A Post-Literate Age
We sometimes characterize the digital age as a “post-literate” age, where images and video have taken over the place that written words used to occupy. But this is a mistaken characterization. The reality is we are reading more than ever in the digital age—on our various screens and devices we encounter upwards of a novel’s worth of words every day.
What’s changed is the type of reading we’re doing online. It’s a more disconnected, staccato reading—a tweet here, a context-less headline there, a constant visual hum of assertions, opinions, advertisements, commentary. It’s a frenetic type of reading that moves rapidly from unrelated thing to unrelated thing, giving our eyeballs whiplash and exhausting our brains, which are constantly playing triage to determine which words and ideas are trivial and which are important.
This is not the sort of continuous, sustained, concentrated reading conducive to reflective thinking. It’s not the sort of reading where deep connections are easily made. That’s why books are more important than ever. It’s not that we need to be reading more. It’s that we need to be reading books more. There are various reasons for this, but a big one is that, in a disconnected digital age, books foster connection—in at least two senses. They connect us with other people, and they connect the dots of ideas. They are massively important sources of both empathy and synthesis—two things vital for increasing wisdom, yet on the decline in today’s frenetic age.
Books Connect Us to Others
In theory, the internet and social media—and the vast hyperlinks and networks that comprise the World Wide Web—work to connect us to others. But the reality, which we are seeing in ever greater relief the deeper into the digital age we get, is closer to the opposite. We are actually more isolated, fragmented, and divided than ever. “Social media” has connected us superficially but more profoundly fostered loneliness and polarization. The tailored-to-individuals orientation and algorithmic architecture of the internet means that shared culture and consensus are declining while hyper-segmented bubbles and echo chambers are on the rise.
Helping believers navigate today’s media-saturated culture, Brett McCracken presents a biblical case for wisdom. Using the illustration of a Wisdom Pyramid, he points readers to more lasting and reliable sources of wisdom—not for their own glorification, but ultimately for God’s.
Computer scientist Jaron Lanier, author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, calls this algorithm-fueled fragmentation an “epochal development” that is making it harder to understand and empathize with each other:
The version of the world you are seeing is invisible to the people who misunderstand you, and vice versa . . . We see less than ever before of what others are seeing, so we have less opportunity to understand each other.1
When each of us is seeing a different reality and working off of a different set of “data” and “facts” (that confirm our bias), it’s no wonder we talk past each other and cannot make progress on intractable debates. It’s no wonder empathy is on the decline.
Reading more books than tweets is one way we can course correct.
When we read books, we are stepping into another’s shoes. We are entering the author’s world, giving our attention to the author’s perspective for an extended time. This last part is key. It’s hard to develop empathy when you only read a tweet by someone, but a book-length immersion in someone’s world creates the opportunity for understanding.
The act of reading a book is literally the act of being “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). In literary fiction, we develop empathy by getting inside characters’ minds. We may love or hate them, but to the extent that we listen to and live with them for a time, we can learn from the particularity of their existence.
The act of reading a book is literally the act of being “quick to listen, slow to speak.”
Research shows that literary fiction especially helps readers develop empathy—a better understanding of the complexity of what others are thinking and feeling. Reading novels reminds us “that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you,” as Barack Obama said in an interview with Marilynne Robinson.2 It’s easy to dismiss one another’s perspectives in a hyper-fast social media world. And so with every Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, or Toni Morrison character we meet, we recognize there are as many distinct human stories as there are stars in the sky, and each adds a particular gleam, color, and texture to our constellation of wisdom.
Books Help Us Connect the Dots
Books also help make connections. A constellation becomes a constellation, after all, only after you connect the dots to reveal some meaningful shape. One of the best feelings in reading a book, whether a novel or a memoir or an academic tome, is the moment of epiphany where a connection takes shape. This connects with that! Eventually the connecting puzzle pieces reveal a more intelligible image that helps us make sense of this crazy, complex world. As we read more books—and ideally a diverse array of books—our understanding of the world is simultaneously complicated and clarified. On one page we have lightbulb moments, making new sense of some things. Another page unravels what we thought we knew, raising new questions and sending us on new explorations. Such is the nature of learning. The more we read, the hungrier we are for more.
The synthesizing power of reading books can be a powerful antidote to a hyper-fragmented, discombobulated digital environment where our brains are bombarded with scattered stimuli that work against meaningful connections of ideas.
There is a growing body of research that shows the powerful ways reading books—long, immersive reading in contrast to the fragmented, quick-scan reading we do online—strengthens our brains’ abilities to think well. In her book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, Maryanne Wolf explores this research and argues that deep reading is a powerful booster shot for our brains at a time when they are increasingly weakened by digital overload.
Those who have read widely and well will have many resources to apply to what they read,” Wolf writes, while those who don’t will have “less basis for inference, deduction, and analogical thought,” making them “ripe for falling prey to unadjudicated information, whether fake news or complete fabrications.3
At a time when the glut, speed, and tailored-to-you nature of information is making us ever more prone to misinformation and unsound wisdom, reading books offers a powerful antidote.
Books give us solid grounding at a time when everything is up for grabs. They offer rubrics to better evaluate the barrage of information we face in today’s world. In a world of snapshots and soundbites, books offer fuller context, and as Andy Crouch writes, “generally speaking, the older the book, the deeper the context.”4
Reading books trains our brains to better handle complex information, to reflect and evaluate rather than just accept. To read well is not to take everything the author says at face value. Rather, it is to understand the author’s argument as best as we can, learn from it, but check it against what else we know. To read and learn well is to develop the ability to encounter a work in a nuanced way, filing away what’s good and dismissing what’s not.
In a world bombarding us with untrustworthy information, we need our brains to be better—not worse—at spotting connections, recognizing logical fallacies, and knowing what questions to ask next. Reading more books helps sharpen our brains in these ways.
By helping us better empathize and synthesize, books can be a great asset for a life of wisdom.
- Lanier, Jaron. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. (New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2018).
- Wolf, Maryanne. Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (New York: Harper, 2018).
Brett McCracken is the author of The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World.
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