote, “The consistent strengthening of the connections among our analogical inferential and empathic and background knowledge processes, generalizes well beyond reading. When we learn to connect these processes over and over in our reading, it becomes easier to apply them to our own lives.”
And again, I’ll just say, if it seems like people on Twitter don’t act as though the other people on Twitter are human beings, it’s in part because the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan said. The deep reading that we do when we read books, actually engages different processes of the brain that allow us to apply what we read to other human lives more. Cognitive science further shows that our brains work one way when accustomed to reading in a logical linear pattern and another way when continually bouncing from tweet to tweet, picture to picture, screen to screen. Wolf’s research shows that reading on digital devices does not create the same kind of brain circuits as deep reading. And another thinker along these lines that I’ll also cite is Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr writes, “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts, the faster the better.” Our brains are becoming like tweets.
And again to return to the Gutenberg Elegies. Birkerts says, “The electronic impulse works against the durational reverie of reading. The soul needs silence, time and concentration. Precisely what is required by the counter technology of the book.” So as our reading becomes more immersed in a digital rather than a print culture, the more we return to some qualities, not just of what we often talk about as the post-modern world, but the pre-literate world. We are reading more, but the way we read replicates the effects of the discrete images of stained glass windows more than the sustained logical and coherent linearity of a whole book. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the world is a better place because of both our stained glass windows and our glass screens. But it’s also a better place because we can read. And as I said, reading is a gift. And it’s one that can be lost, but we must not. So that’s a little bit about why we should read. Now a little bit about how… That’s a lot of the bad news. So now, what do we do next? How to read well.
Well, Birkerts asks quite ominously, “If a person turns from print, finding it too slow, too hard, irrelevant to the excitement’s of the present, then what happens to that person’s sense of culture and continuity?” Good question. Reading and interpreting literature notoriously lacks hard and vast rules, right? This is why many of us find it fun and others find it frustrating. It is this very quality that draws some of us to literature and some away from it. And the truth is… And this does make some of you in this room uncomfortable. There is no right reading of a literary text, no one right reading, but there certainly are erroneous readings, weak readings, good readings, better readings and excellent readings. So, there are gradations. And while the highest levels of biblical and literary hermeneutics can sometimes confound us, a basic and valid interpretive lens for reading the Bible can be as straightforward as approaching a great literary work. Now of course, I know as most college students will tell you and most of mine included, skillful reading, whether we’re talking about the Bible or of a literary text doesn’t come naturally, it must be learned.
Like literary texts, the inspired Word of God, the Bible is also a literary work. Now, it’s more than that I know. But it’s also that written with artistry, a narrative arc and themes, both major and minor. So just as there are valid and invalid approaches to reading Huckleberry Finn, there are right and wrong ways to read the Bible. As readers, whether the text we hold is God breathed or merely mortal, we must take into account, genre, purpose, audience, structure, point of view, the list goes on. We find meaning by understanding each passage only within the context of the whole. Consider for just one example the problem of the reliability of the narrator. This is something we talk about in literature studies. A certain level of read early maturity, skill and critical distance is required to discern between a reliable narrator and an unreliable one.
So, for example, to return to Huckleberry Finn, when Huck tells us that his conscience is troubled for treating Miss Watson so mean by assisting her runaway slave, recognizing the unreliability of Huck as a narrator, is imperative to grasping the meaning of the text as a whole. One of the reasons why Huckleberry Finn keeps showing up on banned books lists or is objected to by well meaning parents in public schools or other schools, is because of a misunderstanding of what the book is really saying, which is different from what the characters are saying. On the other hand, when the narrator of A Tale of Two Cities, tells us, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, the astute reader intuits that the narrative voice reflects the view of the implied author. Similarly, the skilled reader of the Bible… This is so much, I know. Sometimes it feels like it’s asking a lot, but it really shouldn’t be. The skilled reader of the Bible can distinguish between description and prescription between ceremonial law and moral law and between abolishment and fulfillment of the law, just to name a few things.
So, whether you are someone who feels like you have lost your ability to read well or you are someone who felt you never possess that ability at all, be encouraged. The skills required to read well are no great mystery. Reading well is simple. It just takes time and attention. So, one thing I’ve noticed a lot in nearly three decades of teaching literature, is that many readers have been conditioned to jump so quickly to interpretation and evaluation and opinion of a work, that they often skip the most fundamental, but most essential task of simply comprehending what the words literally mean on the page. When for example we’re reading a poem in one of my classes and I asked my students, what does this passage…. What is it saying about the waves of the ocean or something? And I’ll notice that when I ask a question like that, that they look up. “What is it saying?” And I’d say, “No, literally, what is it saying? Which word is describing?” And they just… They don’t even know what the poem is literally saying.
So, this is the most common teaching method I use, is to just make sure they understand because poetry can get a little… The word, the syntax can get out of order and the metaphors, it gets a little tricky, but… So just understand what the text is actually saying and then we can talk about the implications. But this little thing that they do about looking up and me telling him look down reminds me how much reading is a bodily experience and how thinking is. Reading well begins with understanding well the words on the page. And attending to them is a skill that requires practice and it also requires some bodily discipline of holding and looking at the books at the words. So it takes practice. And practice makes perfect as they say. But pleasure makes practice more enjoyable. So I do recommend that you read something that you enjoy.
If a book is so agonizing, that you’re avoiding reading it and looking for any excuse to do something else, other than read this book that you’ve told yourself you’d read, please put it down and pick up another one. Because there are so many good books, you might as well read one that brings you joy because life is just too short not to. On the other hand, the greatest pleasures are those that are born of some labor and investment. So a book that requires nothing from you might bring the same kind of diversion that watching a half hour sitcom brings to you, but it’s unlikely to provide intellectual aesthetic or spiritual rewards long after the cover is closed. So therefore, even as you seek books that you will enjoy reading, demand ones that make demands on you. Books with sentences so exquisitely crafted that you have to reread them. Familiar words used in fresh ways and new words so evocative that you are compelled to look them up. Images and ideas so arresting that they return to you unbidden for days to come.
Also, read slowly. Just as a fine meal should be savored, so too, good books are to be luxuriated in, not rushed through. This is something I have to when I ask my students to read Poetry out loud in the classroom and I go over it, I’ll tell them, “Okay, first rule of reading poetry is to read slowly. Second rule of poetry is to pay attention to the punctuation, not the line breaks.” That’s pretty much it. And I always have to slow down. Poetry is a word party, it’s meant to be enjoyed. All literature is meant to be luxuriated in. Certainly, there is another kind of reading that we do, that most of us do all day long, that just… I don’t luxuriate over tweets or blog posts. That’s a different kind of reading. So I’m not saying all reading is to be done that way. The problem is simply that when we skim the things that are not meant to be skimmed, we lose the whole point. We actually waste… Why even bother?
Speed reading is not only inferior to deep reading, but may bring more harm than benefits. One critic caution that reading fast… And I love this quote. “Reading fast is simply a way of fooling yourself into thinking you’re learning something. And when you read quickly you aren’t thinking critically or making connections.” The same critic says, “Speed reading gives you two things that should never mix, superficial knowledge and overconfidence.” So don’t be discouraged if reading seems to take you a long time. To the contrary, take even more time by reading with a pen or a pencil in hand marking the book or if it’s a library book, I guess, take notes on [inaudible 00:26:46]. Oops, I don’t know if there any librarians in here. I swear those faint pencil marks were not made by me. Okay. Mark in the book or take notes on paper as a way of engaging with the text thoughtfully.
And I have found even among my students that often the slowest readers are actually the best readers. They’re the ones who get the most meaning out of a work and are affected most deeply by literature which is one of the reasons we read and write literature, is to be affected by it. As the 17th century Puritan divine, Richard Baxter wrote, “It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make a man wise or good, but the well reading of a few, could he be sure to have the best.” So in summary of this part, read books you enjoy, develop your ability to enjoy challenging books and take joy in reading deeply and slowly. Okay, so now a little bit about what to read. And again, I’m just… I’m not giving you a list, but in the Q&A if you want a list, I can give one. But this is a little bit broader than just a list.
So, my students response that I just talked about kind of looking up and not at the page. That kind of response serves as a reminder that reading… And again, I’m talking about reading literature. Reading literature is an aesthetic experience, it is embodied. Literature like all art cannot be understood or appreciated apart from its form. To attend to the form of a work is by its very nature and aesthetic experience. So the content of a work is what it says, but its form is how it is said. While the ethical component of literature comes from its ideas, its lessons or its vision, the aesthetic quality is related to the way reading, first as an exercise, then as a habit forms us. The content of water is always the same but water that flows continuously from a steady source, reshapes the land through which it runs. And that’s what books can do for us.
But unfortunately, we are conditioned today. And I think that… This is true of our 21st century modern culture, but I think is also especially true of Christians, that we are conditioned to focus on content and purpose and utility at the expense of form. When we read a book or watch a film or view a work of art, if we do that, we tend to look for the message, the theme, the worldview, relatable characters and so forth, but we often neglect the form. Part of this tendency is the fruit born of a culture influenced by a utilitarian emphasis on function and practical use at the expense of beauty and structure. Yet we know from real life relationships and communication, how true it is that the way something is communicated is just as important as what is communicated. It’s just basically… We’ve all had the conversation that ends or somewhere in the middle or begins with. Well, it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it. That’s exactly what literature is. It’s about the how.
Form is what sets literary texts apart from informational texts, in the same way that a painting differs from paint that covers a wall. Same materials, different form. So compare the way that somebody might experience a work of literature, either by watching a film adaptation, nothing wrong with that, that’s fine. Or the cliff notes version, that may not be fine if you’re one of my students, rather than actually reading it. You can get the same content, you kind of get the point but you don’t get the same experience. Reading well requires us to pay attention to both form and the content. And because literature is an art and is therefore by definition and aesthetic experience, not merely an intellectual one, we have to attend to form at least as much as content. Form matters. So, I’m going to make the case here for reading more literature, whether fiction, drama, poetry. Again, I’ve written two books talking about specific works that I love and what I love about them. So I won’t go through all of that here, but I will talk more about how those different forms can teach us.
I’ll begin with the Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sydney, who wrote what is considered one of the first Christian defenses or apologetics for literature. He was writing about poetry specifically. But he argues… Don’t mind the Renaissance English, I think it’ll come through. “Now doth the peerless poet perform both…” Oops, wait a minute. I skipped a apart. He’s comparing history and philosophy and saying that they each have their strengths, but literature is better. Because history teaches by example and says what did happen and philosophy teaches by precept saying what should happen. And he says literature does both. “Now, doth the peerless poet perform both for whatsoever the philosopher saith should be done, he giveth a perfect picture of it by someone by whom he presupposeth it was done. So, as he couplith with the general notion, with the particular example, a perfect picture I say, for he yieldth to the powers of the mind and image of that where the philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description.” So the philosopher just explains it and the poet gives us a picture of it.
He goes on to say that since history is restricted to what actually happened, then it also can… It can present a picture, but not the ideal picture. And then if we go back even before Sydney to one of the first works of literary aesthetics or literary criticism, is Aristotle’s poetics. Now, of course, he lived in the pre-Christian age, he was not a Christian, he was a Greek philosopher, but there’s much truth in what he says about the power that literature has in its form. He talks famously about literature’s cathartic effect, which refers to the way literature trains our emotions by arousing then resolving them through a well crafted structure in a plot, which is the element of literature that he identified as the most important. It’s interesting, he says that plot is the most important and he gives a list of six qualities and he says that the least important one is spectacle, which is special effects today. And of course, today I think most of our culture finds the spectacle, the most important.
So, we do have a lot we could learn from even this Greek philosopher. “Even so, to read well is not to scour the pages of books for lessons on what to think.” We have the Bible for that and we have sermons and we have opinion pieces like I write, I’m happy to tell you what to think. But that’s not why we read literature. To read well is to be formed in how to think, as C.S. Lewis says in his work and experiment and criticism, he says that to approach a literary work with nothing but a desire for self-improvement, is to use it rather than to receive it. So while great books do offer important truths about life and character, Lewis cautions against using them merely for lessons. Literary works are after all he says, works of art to be enjoyed for their own sake rather than merely used for our own. To value them chiefly for reflections with which they may suggest to us or morals we may draw from them is a flagrant instance of using instead of receiving.
Reading well adds to our life… This is me, not in the way a tool purchased from the hardware store adds to our life for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us on the inside forever. Through the imagination, readers identify with the character and learn about human nature and themselves through their reactions to the vicarious experience. Even literature that doesn’t have character or plot such as poetry allows for a similar kind of process because we have a speaker, have a poem who is a character, whose experience we enter into as we read the poem. And the unfolding of the poem in time as we read it, is itself a form of plotting. As the contemporary essays, novelist and short story writer George Saunders explains a story… And I would add a poem, means by how it proceeds. Again, how it unfolds in time.
So here is a little bit more from my new friend Sven Birkerts. He says, “What distinguishes us as a species is our extraordinary ability to confirm meaning on our experience and to search for clues about our purpose from the world around us.” And this kind of meaning that we are able as uniquely as human beings… That’s me, Derives, he says, from the ability to communicate symbolically through language. He says, “We do not open the first page and find ourselves instantly transported from our surroundings and concerns.” Again, it can take time to get into a book. We often use that phrase. It doesn’t happen instantly. What happens is a gradual immersion. Reading a novel then is not simply a matter of making a connection to another person’s expression. Over and above the linguistic connection, the process makes a change in the whole complex of the self. We are for the duration of our reading different and the difference has more to do with the process than with its temporary object, the book being read.
So to read a literary work… And again, I’m talking about fiction, poetry, drama or even a well crafted essay because the essay can be an art form as well, is to experience the fullness of language. Language that we use simply to inform tends to be flat and technical and that’s okay, but literary language is formative, rich and resonant. The ability to understand figurative language in which a word is both itself and something else, is unique to human beings. And is… One cognitive psychologist explains, fundamental to how we think, because it is the means by which we can escape the literal and the immediate. We see this function most dramatically with literary forms like satire, and allegory, which I can talk about a lot more, they point out the layering, the distance of language. The two are at minimum two different levels of language, but they just simply reflect the way all literary language and really all language works. However, as we engage less in deep reading and more in superficial surface skimming, these resonances that are natural to language gradually flatten out.
The breadth and extent of the World Wide Web in genders, Birkerts says, “The gradual displacement of the vertical by the horizontal, the sacrifice of depth to lateral range. And from intensive to extensive reading.” Now, there’s a lot packed in there. But again, if you just picture the web, the web allows us to make so many different connections for one tweet to reach many different people, but it’s a lateral movement rather than a vertical one. It’s replacing depth with breadth. He puts it another way when he says, “The more complex and sophisticated are systems of lateral access, the more we sacrifice in the way of depth.” And in another essay about the history of reading, the critic Robert Darnton observes that from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, this is when people were beginning to read and books were beginning to circulate.
People who had books and could read, had maybe the Bible and then pilgrims progress and then maybe Robinson Crusoe later on. Okay. So they would have maybe three books at the most and they would read them over and over and they would read them together and read them out loud and they had this depth of meaning. But then, by the end of the 18th century, into the 19th century, when periodicals and newspapers were on the rise, then people started reading faster and started reading things just once and they would share it, spread it around. But this is a shift, Darnton says from what he calls intensive reading to extensive reading. And they’re both good. I want us to read extensively, but we also need to read intensively. So what Birkerts points out is that in less than half a century, we’ve moved because of the digital age from a condition of essential isolation into one of almost unbroken mediation. Everything we do and read and see is mediated. Now, I want to make sure I leave time for questions and answers, but this is some very provocative stuff. So it’s heavy.
But I want to go through a list of things that Birkerts observes as things that we lose because of this expansion into extensive reading, rather than intensive. And the shift from print culture to digital culture. So, here are some things… And again, I’m just giving a brief description. Here are some things that Birkerts says that we lose, that we’re losing. I’m sorry. Right now these are the things we’re getting from the digital culture, then it will be the things we lose. So, we are characterized more and more by a fragmented sense of time and a loss of what he calls the duration experience and the depth phenomenon that we associate with reverie. So, fragmented sense of time. We’re also experiencing and I know you know this, a reduced attention span and a general impatience with sustained inquiry. Here’s one that hits home. A shattered faith in institutions and in the explanatory narratives that formerly gave shape to subjective experience.
A divorce from the past, from a vital sense of history as a cumulative or organic process. It’s all fragmented instead. And an estrangement from geographic place and community and an absence of any strong vision of a personal or collective future. This all sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? And so he’s just looking and saying that this is what the technology and the digital age is bringing us. But he said, we’ve already have. Now, he predicts even more. So the news is going to get a little bit worse here bear with me. He predicts further developments that are likely within all electronic future. And he admits to being a bit of a pessimist I guess, so he might go a little far, but there certainly are things for us to think about. He predicts further language erosion.
And he says, “Simple linguistic prefab…” Think, text language, emojis.” He was writing this in the 1990s. “Simple linguistic prefab will replace ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety and wit.” If you spend any time on Twitter, you know this is true. Second, the flattening of historical perspectives. And he points out how the word history is a cognate with the word story. And so history is affiliated in complex ways with texts. The printed page is itself a link at least along the imaginative continuum. And when that link is broken, the past can only start to recede. Third, and this is the last in this list. He predicts the waning of the private self and he cites, the 1987 Nobel Prize acceptance speech from Joseph Brodsky, and I’m just going to read a little excerpt from this. I found this amazing and very thought provoking. So Brodsky says… And he said this in 1987, “If art teaches anything, it is the privateness of the human condition. Aesthetic choice is a highly individual matter and aesthetic experience is always a private one. Every new aesthetic reality makes one’s experience even more private.
And this kind of privacy, assuming at times the guise of literary or some other tastes, can in itself turn out to be if not a guarantee, then a form of defense against enslavement.” That is why all… This is me. That is why all literary reading is a political act. It’s also a spiritual one. As Graham Ward explains in his very important essay in the Oxford Journal, Literature and Theology, and his essays called, How Literature Resists Secularity. Ward says, “Human beings inhabit language.” He explains it, “Although the best writers of literature demonstrate a phenomenal control over their language, associations escape, rhythms beat out older and more sacred patterns and words carry memories of previous use.” This is why there’s so much miscommunication and confusion on Twitter, but this is the nature of language. And when we… And I’m sorry to keep using Twitter. I’m on Twitter way too much, obviously. But when we tweet something that has the slightest bit of ambiguity or irony or different connotations and others cannot accept that possibility because their understanding of language and communication is so flat.
It’s because we’re losing the sense of the very nature of language being one that has cumulative meaning and resonances and layers, which makes it hard but that’s what it is. And that’s the beauty and the challenge of it. Okay. All right, so. All right. This is what Graham Ward is saying, that words carry resonances that spill beyond the bounds of logic and even conscious thought. Ward says of literary texts, that their acts of naming and our acts of reading cannot but conjure because of this, the possibilities of transcendence, mean language reflects transcendence because it is so real layered and because it can’t always be precisely pinned down. The fullness of literary language echoes meaning and reminds us that there is in fact, meaning. So just to dial it down a little bit. Okay. Consider these famous opening lines from a traditional poem by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. “My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June. My love is like the melody that’s sweetly played in tune.”
The density of this simple language and imagery, once released reveals a treasure hoard of connections. My Love can mean my emotion, my love or it can mean my love the person that I love. The rose is not just any rose, but it’s a red, red rose. And what a difference that makes. June connects this love to both the freshness of spring as it does the word sprung, as well as the matrimonial season. The rhyming of June and tune bring harmony to the melody. The poet says, “So like this love, which is a song not only played in tune, but sweetly so.” And the fact that the meter of the entire stanza itself forms a sweet little tune, reinforces the whole sense of the passage. And there are so many… This isn’t even the whole poem and this isn’t even everything that could be said about these four lines in this couple of dozen words, but it just shows how the simple artful use of language is so rich with resonance and layered with meaning. So it is the nature of literature to express and in so expressing to cultivate desire.
Marcel Proust, says that it is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books to provide us with desires. But the desires that books and all other forms of stories which includes film, songs, even commercials, especially commercials, they work. They can pull us toward the good life or toward false visions of the good life. Reading well entails discerning, which visions of life are faults and which are good and true, as well as recognizing how deeply rooted these visions are in our very language. The ability to read well is central to a word centered faith. Literary reading is central to cultivating the ability to use and understand language. As a people of the book, Christians have a particular calling to preserve and promote the gift of deep reading and the Word. Let us not neglect to hold books in our hands, savoring the words, placing our finger inside to remind ourselves that the words and the word are not merely abstract symbols and signs, but they are ideas that take on flesh and dwell among us. Thank you.
Karen Swallow Prior: You can leave if you want to. And you can stay and ask questions. I think we’ve got a little time. Yes. Yeah, I’ll give my ignorant observation. I don’t read that way, I do know that there are different kinds of Kindles and some better replicate a clean white page. And so there’re probably variations of it and also I guess Kindle is something that’s not going to send you notifications from your other social media and so forth. Reading is reading. I’m not sure if Wolf’s and Carr’s studies account for the Kindles that look the most like paper, but most of the studies do show that we actually do use different sections of our brain, different eye movements on electronic devices. But I’ll take any reading, I just need books. Other people probably know more than I do about that. Oh, see, I like to look at my old marks and make new ones. Yeah. And see how I’ve grown as a reader. Okay.
Speaker 2: [asks question]
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah. Okay, over here. Yes. That’s a good… I’m starting to listen to audiobooks when I run because I think that’s a good way of using my time. I actually… I’m not an audio learner and so I’ve had to learn, I’m learning to and so I have to listen to really entertaining books and not deep literature, but I’m getting better at it. So again, for me it’s a skill that I have to practice and improve on. And I actually… I feel like listening to a well done audiobook replicates reading a book for me better than reading on a screen does. But this is not science, this is just me. So, I think it’s all good, but I just… The science seems to show that something about the printed word and the bodily experience with it is different. Yes. I teach at a university, so I teach mainly English majors and graduate students. Oh, the question was, would you encourage children to be more intensive or extensive readers? That’s a really good question.
And I’m going to say both, but I’m also going to say I had a conversation at dinner last night with a parent of two children, one who is an intensive and one who has an extensive reader and he was worried about the extensive reader and I was like, “Oh, just let them read.” If they’re reading, I wouldn’t be too fussy about it. Just let them read, but try to balance it out. Yes. Yes.
Speaker 3: [asking question]
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah. I’ll just give you my opinion. I don’t know anything about children or children’s reading or education of children. I teach adults. I think if it’s fun read…. I wrote about this in my first book, Booked. I fell in love with reading as a child, but then later on with Stephen King. I’ve progressed beyond that, but if you find something that he loves and enjoys reading, I think that’s a good way to start. But not everyone is a reader and I think that’s okay too actually. Okay, so how do you… I’m just repeating the question assuming everyone can hear. How do you balance between reading new works versus old? I think what you should do, because for me, reading new things is challenging, it’s outside of my comfort zone and I have to force myself to do it.
Karen Swallow Prior: So, I do. I challenge myself. I say… My comfort literature is 18th and 19th century British literature, I love it. Something written but by an American like Herman Melville or something newer. So I just challenge myself, I try to stretch myself by reading something outside of my comfort zone and we all have different comfort zones. So whether it’s new or old or European or American or African, we should try to stretch ourselves. Oh, okay. Yes. The question was, is taking notes while reading or just reading for pleasure without taking notes? It can be both, I find it hard to read most books without a pen in my hand even if it’s one. But if it’s one that really is just more of a fast read and I am reading it for fun, then I don’t, but I don’t read very many of those. But those are the audible books that I don’t need a pen for. And so again, I think balance is fine and it depends on the book. Some books you are just… It’s like watching a television show and you’re just taking it in. But for me, I engage more by marking it and I like to do that. That’s a good… Put the date by your notes. That’s a good record of your life to do that.
Speaker 5: [asks question]
Karen Swallow Prior: Oh, it almost becomes our legalism. If we’re doing this, we’re reading this, we’re doing the right thing. Yeah, that’s a spiritual discipline, we could do that with anything. Right? And so, yes, it is a danger to make reading become something that we do because we think we’re checking off a list and becoming a better person. That’s a… Yes. I don’t read that. I guess maybe because I’m a professional reader, I haven’t had to face that, but it is something to really think about. Yeah. All right, I’ll take one more question and so I don’t want everyone to feel awkward and I’ll just stay here afterwards. Yes. Yeah, the reading list would be so long it would feel libraries, I guess. No. So, I talk in two of my books, I cover about 24, 26 different works that are my favorites and they tend to be again, 18th, 19th century novels, some poets. Like you can go on Amazon… You can see the table of contents on Amazon of those books.
But that’s not really a recommended reading list, these are the books that have formed me and that mean a lot to me and that I have a lot to say about and I think they’re really good, but there’re hundreds and hundreds of other books out there too. And I did at The Gospel Coalition in the past, maybe a few months ago. I just did a short list of eight works of fiction every Christian should read, so you could start there. Yeah.