Reading Wars – Philip Yancey

Source: Reading Wars – Philip Yancey

Don’t you love the always candid Philip Yancey? I really do.

This is an article everybody should read. Please find below a few excerpts:

‘ 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 reading Donald Trump’s latest Tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.’

‘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.’

‘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.’

‘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.’

‘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.’

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

4 thoughts on “Reading Wars – Philip Yancey”

  1. I read a few things on Rod’s blog and I have to see I found a lot of things I disagree with, most of the them based on his conservative commitment. His utter disdain of Pope Francis is paradigmatic (the same I find more and more disconcertting in First Things, a journal I used to read a lot). I find it tragic that the pope’s Christlikeness is merey discarded by Ron on the basis of his not being a conservative, like the Pantzer pope, his favourite.
    But, in his favour, at least he is not a Trump butt kisser, as most American conservatives. So, there is hope. 🙂


  2. I don’t agree with Rod about everything either. I simply find that he gives me a lot to think about, and to me his blog is worth a daily read because I see in his writing a lot of personal integrity. He’s not a stereotypical conservative, and the book is not presented as The Answer – but rather a springboard for discussion and action. As for me, well, you know I’m Orthodox – and there’s enough in the core of Orthodoxy to counter lots of stereotypes, if people care to really look.

    May God bless you too.


  3. Dear Dana,
    Thanks for your note.
    I found Dreher’s book and it is on my reading list. Thaks for the challenge. I hear what you are saying, but that is not what people – on both sides of the withdrawal devide – read in the book. For the moment, the majority read is of a ‘Christ against culture’ option, to use Niebuhr’s terminology. If he opts for a different model, people do not seem to get that. So, maybe he should try to explain more clearly, possbly in a revised version of the book.
    Anyway, I will have to read the book and make up my mind. Until then, I remain a skeptic.
    I was able to find Ron’s blog and I will certainly browse through it. As I shortly looked at it, we may differ on these matters because I do not resonate at all with a conserative vision of either politics or religion, for many reasons, that I cannot develop here.
    Thanks, aagain, for writing. I appreciate it. May God bless you richly.


  4. Hi Danut-
    I don’t know if you can get a copy of “The Benedict Option” to be able to read it yourself – if you can’t, I hope you will find Rod Dreher’s blog and read it for several weeks so that you can get the sense of who he is and what the Benedict Option is about, and/or look into the archives and find what he has written recently on it. The folks at “Public Orthodoxy” don’t seem to understand exactly what he’s getting at; he wrote a response to them that you should read. I think he’s really clear about it, but most people seem to bring their preconceived ideas to the book, if they read it at all, and because of this they think it says things it actually does not say. In short, he does not “urge people to retreat behind monastic walls.” What he urges is that serious Christians stop all the culture war fights and use their energy to strengthen their faith in community, however that looks for their community in their place. Dropping the culture war fights immediately results in a kind of withdrawal, but what he advocates is definitely not about everyone heading for the hills.
    sorry if this posts more than once – I’ve had trouble logging in to WordPress.


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