Thursday, March 24, 2016

Who Reads Anymore?

I’ve heard that Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time may be the most famous book people have never read.

That’s right: Never.

It’s sold ten million or so copies. Lots of people mention the book, laud it, base their opinions on it — but few of these have actually ever read it.

Maybe that’s understandable. It is, after all, a fairly challenging book. For a mathematician, it’s a good read, perhaps; for the average person it’s a quick road to Slumberland. Even though it’s pretty short it only takes a few pages to render most folks unconscious.

The Hawking Index

So that makes you wonder why so many people talk up Hawking. Part of the attraction is probably the pathos of an extraordinary scientific mind chained to a body atrophying by the horrors of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). But most of the talk about Hawking is not about that, but about what he allegedly wrote about the origins of the universe.

But wait: didn’t we just say most people don’t read Hawking?

Right. I guess people find that it’s just a whole lot easier to make up whatever Hawking might have “said” or “intended” or “implied”, and leave it at that.

Hawking’s not the only one who gets this sort of treatment. According to statistician Jordan Ellenberg, quite a few other titles rate high on what he calls the “Hawking Index” (i.e. authors whose books are purchased and praised more than they are actually read). Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History is another. The most recent examples included Thomas Piketty’s Capital, and Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. And a surprise case is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby.

Too bad: I always rather liked that one.

Aspirational Reading

According to newspaper columnist Joseph Brean, we live in “The Golden Age of Aspirational Reading”. We want to read a whole lot of stuff … a lot of it we admit would be good for us to read … but we just … don’t.

I guess this isn’t really news — not to anyone who does read, anyway. From Jacques Ellul’s classic The Humiliation of the Word, to Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies and Barry Sanders’s A is for Ox, pundits have long decried our collective sloth when it comes to reading. Some blame the dumbing down of the culture, others blame television, the internet or cell phones — I don’t know who’s right.

One thing is for sure; it doesn’t look like it’s a trend that’s going to reverse any time soon.

It seems a unidirectional trend, though: I don’t think our society is going back to reading books.

How You Doin’?

Consider how you’re reading this right now: is it getting too long for you? Weary yet? This is hypertext, nicely broken up into easy bits for quick digestion. The vocab is pretty straightforward, with only a few difficult words, and the whole text is nicely concentrated in the center third of the screen so that you don’t get bored with reams of it. It’s soothingly coloured and framed in quite a legible font, really. And you know it will be over soon: these entries are short.

So how’s it going? Bored yet? Thoughts drifting? Thinking of clicking?

Modern Non-Readers

Okay, but is that really so bad? After all, today we have a whole lot of stuff to do, view, tweet, hear, play, send and chat … isn’t there reading in all of that? And if society is moving away from conventional literacy, isn’t that a sign of progress? Maybe it’s actually a good thing we’re not reading musty old books anymore …

Sounds plausible? Maybe.

But I guess that whether the decline of conventional reading is or is not a tragedy depends on the quality of what we’re not reading.

If you don’t read Hawking, you’re probably not going to die.

But do you think that the same is true of the word of God?

Biblical Literacy

There are somewhere around six billion Bibles out there — some may have been burned or destroyed by now, but also it’s likely there have been more printed than we know. If sales are any indicator, the world is saying that this is the most important book every printed. By far.

But I suspect that in spite of all that, it probably rates very high on the Hawking Index. And I can’t help but wondering how often people do with it exactly what they do with Hawking’s book — talk about what they think it might say, but really make it up as they go along, not having the foggiest idea of whether or not they’re telling the truth.

Could Christians really be doing something like that?

Fact Check

Have you ever read it? I mean, have you ever gone cover-to-cover? Or do you know small sections you once read in a religious class or heard quoted a few times, scraps of a few psalms, John 3:16, a couple of verses in Ephesians … and really have not much idea what’s in most other sections?

Let’s suppose I asked you to name six of the twelve disciples, or to finish the quotation, “Blessed are the meek …”, or give the number of churches messaged in Revelation, or if I asked you who was “the father of those who have faith”, or else “the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” — how well would you do on a quiz like that?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say a quiz like that shouldn’t be hard; after all, every one of those questions is keyed to a major issue in the Bible.

I didn’t exactly ask you for Ezekiel’s hat size.

An Analogy

Back when we were dating, my (future) wife was in China for six months. That was tough. In those days, there was no internet allowed. I got up at 2 a.m., wrapped myself in a blanket, sat in the cold basement where no one could hear me, and phoned half way around the world. Through chattering teeth and in short fragments of simple English I would plead with the operator to let me speak to my girlfriend for a few precious moments.

It wasn’t fun. Sometimes it didn’t work at all. But it was necessary if our relationship was to continue and remain healthy during the time of her absence, so it was worth it.

We also wrote letters, of course, quite a few — and yes, they were on paper, with a pen, and so forth (this really was the dark ages). I won’t inflict any part of their substance upon you. But now, imagine if my wife had arrived home to discover a pile of unopened letters sitting on the top of my dresser. Would she not be surprised? Would she not be hurt that I had not bothered to open and read all of the things she had written with such great pains during our time of separation? And what would it say about my attitude to her if I had done that?

Moreover, what are the chances that I would have missed out on something important to our relationship? How could a relationship continue at all, if my attitude to her words to me was so cavalier? And why should she have married me if that was all I thought of her?

Well, you can see the application.

Why We Read

It’s not because it’s easy. It’s not because we necessarily want to. It’s because we are desirous of a truer, deeper relationship with the Author of this book. Until he returns, this Word is what we have. And it may be difficult, at times, confusing at others, challenging always, and convicting — but he has given us his Spirit to be our guide. And no matter what, we push through all that for the sake of the One we love.

Love and the word of God. They go together. The psalmist sure got that:
“With my whole heart I seek you;
       let me not wander from your commandments!
  I have stored up your word in my heart,
       that I might not sin against you.
  Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes!
       With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.
  In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches.
  I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.
  I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Three chapters a day = read through in 1 year. One chapter each day = done in 3-1/2 years. It’s not impossible. Not nearly impossible.

Maybe we cannot personally take the Bible off the world’s Hawking Index.

But we can take it off yours.


  1. Hmm, used a search engine on bible to try and locate Ezekiel's hat but could not find it. Which version of the bible are you reading O.O ?

    1. It was a trick question.

      Everybody knows that Ezekiel wore a do-rag.