Deep Reading

August 21st, 2017

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Philip Yancey laments the loss of “deep reading.” Few men read books anymore. Daniel Handler, who writes under the pen name Lemony Snicket, has a solution. Give them books about sex.

In a recent Washington Post column, Philip Yancey, author of “The Jesus I Never Knew,” writes about the death of reading. Sven Birkerts calls it the loss of “deep reading.” Neuroscientists attribute it mostly to social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat—“shallowing” our neural pathways. Few can get through a deep book.

Or any book. Americans are reading fewer books today than in the past. A 2007 poll by The Associated Press found that the typical American read only four books in 2006, and one in four adults read no books at all. The trend has not improved in the last 10 years. Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.

There are exceptions. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg practice the “5-hour rule.” They set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) for deliberate, deep reading. But they’re exceptions proving the rule. Men don’t read.

Daniel Handler thinks he knows why. He writes books for children under the pen name Lemony Snicket. When he goes to Lemony Snicket events, the crowds are about evenly split between boys and girls. But he also writes young adult books, and if one boy shows up at an event, it’s a miracle. “Something happens once a young man hits puberty.”

Sex happens. Handler reread his favorite books growing up and remembered they all had one thing in common: “They were filthy.” Erotic books moved him, “not quite because of and not quite despite the dirty parts.” He loved Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” for its reflection on life’s fleetingness. But Handler also liked all the sex. He thinks we need more books about real sex in the real world.

He ought to read the Bible. It’s deep reading. Scripture depicts the love of God for us as like the erotic love between husband and wife. It begins with Adam and Eve making love. God lurks in aroused human love. It’s in the Song of Songs, an intensely erotic series of poems about the passion between two young people who are patently not married.

Long before the printing press, there was deep art. In the church, erotic love is depicted in the plunging of the candle into the water at the Easter vigil. The candle is the male element, the water the female. It doesn’t take much imagination to see Jesus, the candle, deeply penetrating his bride, the church. We are the firstfruits of an erotic union.

We see this in Bernini’s statue of Saint Theresa. Transfixed by the arrow of divine love, her ecstasy is portrayed as orgasmic. The saint herself was not hesitant about the use of erotic vocabulary in her description of her relationship with God. There is no evidence that Christians at that time found this to be disturbing.

They do now. In 19th century, Victorian reformers pretty much erased erotic images from stories and art. J. R. R. Tolkien warned that this “sprucing up” would ruin ancient stories.[1] When we remove the erotic elements, stories become boring.

Most men find the faith boring. The average U. S. congregation is 61 percent female; 39 percent male. Men find church boring. I get it. We’ve “prettified” scripture, making it pretty much boring. I recently heard a pastor use the word “intercourse” in his sermon—and then quickly almost apologize for it. Can’t talk that way in church.

Thomas Aquinas didn’t feel this way. On his deathbed, he asked the Song of Songs to be read over him. Songs is the most commented on book of the Bible by spiritual writers. Maybe writers in the church today aren’t very spiritual.

The double whammy of “sprucing up” and “shallowing out” explains the loss of deep reading. But men and women are created by God to experience erotic love, so if men don’t find it in books and art, they’ll look elsewhere. Most find it in pornography.

Porn is erotic love profaned. Surveys indicate three-quarters of the male population is deep into porn. Many are addicted. They watch it on the Internet, further “shallowing out” their neural pathways. After a while, they can no longer read deep things.

C. S. Lewis felt we don’t need more books about Christianity, but more books with Christianity “latent” in them. We’d benefit from a new generation of writers who would pen erotic stories with Christianity latent in them. That would improve on Daniel Handler’s solution and perhaps help men once again enjoy “deep reading.”

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” Andrew Lang Lecture (1938).

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4 Responses to “Deep Reading”

  1. Linda Sparkman says:

    thanks, Mike.

    good food for thought.

  2. Marc Horton says:

    . . . stories with the noble aspects of godly manhood.

  3. Barnabas says:

    Sadly the lack of depth in PERSONA education in the church leaves individuals with a hunger for intimacy manifest at a physical level. Resolving the deficit is a challenge of community responsibility not to be solved by literature adaptions alone.
    How are the exceptions accounted for, or are that not usual ?

  4. Gerard says:

    Question. I have 3 boys ages 9, 9, and 7.

    They all have an aversion to any type of romance in stories/movies (e.g. Train Your Dragon 2, Beauty and the Beast).

    In discussing their aversion, one of them shared that he gets physically excited (erection) by the story, even through there is no sexual imagery beyond animated characters holding hands.

    My thought was to be more careful about what they watch to keep them from the angst (“Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you: do not stir up love until is satisfies).

    Yet I want them to be practiced at processing their desires, to understand them, and to know how to put them in order.

    Grateful for any thoughts you might share in the context of your post.

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