“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”1
Reading was one of the most common leisure pursuits of the twentieth century. Now increasingly it is being replaced by time spent on social media, TV and video games. Research from Sheffield Hallam University discovered that in 2017 British consumers spent £7.2 billion on music, video and computer games, compared with £7.1 billion on the printed word (books, newspapers and magazines). It is the first time print has been overtaken by other media.2 Yet reading has benefits and advantages over (or in addition to) other media, not least health benefits.
Aiding mental health
In November 2018 UK Health Minister Matt Hancock suggested that GPs sometimes should consider prescribing visits to the library and other cultural activities instead of pills. “It’s scientifically proven,” he said. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.”3
Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health found that people who read books regularly had a 20% lower risk of dying in the next 12 years compared with non-readers.4 Psychologists at Toronto University found that habitual readers had an increased sensitivity to other people.5 Others suggest that reading can slow brain degeneration by improving the connections between brain cells.
In a Radio 4 Front Row programme on reading and mental health, presenter Stig Abell said “I discovered that the best way of getting control of my mind was entrusting it to the mind of another” in novels from Jane Austen to PG Wodehouse. Commenting on the latter, he said “In his Arcadian visions, nothing is serious, everything is ordered. … His stories treat trivial problems as if they are serious, and so help to make serious problems seem trivial. I still turn to him, every day, to help keep my mind balanced.”6
Laura Freeman wrote The reading cure to describe how books helped her – slowly – emerge from serious anorexia. “Emptiness today and emptiness tomorrow. The only way to bear it was to measure the day in books.” A reviewer adds that “Books began to help her to think differently about food. The dairy scenes in Tess of the d’Urbervilles enabled her to drink proper milk again, Siegfried Sassoon encouraged her to have tea and boiled eggs, and she ate a mince pie in the company of Robert Graves. Mrs Cratchit held her hand through a morsel of Christmas pudding and, after reading A month in the Country, she tried a Yorkshire pudding and found it delicious.”7
Broadening the mind, prompting the spirit
However, reading “isn’t a hiding place. It’s a finding place” according to novelist Jeanette Winterson,8 who as a teenager had to watch her abusive mother burn her books. (The experience made her determined to write her own books.) For her, reading opened up new worlds and ideas that her restricted upbringing had shut out. “Every book was a message in a bottle,” she reflects. “The wider we read the freer we become”, and “the more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies.”9
The same was true for prolific Christian author and journalist Philip Yancey. He grew up in a church that “taught blatant racism, apocalyptic fear of communism, and ‘America first’ patriotism. Christian doctrine was dished out in a ‘believe and don’t ask questions’ style, laced with fervid emotionalism. For me, reading opened a chink of light that became a window to another world.” He found some books shattered his blinkered world view, and the “calmer voices” of Christian authors such as GK Chesterton and CS Lewis convinced him “that somewhere Christians lived who knew grace as well as law, love as well as judgment.”10
Reading fiction, non-fiction and poetry can broaden our mind, introduce fresh ideas, enlarge our views, increase our vocabulary, stimulate our imagination and sharpen our perspectives. Michael Heppell’s interviews with high achievers in his book The Edge found that almost all had large libraries, were reading at least two books at any one time, and subscribed to and read industry-specific publications.11 Reading is a win-win.
For author and Times columnist Caitlin Moran, “To read is to be in a constant act of creation”, far more so than passively absorbing a film in which the visualising has been done for us by the director. With a book, you join the action, create the setting and dialogue with the author. She is worth quoting in full:
“That old lady on the bus with her Orwell; the businessman on the Tube with Patricia Cornwell; the teenager roaring through Capote – they are not engaged in idle pleasure. Their heads are on fire. Their hearts are flooding. With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss – you are the mathematical calculations that plot the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin. You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head. These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone. And when your guts fail and your bones break, Narnia or Jamaica Inn or Gormenghast will still be there: as pin-sharp and bright as the day you first imagined them.”12
Narrative can capture mood and feeling, ambience and ethos, in a way that is often difficult for film directors. That is why dramatisations of books often focus on action and argument and miss out the original author’s nuances and observations. My all-time favourite piece of descriptive writing comes from Laurie Lee’s classic Cider with Rosie. Sample it; enjoy it; imagine it:
“Mother always ate standing up, tearing crusts off the loaf with her fingers, a hand-to-mouth feeding that expressed her vigilance, like that of a wireless-operator at sea. For most of Mother’s attention was fixed on the grate, whose fire must never go out. When it threatened to do so she became seized with hysteria, wailing and wringing her hands, pouring on oil and chopping up chairs in a frenzy to keep it alive. In fact it seldom went out completely, though it was very often ill. But Mother nursed it with skill, banking it up every night and blowing hard on the bars every morning. The state of our fire became as important to us as it must have been to a primitive tribe. When it sulked and sank we were filled with dismay; when it blazed all was well with the world; but if – God save us – it went out altogether, then we were clutched by primeval chills. Then it seemed that the very sun had died, the winter had come for ever, that the wolves of the wilderness were gathering near, and that there was no more hope to look for. . . .
But tonight the firelight snapped and crackled, and Mother was in full control.”13
This is so much more than a stark report. It is so much more than a photograph in words that could translate as easily to a screen as to a page. Instead, it forces you to savour the imagery, the allusions as well as the raw facts. Like an exquisite meal or fine wine it is something to linger over, and absorb its nuances slowly, thoughtfully; to recall, or feel, that raw emotion of “being clutched by primeval chills”, of the sun dying and hope disappearing. It can make you feel thankful that it isn’t true for you at present and to spare a sympathetic thought for people for whom it is still true. And you may even feel the relief almost physically when told, “But tonight the firelight snapped and crackled” and the story – the action – continues.
Although Cider with Rosie reads like a novel, it is in fact biographical, written by a poet with the gift of reflecting deeply on the everyday incidents he experienced as a child in a Cotswold village in the early twentieth century. Reading can help us not just to glean ideas or facts, but reflect on them and their implications. In so doing, we begin to reflect on our own life and the world around us.
Good Christian writing can also provoke reflection rather than merely describe plain theology. Sample this deeply reflective passage from Lewis Smede’s Love within limits:
“Love is a power that moves us to be kind. What are we to understand by kindness? Kindness is the will to save; it is God’s awesome power channelled into gentle healing. Kindness is love acting on persons. Such kindness may be soft; it is not weak; tender but not feeble; sensitive, but not fragile.”14
If you heard that in a sermon, you would latch on to maybe one phrase, and as your mind hovered over it you would miss the rest. But read it in a book and you can pause on each phrase, stay with it for as long as you like, let it roll around your mind, inform your attitudes and, perish the thought, challenge your actions.
Former US megachurch pastor John Mark Comer (who resigned from his multi-congregation church with a leadership team of 93 in order to lead a single church) is critical of the superficial understanding and debating that often takes place over big theological and moral issues in churches. “When people stop reading seriously and thinking carefully, it’s a breeding ground for bad theology,” he told an interviewer.
“Millennials are still reading a lot online, but there are some things you just can’t do in a 1,000-word blog post,” he claimed. On controversial issues, when people are asked how they reached their conclusions, “they rarely say, ‘I’ve read these ten books and this is my take on this Greek word, and I’ve exegeted this [Bible] passage…’ They’ve rarely thought it through that much.”15
In other words, many of us are relying on second-hand beliefs, and spiritual fast-food prepared for us by people whose presuppositions are much the same as ours. Reading, in short, is, or can be and perhaps should be, a form of meditation. And that requires time, patience, and probably less reliance on technology.
Finding time, adjusting priorities
The commonest excuse for not reading is lack of time. But consider how much time it is estimated the average person in the UK spends on electronic media: 121 hours per month. That includes social media, instant messaging, emailing, texting, phoning and similar activities. In addition we spend on average 22 hours a week watching TV. By making even a small adjustment to our lifestyle we could read several books and reap rich rewards. For example, Margaret Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale, 4:24 hours (quicker and fuller and more thought-provoking than the TV series), JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (12:4 hours, longer but much richer in imagery and ideas than the film).16
Yet across the country libraries are closing due to government cuts, and independent bookshops are closing due to high rents and declining sales. Specialist Christian bookshops struggle to exist and most rely on volunteers to stay open. If we don’t use them, we’ll lose them and future generations will be denied access to rich sources of learning and mental and spiritual nourishment.
The situation is not helped by the curriculum often imposed on schools that forces them to focus on fact-based, target chasing, subjects, while broader and less academic subjects (or even academic subjects such as music which attract only a minority of students) are reduced or not offered. We risk creating a generation of narrow-minded human beings with stunted imaginations for whom books are merely an ancient source of facts that now can be better accessed on the internet.
This is illustrated powerfully in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (4:30 hours reading time). It opens with Thomas Gradgrind’s mantra that “Facts alone are wanted in life”. Much later the well-meaning educator and factory owner is chastened by the discovery that his beloved daughter Louisa has suffered greatly because her mechanical and mathematical education failed to feed her soul, nourish her heart and imagination, or help her become a rounded human being.
We’re there in the room as she confronts him. We slump to the floor with Louisa in her distress and confusion. We wring our hands with Gradgrind and stay awake with him all night, filled with remorse and guilt and helplessness. We’re pierced by his agonising contrition as he concludes “that I cannot but mistrust myself”. The cold fact baldly stated that a broad education is more beneficial than a narrow one can be argued over. But when we see and feel the consequences of Gradgrind’s philosophy working out in the life of his fictitious yet believably real daughter, the message is unmistakeable and we cannot but consider it true.17
Of course, facts are important, and of more value than instant opinions. There is a deeply prophetic warning in Malcolm Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (3:31 hours reading time). Written in 1954, it depicts (as does George Orwell’s 1984) homes where large wall-mounted flat-screen TVs (not invented at the time of writing) beam personalised soap-style inter-active entertainment into every home. Everything is reduced to sound-bites and digests, headlines and quick-flicks, stuffing people with facts and views that require no reflection: “a centrifuge [that] flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!” And books are banned.
The main character, Montag, is a fireman. Everywhere is fire-proofed, so there are no fires for the service to put out. Instead, they are employed to start them – wherever they find books. But Montag is curious. He starts stealing books and reading them secretly. He meets rebels who have begun to memorise books in the hope that one day they might be published again. And he finds a Bible. The book ends as he walks back to a war-destroyed city reciting Revelation 22:2 (“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”).18
And there lies a challenge to any reader (or even non-reader). Back in the 1930s TS Eliot remonstrated with his generation, “Much is your reading, but not the Word of god.”19 If we want to explore the big questions of life, discover God and his purposes for us and for the world, and grow in faith and Christian understanding, then the Bible has to be the book we love best and consult most. It is the oldest book we have, always in print in many (but not yet all) the thousands of languages in the world. Investing in a modern translation or paraphrase will blow your mind, feed your soul, and deepen your personal relationship with God. Schemes for systematic Bible reading and modestly-priced notes to help readers get into and understand the text are easily available. All kinds of books will serve us well, but the Bible will serve us best.
“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that, through patience and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” 20
Think and talk
1. What book(s) have you read recently which have made you think? Reflect on what they have taught you or what they have illustrated that is worth remembering and learning from.
2. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). This is not an excuse for not reading! But in its context it is a reminder of what is most important in human life. What do you think that might be, and how might reading actually help you to appreciate it more?
3. Jesus was well-read in the Scriptures of his day and quoted them frequently. So too was Paul, who was also familiar with secular literature (see Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12). How might reading both Scripture and more widely enhance our Christian service and discipleship?
4. What might you be able to do locally to help preserve libraries and bookshops, and introduce children especially to the value of reading?
1. Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729), The Tatler no.147.2. Report by Mark Bridge in The Times 3 March 2018
3. Reported in i 6 November 2018.
4. Reported in The Times Weekend, 6 October 2018
5. According to Krish Kandiah, Christianity January 2017
6. Stig Abell, “Novels can offer great comfort to a troubled mind”, The Times 9 October 2018.
7. As reported in a review by Cathy Rentzenbrink of Laura Freeman, The reading cure (Weidenfeld & Nicholson), The Times Saturday Review, 17 February 2018.
8. Jeanette Winterson, Why be happy when you could be normal? (Jonathan Cape, 2011), p.40.
9. Ibid., pp 116f, 144.
10. Philip Yancey, “The Power of Writing”, Christianity Today October 1994
11. Michael Heppell, The Edge, Hodder & Stoughton 2013, p.147.
12. Caitlin Moran, The Times Magazine, 14 June 2014.
13. Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie, Penguin Books 1962, p.72.
14. Lewis Smedes, Love within Limits, Lion Publishing 1979, p.19.
15. Profile of John Mark Comer in Premier Christianity, December 2017
16. The figures and comparisons are from i, 3 August 2017, based on an analysis of Ofcom data by MusicMagpie.
17. Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Vintage Classics 2012; the quotes are from pp 5 and 207.
18. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, Harper Voyager 2008. The quote is from page 73.
19. TS Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”, The complete poems and plays of TS Eliot, Faber and Faber 1969, p.154.
20. The collect for the last Sunday after Trinity, Common Worship, Church House Publishing, copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.
© Derek Williams 2018