At Bethel University in Minnesota, where I’m a professor of English and journalism, I often teach a course for college seniors called “What Good is Leisure?” (Many students who sign up mistakenly believe they’re in for a restful three-credit experience.) It’s a course about “the architecture of time,” to use Abraham Heschel’s phrase, and my students this year were more responsive than ever to the flabbiness of their calendar.
COVID-19 had destroyed the rhythm of their weeks. It had beckoned them to spend hours doom-scrolling on social media, while giving them nothing to look forward to. They felt guilty and frustrated about what T. S. Eliot, in one of his poems, called “the waste sad time / Stretching before and after” their experiences of quarantine.
In reality, the pandemic has merely intensified the challenges of community, attention, and time that Jeffrey Bilbro addresses in his fine new book, Reading the Times. The underlying problem is this: We are learning to love the wrong things. Our news feeds are miseducating our desires. Whether our favorite media lean left or right—and even if we sample from both sides—we are becoming prisoners of the news cycle. Far from achieving the enlightenment we need to interpret our times, we are bloated from bingeing on our daily media buffet.
Although Bilbro’s subtitle is A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, he denies that the media is the source of the problem. Instead, he blames the bad habits we bring into our encounters with the news. These habits manifest themselves in three ways: associating too much with those who interpret daily events as we do, rather than with actual communities; developing ...1
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