Reading Amidst the Distractions of the Digital Age (part 2) (@Byers_Andy)

This is the second (and final) post discussing Alan Jacob’s excellent book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distractions (Oxford University Press, 2011).  Part 1 can be found here [LINK].

The book falls within an important discussion topic for those of us connected to BigBible and wondering about the effects of faith, technology, and the Internet in the digital age.  How does online reading affect our reading abilities as a people so shaped by textual traditions (Scripture, liturgies, creeds, massive theological tomes)?

As noted in the prequel post, Jacob’s is writing to redress our readerly anxieties.  We are so caught up with what to read, when to have it read by, and how we cannot read like we want, or with having to read more than we want.  The Pleasures of Reading helps us relax a bit as readers.

It also helps us understand why reading is so intensely anxious.  It is not just that we have entered a new media-age encouraging short-form, hyperlinked (and thus distracted) reading which raises all sorts of concerns from text-lovers like me.  Readerly anxiety is deeper than this….

Jacobs points out that our first encounters with the written word are often tender and delightful, occurring in the lap of a parent who lovingly reads us stories (p. 147).  We are illiterate as small children, of course, so our earliest encounters with books came under the tutelage of a “lector,” that is, a reader (usually Mom, Dad or an older sibling).  Our first books were highly visual in nature (lots of bright illustrations) and we looked and listened more than we read—the printed page came to us first as a combination of visual and verbal media.

But when schooling ushered us into the realm of the literate, not only were books with less illustrations placed into our hand—Jacobs reminds us that we were also posed daunting questions like “which reading group are you in?” (p. 147).

Here is how Jacobs describes the anxious progress a child makes from illiteracy to literacy:

So reading, which starts for many of us in a warm cocoon of security, accompanied by an unassailable sense of being loved, gradually and inexorably. . . turns into a site of stress. It becomes a contested environment in which we succeed or fail. . . . (p. 148).

I am not saying personally that it is wrong to sequester children into reading groups. But we should recognize that doing so draws social lines and inadvertently tends to correlate self-worth to reading comprehension (later to be assayed by those A-Levels, or the SAT, ACT or GRE if you are American).

Jacobs’ Pleasures of Reading is not billed as a” Christian” book or as a theology text.  But in the final sentences (in the Acknowledgements section), we learn that the preceding 161 pages are “an exercise in lived theology” (162). Could it be that he is addressing readerly anxieties within the Church, addressing Christians who feel spiritually incapacitated because their reading skills or reading preferences are not up to spiritual par?

I gets the impression that Jacobs is writing with a thick sense of the people of God in view.   By encouraging reading and readers, he is calling for a joyful, leisurely embrace of an ancient practice, one that, as it just so happens, has shaped both Israel and the Church.

I learned a lot from reading Jacobs’ book.  In my own writing of a media-theology book, he helped alleviate some of my concerns and challenged some of my skepticism about media technology (in fact, Jacobs’ own struggles with distracted reading were remedied by a technological device: a Kindle!).  But I was also reminded all the more that we as Christians are a text-shaped people.  Even if our media preferences gradually shift toward videos and pixelated images, we belong to a tradition that will always have textual roots.

Taking advantage of our brains’ “neuroplasticity” and developing new reading skills for the digital age can be a way of honoring God’s wondrous work in making us.  I mean, the fact that our brains can adjust and adapt so readily to how information is processed is extraordinary!  But honoring that neuroplasticity would involve maintaining the skillset of reading and hearing old texts, some of which are long and hard to work through (i.e., Jeremiah, Romans, and Augustine’s City of God).  But Jacobs would have us work on those skills not out of a sense of burdensome duty, but out of a sense of delight and excitement about the profound and beautiful subject matter expressed through long-form writing.

So, as Augustine heard in a garden: Tolle lege (“take and read”).  Sometimes, we read by whim.  But at times, God supplies the whim.  And God often directs the page-turning.  For me, I took and read Jacobs’ book.  It is a good place to start afresh as a reader.

Along also with Jeremiah, maybe….


Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distractions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).