The pandemic has surely taken more than it has given.
Even so, this unexpected furlough from life as usual has offered some opportunities to reorient our lives and ourselves, even if only in small ways.
One small way in which people’s lives have been enriched during the time of COVID-19 is through reading—whether more or better reading, or both.
A year ago, at the start of this global crisis, The Guardian reported an immediate surge in book sales as people prepared for what we all hoped would be a short-lived lockdown. Increased sales of classics, including Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar were among those noted right away.
Several months later, this sales trend continued. Penguin Random House noted sale spikes among some of its most notoriously long classic titles, including its 1,440-page edition of War and Peace, along with Don Quixote (1,056 pages) Anna Karenina (865 pages), Middlemarch (880 pages), and Crime and Punishment (720 pages). And Publishers Weekly reported last October that sales of books for the first three quarters of the year were up by more than 6 percent compared to 2019.
Naturally, as a lifelong reader and an English professor, I think this uptick in reading is excellent news. I have long been an advocate for reading widely and reading well, because good literature not only can form our character but also is a source of endless delight—even if, admittedly, a taste for quality literature is one that must be cultivated and sometimes taught (which is why I have edited a series of classic works designed to teach those who feel ill-equipped to read the classics on their own).
But my desire to spread the gospel of good literature isn’t merely a matter of wanting others to love what I love. Rather, good literature has been and continues to be a preservative of the good, beautiful, and true. Good literature is also in many ways part of our legacy as people of the Word. I do not think it is overreaching to say that the future state of literature and literacy will directly reflect the state of the church and its role in influencing the surrounding culture. After all, as Percy Bysshe Shelley famously proclaimed in his A Defense of Poetry, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What we read—and who is reading—has profound implications for what our world will look like.
Indeed, the National Endowment for the Arts’ comprehensive 2007 report on the reading habits of Americans, “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” found that reading skills and reading habits have significant “civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.” Literary readers, according to the report, are more likely to patronize museums and concerts, participate in sports and outdoor activities, volunteer, and vote.
Skilled readers are also more likely to get better-paying positions, and employers say that deficiencies in reading and writing skills of new employees are one of their top concerns, as those deficiencies incur significant, measurable costs for companies. Despite these benefits of reading, the extensive data the report drew on showed a general decline in Americans’ reading habits and abilities.
The report says nothing, of course, about the implications of reading for a people whose life and belief is (or is supposed to be) centered on the Word. But in a timely new book Recovering the Lost Art of Reading, Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes soberly observe that lowered rates of reading and literacy in the US over the past decade or two have led to a culture “impoverished” of mental acuity, imagination, and verbal and critical thinking skills.
“Our leisure has little meaning, and we’re consumed with self,” they write. “We fail to recognize beauty or the value of either the past or essential human experience. We suffer from a lack of edification and a shrunken vision.”
This is why these recent reports of an increase of reading quality literature are so heartening.
In asking people in my own life how reading has gone for them in the pandemic, many report a pull to read more and to read deeply. Some of this desire owes to the extra time and stillness that the pandemic has imposed on some of us. But more is attributed to a need to retreat from the frenzy of the times and to find depth and comfort in the stability and richness that a good book provides.
On the other hand, some people have shared their struggles during these recent days with decreased ability to focus and pay attention (something I’ve also experienced). Some of this problem is likely because of the very real stresses of the pandemic.
But a measure of this inability to focus is likely the result of what digital media does to our brains. Significant research in cognitive science finds that reading done on screens activates different regions of the brain than does reading on a printed page. These differences have implications for attention span, retention, and long-term memory.
The part of the brain used when we engage in the “deep reading” encouraged by printed books develops a “reading-brain circuit,” explains researcher Maryanne Wolf in Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. “Within this circuit,” according to Wolf, “deep reading significantly changes what we perceive, what we feel, and what we know and in so doing alters, informs, and elaborates the circuit itself.” In other words, deep reading stretches and prepares our brains for receptiveness of meaning and truth, perhaps like the harrowing of a field prepares it to receive seeds and yield a harvest.
Yet so much of the reading we do day in and day out consists of just the facts (even if the facts are wrong). We consume information, directions, and data: where to go, when to be there, and whom to report to, or who did what, why they did it, and why they should (or shouldn’t) have done so.
Truth is not reducible to mere facts, however. For human beings made in the image of God, truth is found in the meaning of things. Human beings are interpretive, meaning-making creatures.
For example, the facts of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection were observed by human eyes and testified by human tongues. But those witnesses then, along with those of us today, 2,000 years later, must make meaning of those facts to understand and receive their truth.
We must similarly make meaning throughout our lives of all the facts that enter our range of experience and knowledge. And herein lies, perhaps, the best argument for expanding our range of experience and knowledge by reading good literature. While novels, poetry, and drama are not (usually) expressive of “facts,” they offer truth through our meaning-making, interpretive faculties. Deep reading—the kind required by literary works—Wolf explains, “requires the use of analogical reasoning and inference if we are to uncover the multiple layers of meaning in what we read.”
We are meaning-making creatures. The meaning we make and receive in reading literary words reflects the meaning we make and receive when confronted with the Word.
Perhaps this is why in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntyre says, “Good reading is a pastoral calling.” And perhaps the pandemic is proving that good reading is a calling for more than pastors too.
Karen Swallow Prior is research professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent books are Frankenstein: A Guide to Reading and Reflecting (B&H, 2021) and Jane Eyre: A Guide to Reading and Reflecting (B&H, 2021).
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