On Reading Well - A Review

It is a general rule that when Karen Swallow Prior writes something, you should read it. Her latest book, On Reading Well, is no exception.

In this volume, Prior brings her lifelong interest in literature, which has culminated in her work as a professor of English, and an interest in seeing people–particularly Christians–live ethically.

9781587433962.jpg

Her thesis in On Reading Well is that careful reading of literature forms the human soul. Even books that were not written with a specific moral—and perhaps especially those not written with a specific moral—can be morally formative when the story is well-told. In one sense, we borrow the memories of the characters by living their experiences vicariously when we read carefully.

To carry out her mission, Prior selects twelve books that might find their way on the reading list of university syllabus in any setting, then explores their moral terrain. A clear message from Prior’s curated list is that we can learn from the human condition well explored, whether or not we agree with the theology of the author.

The literary discussions are framed in terms of virtues, with four chapters on the cardinal virtue, three on the theological virtues, and another five on what Prior calls the heavenly virtues. When the virtues are discussed as concepts with their substance filled from contemporary sources, such approaches often fall short of the mark. This structure works and is edifying, in part, because the content of these virtues is filled with substance from the Christian tradition, with influence from classical thinkers who have also influenced Christians throughout the centuries.

I have previously read most of the works Prior covers. In some cases, it has been several decades. There were four chapters on material I have never read (I won’t say which, lest some readers get judgmental.), but Prior’s careful discussion enables even an unexposed reader to gain from the chapters.

Readers will benefit more from the book if they have read all of the literature Prior discusses. Perhaps the most beneficial approach would be to read the particular work of literature just prior to reading each chapter. However, for those simply seeking to grow and better understand how humans ought to live, this book can stand on its own.

At one level, this is a book that teaches readers about ethics. At another level, On Reading Well is a warm invitation into the world of literature. This invitation is extended graciously and unpretentiously.

Reading literature is important for those seeking to really know people around them. This is especially true of pastors and theologians. As a theologian, I have found that my ability to empathize with others, to understand, and to explain hard concepts clearly ebbs and flows based on my reading. One might think this would have primarily to do with the theology that I read, but it has more to do with the literature that I am reading. Specifically, when I am reading imaginative stories (not all of which is quality literature), my imagination is invigorated. I am equipped with clearer illustrations of sometimes complex theological or ethical concepts. Often these are not drawn specifically from the book that I am reading, but simply a reflection of the pattern of thought that comes from reading a good story well told.

Prior taps into the link between the moral imagination and reading. We are formed by what we read and how we read. A subtext throughout this volume is the call to read and think carefully about the books we encounter. This is no guide to chugging through an arbitrary list of supposedly important texts, but a demonstration of the sort of thoughtfulness that should characterize the time we spend partaking of good books.

On Reading Well is enjoyable for its quality as a book in itself. For those who enjoy reading literature, it is a treat worthy of a fireside reading. This has a place in the library of homeschool families, where it shows what close reading looks like and may help some families move beyond the list of reading comprehension questions into discussions about the soul of the literature they encounter. Pastors can benefit from this by exploring thought beyond the bounds of commentaries, the latest non-fiction volumes, and even classical theological works. The church will benefit if the men called to preach are reading good books carefully, even if it does not lead directly to sermon references.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Five Attributes of a Good Book

I read and review a lot of books. My pace has slowed down in the past few months as I have been busy with some other projects. When I’m in my groove, I read 3-4 books every week, depending on their complexity, length, and relation to my areas of particular interest.

Most of the books that I read are generally pretty good. A very few are really excellent. There are also some that are really terrible—not as few as should be.

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/YX3230kFaXR

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/YX3230kFaXR

There is often little correlation between the excellence of a book and the amount it is discussed in the media—that is, in print, newspapers, on television, and in various internet formats. In fact, the “buzz” surrounding a book has as much to do with the relative heft of the publisher, especially their publicity budget. Or, perhaps as significant, it may have a great deal to do with the influence of the person who wrote a book. This is, incidentally, why national politicians who can hardly think linearly or reason effectively can get multi-million dollar book deals, while professional writers and researchers struggle to find a home for their tightly reasoned texts.

These comments about the relative public interest in particular books explains why some books are best sellers and then flood the bargain racks of bookstores and choke out the shelves (and online listings) of used book sellers. In many cases, after a few months, some books have more economic value as toilet paper than as contributions to the good of society. Many of these books often end up in library book sales within a year or two of publication because they simply don’t get used, or their value is so short lived as to not be worth the time once whatever crisis has been overcome or once all the ideas have been spilled out in podcasts, interviews, and reviews.

Time has a way of sifting through the wheat and the chaff so that the best books often end up on the shelves of libraries for decades instead of months and additional printings are demanded. The list of books that actually warrant this sort of attention is relatively small and doesn’t necessary coincide with a place on the best seller lists.

Here are some common threads among books that I’ve reviewed that I think make them high quality with potential to endure:

1.       Well-written with engaging prose: Some might think this goes without saying, but not all books that are published are written well. Even after the editorial process, there are often books that seem to have been written with little energy invested in engaging the reader. The copy may be clean—meaning that there are few grammatical inconsistencies—but the writing is dry.

 There are some writers who make even otherwise boring topics interesting by writing well. There are other writers who make topics that should be engaging boring, often, I think, because the author has become bored with the topic.

 2.       Focused toward a particular thesis: Even memoirs should have a point. One of my chief frustrations when reading books is having to ask why a particular portion of the book was included in the final manuscript. I’ve been disappointed to find myself wondering what I was supposed to learn about a particular topic after I’ve finished a several hundred-page book. Even novels should have a point. Sometimes books have multiple points, but those points should be clear. If I wanted to solve a mystery, I’d be a detective.

 3.       Honest about their position: Some books are lauded as good books by people who know little about the topic at hand. This is often true about popular-level biographies that “revolutionize” the study of a certain person. Often, those books are written by non-experts. When people who have spent their life researching a person or an era read the book, however, they often find the reason this book offers a radically new perspective is because it ignores obvious data that point a different direction or misinterprets information in a way that a non-expert is likely to do. There are occasions where new evidence is uncovered that undermines standing positions, but most of the time when a book claims a new perspective, it is really just a bad perspective.

 4.       Represents other positions fairly: I have yet to come across a position that I hold or that anyone else holds that does not have reasonable arguments and counter-arguments. However, as with one book that I reviewed recently, sometimes authors are (a) ignorant, (b) lazy, or (c) dishonest enough that they are not able to accurately represent the position they are opposing. These books are useful for my collection when they hold views I disagree with because they provide me examples of the position that are easy to illuminate and disassemble—though they often represent the fringe and not the center of opposing positions, so this must be done illustratively. They do little for real progress in human knowledge because the author hasn’t taken the time (let’s be generous) to understand the viewpoint he or she is supposedly dismantling. When books that hack opposing viewpoints agree with me, they are often quick reads, but they are actually useless to me because they often fail to make a helpful argument for the absence of a real opponent. In fact, I dislike poorly argued books that I agree with more than nearly any other category.

 5.       Argue their position tightly: Even when I disagree with an author’s conclusions, I benefit from his or her argument when it is well made. In fact, I spend a great deal more time reading theologians with whom I disagree because the friction of their arguments—when they argue well—shapes my arguments and helps me make my case better. If we are arguing toward truth, and not simply for the sake of victory, this is the sort of conversation we should want to have.

There are certainly other attributes of a book that make them valuable. However, these five items are really the characteristics that I look for primarily as I review books on any topic.

A Sense of Satisfaction: A Book Rediscovered

I’ve just completed a quest I started nearly two decades ago. I’m worried that once the elation of unlikely success fades I’m going to feel as sense of loss and possible purposeless. Probably not, since the quest itself hardly consumed my mind and is unlikely to result in my shifting to pursuit of life as the next Dread Pirate Roberts. (It’s the name that counts, not the person, you know.)

Let me start at the beginning of the story.

It was probably 1992 or 1993 when I first read the book. I don’t remember exactly, but I do remember reading it. It came from the library. I believe Dad had picked it up on the recommendation from the reviewer in the Buffalo News—the sort of city paper book reviews that are uncommon now.

Like most books I read, a lot of did not stick with me. Unlike most books that I have read, this book inspired a sense of longing, comfort, and a desire to read it again. It’s not that the book deserved a stack of literary rewards, but it had expanded my experience in unexpected ways and it made me want to go back to that place again.

The trouble is I couldn’t remember the author, the title, or many details about the book. I read the book long before the name of the publisher would have registered with me as a fact remotely worth knowing. I didn’t know what the cover looked like. I couldn’t remember where we got the book from.

In fact, about all I could remember about the book was that it was about an Irish family in the 20th century who lived in a poor neighborhood. I knew there was a story about a sweater, about a brother who was a boxer, an egg that was mailed to starving children because it was a despised food, and a family who overcame adversity. Oh, and something about the name Patrick, which doesn’t help very much when dealing with stories about the Irish.

download (2).jpg

My quest for this vaguely remembered book began as an idle curiosity, but it has continued since I was in college. I’ve looked in every used bookstore I’ve ever been in. I used to scour the memoir section of my favorite used bookstore ever, The Book Barn, in Niantic, CT. I’ve come up empty every time I tried.

As the internet has grown and search functions have expanded, I’ve occasionally searched on different key terms. However, as readers will recognize by the paucity of my descriptions above, I really didn’t have much to go on. Add that to the fickleness of search engines that tend to reward readers looking for something on the road well-traveled, and you’ve got a recipe for a quixotic effort.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

I’m not sure why, but about a week ago, nearly twenty years after beginning my search, I typed the right combination of words in in the right order and Google Books rewarded my search with the text I’ve been looking for. It was the second option down.

Being an addict, I immediately found the book on an electronic marketplace and got it on its merry way. It’s now safely in my possession, an ex-library copy that shows too little wear to have been honestly used. Frankly, I may be the first to crack this copy of the book since the checkout pocket was pasted in.

However, I’m reading it now. I have to say that I’ve not been disappointed. Sometimes you come back to a childhood memory and are saddened to find that the initial experience was valued more than its due because of a lack of discernment or the varnish of a hazy memory. I’ve been pleased to find, on this reading, that the book in question, Patrick’s Corner by Sean Patrick, is perhaps better than I remember it.

Sometime in the future I’ll review the book, but today I just want to share my experience. It offers hope to many who continue search for that one book they vaguely remember. Ultimately, success is possible and the reading of the long-sought-for book is all the more pleasing for the long search for it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I still have a few chapters left to savor.

Patrick's Corner
By Sean Patrick

Books Aren't Dead Yet

Sometimes it seems we are being constantly bombarded by news of the death of the book.

In some cases, the concern is the rise of the internet, which has cultivated a reliance upon shorter and shorter articles. Some folks seem to expect 140 characters to sufficiently capture the complexities of an argument.

In other cases, people (like myself) lament the rise of the e-book, which tends to reinforce the addiction to screens, undermine the reliance upon actual physical books. There is good evidence that e-books are both not as likely to replace real books as some fear and that they actually have the negative effects that traditional reading advocates ascribe to them.

Despite the worries of real book fans, a recent Gallup study indicates that the future of reading in general and real books in particular continues to look positive. This is encouraging and matches the findings of a study published by Pew Research in the Fall of 2016.

On one hand, the number of people who claim to not have read a book in the past year has doubled since 1978, from 8% to 16%, but it hasn’t changed much since 1990, which is well before the internet was widely available.

The study actually shows a fairly steady percentage of readers, with some slippage in some of the higher consumption categories. Still, the overall number of people actively engaged in reading books is quite high and far from the dire warnings that some technophobes issue. At the same time, it is worth noting the question for “reading” of a book includes listening to audiobooks. This inclusion may mask a phenomenon that still reflects a lower consumption of printed words for the same ideas being read on a commute, a run, or family vacation.

Screen grab from  http://ow.ly/BHDz308l8Bg

Screen grab from http://ow.ly/BHDz308l8Bg

At the same time, the study also showed that 73% of people pick up a printed book more often than other formats. Only 6% of people rely on audio books as their primary means of engaging books. The news is not all that bad for those that value reading. Books appear to be holding their own against the flood of other entertainment options.

One caution, though, in this study—as in all of the studies I’ve seen on this topic—the nature of the books is never considered. In other words, people may be reading as much, but if they are reading prairie fiction instead of literature, that makes a difference. If book sales skew toward popular punditry and away from well considered arguments about policy, then reading is of much less value. It would be interesting to see a study that reflected on both the quality and the frequency of reading.

In the meanwhile, rest assured the reports of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. That should be cause for a cautious celebration.

A Plea for Reading the Bible

One of the greatest tragedies in the Christian life would be to believe that the Bible is God’s word and not take steps to read and understand it.

In contrast to the many years prior to the Protestant Reformation when the Roman Church worked to keep reading the Bible in the vernacular language illegal, we now have more access to the Bible for less money than ever. The problem is that we simply are not reading it.

Consider this video from the United Bible Society, which shows a people group in Indonesia getting the New Testament in their language for the first time. Compare their excitement over access to God's Word with our apathy despite the overflowing availability of it.

Choosing a Translation

There are so many versions of the Bible available right now that it can becomes confusing to figure out what you need. Here are some tips for choosing a version:

1.         Find out which translation your local church uses in its regular worship services and Bible studies. If they are consistent, it may help to have the same translation as you worship.

2.         Consider your reading ability. One of gifts of having multiple translations is that you can find a version of the Bible that is easiest for you to comprehend. This guide from the publisher, Cokesbury, may be helpful for your decision. Even if you aren’t sure what your reading level is, the guide will give you a relative understanding of the differences in difficulty.

3.         Before you buy a Bible, go to www.Biblegateway.com and read the same passage in several versions. If you are familiar with a particular passage, you can compare between translations and get a feel for the language in it.

4.         Ask one of the leaders in your local church for a recommendation if you aren’t sure. A good Bible can cost a significant amount of money, so ask your pastor or a trusted ministry leader what they recommend.

After you’ve picked a Bible, or if you’ve already got one, then the most important thing you can do with it is read it and begin to learn it. If you’ve read this far in this post, I’ll assume that you have a desire to read your Bible and are looking for ways to break down this monumental task into smaller chunks.

An Argument for Bible Reading Plans

Many contemporary Christians set annual goals of reading through the Bible each year. This can be a great practice for a number of reasons.

a.          It exposes you to the whole counsel of God. It may take a year and you won’t remember all the details, but making it through Scripture will help shape your understanding of God if you work at it.

b.         The practice of reading all of Scripture in a year ensures that, if completed, most days you will have spent time in God’s Word.

c.          You will begin to see patterns, recurring themes, and connections in Scripture that you were not aware of. Reading the Bible helps you become a better Christian.

At the same time, simply going through the motions to move your bookmark 3 chapters each day or check of the day's box can become a form of legalism. It is important to find a reading plan that meets your commitment level, your ability, and the time resources you have available.

For example, a mother with several young children is going to find setting aside even 20 minutes a day for Bible reading exceedingly difficult on a consistent basis. Therefore, choose a Bible reading plan that keeps you moving, but doesn’t kill you.

It is also possible to skim through the Bible each day in a year and never latch on to anything. It is possible to read the Bible without getting anything from it. This is a danger with some of the 1 year plans. Find a reading plan that matches your reading ability and time commitment. 

But by all means, please read the Bible.

Some Basic Reading Plans

Here are a few different Bible reading plans that are available for free online. I’m linking to a few of them here:

1.         The simplest option is to read the Bible from cover to cover. In order to do this, you will need to read about three chapters each day every day.

2.         Another option is to read through the Bible in chronological order. Our Bible doesn’t necessarily flow in a straight timeline from the first page to the last, so someone has put together a reading plan that puts the minor prophets (for example) in order and shifted Paul’s letters to the order that we believe he wrote them. If you are trying to understand the flow of the Old Testament history (for example), doing this reading plan may help.

3.         For those looking some flexibility in their schedule, but who still want to get through the Bible in a year, a five day a week reading plan like this one will give you two catch up days in the week. This is an option that might appeal to busy professionals or parents.

4.         Some may want or need to use a slower pace. For those who read a bit slower, there are plans that will walk you through the Bible in two years.

If you have never read through the Bible, I recommend that you start with one of these plans and get a broad sense of Scripture. Do this for a couple of years, then consider a more in depth study method or selective reading plan.

One example of a focused study method is the plan suggested by Joe Carter, writing for The Gospel Coalition. He suggests reading each book of the Bible twenty times straight through. This, he argues, will begin to change your worldview through Scripture saturation. His method is pretty simple:

1.         Choose a book of the Bible.

2.         Read it in its entirety. 

3.         Repeat step #2 twenty times. 

4.         Repeat this process for all books of the Bible.

I have not tried Joe's method myself, but it stands to reason it would be beneficial if simply because it would help the reader be very comfortable with the content of the Bible. Moving through all sixty-six books of Scripture would take some time, but at the end, I imagine the reader would have developed a depth of familiarity that would serve well for the remainder of life.

A Call for Gracious Persistence

Photo Credit: Bible Reading by Cristeen Quezon. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/CZMj307AJ0y

Photo Credit: Bible Reading by Cristeen Quezon. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/CZMj307AJ0y

Whichever method you choose to increase your Bible intake is not nearly as important as simply reading the Bible more deeply. You will benefit more from reading a third of the Bible this year than in reading none. You will benefit from picking up after you have missed a few days and continuing on, even if it puts you “off schedule.” Falling short of your goal is no sin. Failing to take time to engage with God’s word can lead to sin, as you enter life's battle unarmed by the sword of the Spirit.

Therefore, don’t wait until the New Year to start a plan. If you decide to start in February, that is fine; there is nothing magical about the first of January.

If you miss a month, don’t sweat it. Just pick up where you left off and keep going.

If you don’t get it all, keep moving. Ask questions of your pastor or ministry leaders. Just keep moving.

Some Recent Research on Reading

I love reading. I love books.

Anyone who has been in my home will know that I love books, because I have several thousand on my shelves. The vast majority of them are cataloged online. (Sometimes new ones sneak in and don’t get cataloged right away.)

Reading is such a significant part of our household that we have to discipline our children for reading rather than coax them to do so. This is little surprise since my wife and I both grew up as readers and continue to read a lot.

A National Survey on the State of Reading

A recent Pew Research report on reading piqued my interest because, well, I’m a book nerd. They did a study to see what the state of reading in the US is.

On the side of being interesting and somewhat surprising, despite the proliferation of online media, approximately the same number of folks said they had read a book in the past 12 months. About 73% of respondents say they’ve read a book in any format and about 65% say they have read a real book (i.e., not a digital book). Only about 6% of people have transitioned away from real books to entirely reading on screens. This is comforting, since it promises that our local libraries likely won’t get phased out by publicly funded internet kiosks in the near future.

Much less surprising was that the correlation between income, education, and reading seems to support the value of reading. Correlation does not equal causation. Thus, it may be that higher incomes provide more time for reading. Or, it may be that advanced education inculcates improved ability to read books. The data isn’t clearly causal. However, the correlation between apparent material success (as customarily defined) and reading is striking. It may be that there is a correlation between the discipline of reading and other important, higher order skills.

Children and Reading Habits

Findings from another survey, biennial research done by Scholastic, talk about about reading for children. Given that there appears to be a correlation between material success and reading, and that reading is just a great way to improve your mind, the Scholastic study is important as it shows some factors that influence kids’ desire to read. Again, correlation isn’t causation, but it might give hits about what causes it.

Public Domain Photo of Leeds Central Library, taken by Michael Beckwith.  http://ow.ly/PpWm304Gs9Y

Public Domain Photo of Leeds Central Library, taken by Michael Beckwith. http://ow.ly/PpWm304Gs9Y

As a bibliophile of the degree that some might describe as being a hoarder, the number of volumes in a library is significant to me. As it turns out, my library is way over the expected average. Of the survey respondents, those with children who were frequent readers indicated they had 205 books in the house; those with infrequently reading children had 129 books in their house.

These findings surprised me. First, I was surprised that the number of books for infrequent readers was not lower. I’ve been in the homes of some infrequent readers and usually they live in a book desert, with an occasional pamphlet, but very little in the way of real literature. 129 books in the home of non-readers is surprising to me; I would have expected many fewer.

Second, I was surprised to see the number of books in the homes of frequent readers at only 205. I have more than 200 books on several distinct subjects. I’ll admit that I have a bias toward owning books instead of borrowing them from the library, but that is because by offering a buffet of books to my children (and myself) I feel that I am encouraging them to read. Apparently the several hundred children’s books are overkill by contemporary standards.

Some other interesting data points that correlate with children being frequent readers are consistent with the usual suspects. Parents that read to their children frequently before kindergarten are much more likely to have frequent readers. School age children whose parents read to them presently are more likely to be frequent readers. Frequent computer use has a clear correlation to forming infrequent readers.

Some Thoughts on Reading and Quality Books

For the most part, the Scholastic survey is informative and interesting. However, there are a few items that might be cause for concern. The percentage of students who say they either like or love readings books has declined by about 10% since 2010. The number of children (about 47% of respondents) who say that the amount of reading they have to do in school discourages them from reading for pleasure is unfortunately high. Additionally, more than 60% of students report that they read less now than when younger because there are other things they enjoy doing. Given the large percentage of students that report spending significant time on electronic devices, this may indicate the distractification of our youth, which may influence later educational outcomes.

Another point of concern, which is admittedly more based on generalization and personal observations of the public library shelves, is that about 73% of children report that they would read more if they could find more books that they like. This is natural, but I think it is having a negative influence on the quality of children’s literature overall.

I’ve read plenty of fluff in my day. I still enjoy a good Louis L’Amour book, or a mystery by Ellis Peters or Alexander McCall Smith.

However, the shelves of the local library shelves are sagging under the weight of junk kiddie lit. I’m not basing that merely on grumpy observations of book covers, but on earlier study of children’s literature and attempting to read some of the stuff my kids bring home. The bulk of recently published stories seems more likely to smuggle attempts to justify restructuring traditional societal norms than to provide substantial benefits to the mind through reading. Sometimes good societal changes come through children’s lit, but surreptitiously sneaking various forms of social engineering into children’s fiction is a bit annoying. Even among the good clean fun kids’ books that I’ve read recently, there seemed to be an emotional and intellectual vacuousness; in many of the current offerings the story line is interesting, but the plot predictable and depth of character are flat.

Parents report that they think it is important for their kids to have strong reading skills and strong critical thinking skills in life. Reading is, arguably, supposed to support those things. Kids report being much more likely to prefer books they pick out themselves (90%) and to want more books that they like. But by providing quick, fun, easy to read stories, publishers and book buyers may be subverting benefits of reading.

This is not a dire warning against the library shelves or a call to ban fun books. There is likely some benefit in reading, even if the reading is light and fluffy. The caution should be in considering what we purchase (for home or the local library) and asking questions about the purpose of reading for children as we select the books to populate the common shelves. The best books both delight and instruct. We shouldn’t let the hope of making cotton candy literature becomes a gateway drug to better literature undermine a main purpose of forming readers, which is to help teach people to think better.

Part of Our Lives - A Review

What does your public library mean to you?

For many people, having a library card is an essential part of being a citizen. Being able to check out books independently as a child is a rite of passage that marks the coming of age.

Wayne Wiegand, sometimes referred to as the “Dean of library historians,” addresses both the political and social significance of public libraries in his recent book, Part of our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library.

While the subtitle indicates this is a people’s history, this is a volume more suitable for the scholar than the average reader. Wiegand’s prose is clear but dense. At times the pace bogs down in details and dates. This is a history of the people’s use of the public library rather than a history written primarily for the people that use it.

Summary

The book moves through the history of public libraries in the United States in ten chapters. Wiegand begins with the various forms of libraries, most of which were not free and available to citizens, during the colonial through early American era. He then transitions through consecutive periods in library history. In 1854 the first public library opened in Boston, then in 1876 the country celebrated its centennial. Wiegand marks the 1893 Chicago World Fair as a significant event, then he identifies the US entry into World War I. These divisions form reasonable points of demarcation for Wiegand’s history, though they are not necessarily intuitive.

Wiegand uses a mixed methods approach to present the history of public libraries. He combines an amazing depth of anecdotal research with seemingly comprehensive statistical data to put forward a detailed picture of who has used the library and for what reason. Wiegand’s purpose in writing the book was to show how the library and social change have been related. The book is thorough and informative; it paints a clear picture of how public libraries have changed with American society throughout history.

Analysis

Throughout the volume Wiegand is critical of historical librarians for their handling of socially radical issues. It seems that he thinks that public libraries should be leading cultural change instead of responding to it. (Something government entities rarely, if ever, do.) However, at the same time, he critiques librarians for attempting to be cultural leaders through selecting some literature over others. Attempts to encourage higher rates non-fiction reading are frowned on, though Wiegand approves of attempts to liberalize sexual mores. The reluctance to accept the role of a public institution as reactive instead of cutting edge institution is consistent throughout. Wiegand addresses it toward the end of the volume, but his analysis of the reality of a publicly funded institution as lagging culture comes too late and does not reflect a fully-considered analysis of the history he is recounting.

A major theme in this work is the balance between selection and censorship by librarians. Wiegand documents the tension between attempts to meet the demands for decency and the free exploration of ideas. While there were certainly abuses, Wiegand seems to come down to heavily on those that were responding to the (at the time) reasonable demands from library patrons for some items to be kept out of reach of children. Still, his point about the lengths some librarians went to keep the wrong books out of certain hands is well-taken. There is a difference between taking measures to ensure age appropriate materials are available and blocking access to challenging ideas. At the same time, Wiegand seems to accept the restriction of Little Sambo while criticizing the censoring of sexually explicit books; it seems like the definition of censoring depends on whether the content meets contemporary societal standards.

Wiegand’s ideological musings could have been better developed and his perspective reflects a progressive bias. His development, exploration, and explanation of the history itself, however, is phenomenal. This is an outstanding piece of historical writing. Wiegand demonstrates an understanding of the subject matter that is the result of a lifetime of study. From that perspective this is a masterpiece that deserves to be read and should be a landmark work on this subject for years to come. I certainly have a greater appreciation of the public library system as a result of reading the volume.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Why I like Westerns

I enjoy reading Westerns. In fact, when I have the opportunity (or make the opportunity) to read for pleasure, it’s often to either a British mystery or a Western. In particular, I’m fond of Louis L’Amour. I blame this in part on the uncle that introduced me to L’Amour when I was a teenager. However, my appreciation of a good, clean Western is deeper than that.

It wouldn’t be worth being a theologian if I didn’t try to dissect ideas that others would simply enjoy. So, I will try to explain why I like Westerns. I think there are at least three reasons.

Three Reasons I Like Westerns

There is an escapist quality to Westerns. They are realistic, but they are set in a time and place remote from where I live. Since I reside in North Carolina, the canyons, deserts, and mountains of L’Amour’s novels allow me to get out of the four walls of my house in the wilderness or the untamed towns of a previous century.

Instead of thinking about the dissertation I should be writing, the work that is waiting, or the current political turmoil, Westerns allow me to witness a life and death struggle without the perils of actually being stampeded, shot, or hanged. Additionally, since the drama tends to be much more exciting than hunting for typos in a manuscript, the stories are more interesting than my daily life.

The second reason I like Westerns is that you can nearly always tell the good guys from the bad guys. Call me a simple, but I don’t like spending a hundred pages of a book trying to figure out if I should be rooting for the protagonist or wishing that the main character would get snuffed out by a vigilante.

No, give me a good, old fashioned white hat, black hat Western where you can honestly like the good guys and dislike the bad guys. L’Amour’s heroes aren’t perfect, which makes them a bit more relatable than some others. However, the bad guys are always selfish, arrogant, dirty, murdering, and dishonest. Some hold this simple dualistic perspective against Westerns, but I think it makes the genre more enjoyable. If I wanted to deal with complex emotions I’d watch a day-time talk show.

The third reason I like Westerns is that the guy nearly always gets the girl. This is where the closet romantic in comes out. Again, there isn’t a lot of drama and introspection about liking and not liking someone. Instead you get attraction, mutual admiration, and sometimes conflict. You know, the usual.

L’Amour’s stories are enjoyable because there is usually a strong female lead to complement the male lead. In a few books, the protagonist is a female. Without demolishing all types, the simplicity of romance in Westerns allows for a clean, healthy, enjoyable romance. In a world that seems to want every romance to be against type, the simplicity matters.

Conclusion

I don’t get a lot of time to read fiction, but I have a decent collection of L’Amour’s stories that I return to now and again. I’ve read some other authors, like Zane Grey, but I’ve never gotten into them. Much like my preference for reading Dorothy L. Sayers over Agatha Christie, I think this comes down to the slightly more complex characterization, while still keeping it light and fluffy.

For me, Westerns are an oasis in an otherwise rocky terrain. They allow me to be a hero without getting saddle sores. They entertain me and expand my world a little without sucking me dry emotionally. This is a good thing, I think.

The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

My house is filled with books. More than a decade ago, we did an inventory of our books and we had more than a thousand. Since that time I’ve earned a Master of Divinity and am well into a Doctor of Philosophy. The number of books has continued to mount. I have heaps more today than I did then.

Part of our family strategy in homechooling is to have a great number of good books on hand so that there are always new stories and explanations to explore. In part this is necessary because the closest local library is not particularly well stocked with good books for children. In part this is the result of a couple of bibliophiles wanting to pass along something good.

In any event, when I saw a review of Naomi Baron’s book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital Age pop up in First Things, I was intrigued. I've been rather dismissive of the e-reader movement and was particularly interested to hear her analysis a decade or so into the online reading explosion.

Baron is a Professor of Linguistics at American University. She is also in charge of a center at that university that focuses on pedagogy. She is uniquely qualified to write this volume. In her introduction, Baron admits she will be going beyond the usual linguistic practice of describing the is into the helpful tasks of considering the ought. This willingness to make some judgments, albeit with grace, makes this book very valuable.

The question Baron picks up in the volume is whether “digital reading is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read.” (xii) She goes on to argue “that digital reading is fine for many short pieces or light content we don’t intend to analyze or reread.” (xii) Her conclusion is that digital reading is here to stay, but so is reading in print. Each has a niche in the publishing world and the academic world. Thus the future is a complementary coexistence rather than extinction of one or the other.

Baron begins with a state of the book address, where she lays out the history of the rise of the e-book and the shift in print publishing. She then provides a history of reading that will make a lover of reading swoon. This chapter is really worth the price of the book. In the third chapter she discusses the impact that e-reading is having on writing styles, where media are moving to punchier, shorter chunks. (This is why my blog is almost never longer than 800 words.) This is a chapter that is historiographic and, again, very enjoyable for one who loves reading.

In Chapter Four Baron explains the attraction to reading onscreen, for those that appreciate it. She is fair in presenting the strongest arguments for that form of reading. Still she notes that e-books and e-readers may not be as green as claimed, particularly since most people don’t simply dispose of their hard copy books, but often resell them, lend them, and pass them down. She also notes that one does not really own an e-book, but merely accesses its information. The more significant concern she notes is that retention in onscreen reading tends to be lower. Still, she find strengths of the medium and promotes them.

What comes of the discussion is that onscreen reading is more suitable for one-off reading. Though annotation methods are improving in e-books, they still lag significantly behind the marginalia of trusty paper copies. In Chapter Six, Baron discusses the phenomena of social reading, which began with the book club and has progressed to sharing quotes through Goodreads and other platforms. This sometimes helps people get through books, but it often keeps students from approaching texts as cleanly.

Baron dwells on one of the most significant downsides of e-books in her seventh chapter. This is the fact that people feel there is something lacking from the aesthetic experience of reading a book on a screen. It just isn't the same as reading a real book. It is the loss of the sensory aspect of reading that has some young people hooked on paper books. And then, there is the fact that a print book has no games or apps. There is no chance that an e-mail will pop up or Facebook will demand one’s attention in the background of a paper book. Studies continue to show that some of these real issues continue to make real books a better option for deep reading.

Despite its shortcomings for some uses, Baron concludes that onscreen reading is here to stay as a complement to reading on paper. Her case is compelling and winsomely argued.  The ability to get a vast number of resources online is extremely helpful for quick research. At the same time, the opportunities to annotate, spatially associate, and focus on a tangible object are essential for deep reading. Both forms of readings have a purpose and both are here to stay.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Not just because I agree with her conclusions, but because it was well written, well researched and accessible. If you are a bookish sort of person, then put this volume on your to-be-read list. But buy it in paper copy because it is worth reading deeply and well.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Thoughts on Reading

There is something intoxicating about the smell of books. Whether it is the scent of new books lined up in neat rows on shelves at the local bookstore or the more experienced fragrance of books long-loved on the shelves at home.

 It’s a scent, but something more than mere fragrance.

There is a feeling of power in holding a book in one’s hands. The knowledge printed within the bound pages, written a year before or one thousand years before, is there to be understood and owned by the conquering reader.

Read More