The truth about books: there are a lot of them
Recently I came across an old article from the early 2000s (well I guess it’s not that old) about reading and literacy rates. The author pointed to a certain Pierre Bayard who wrote a book entitled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book 😊. Maybe someday. Right now, I am busy reading books that I aim to talk about. All joking aside, it’s a funny sounding title and the idea of it is a little funny, though in practice it is not that strange. Many readers are second-hand readers.
Due to the sheer volume of things which are written and have been written and will be written, no one can read more than an infinitesimally tiny percentage of what is written and what is relevant for their interest. It is estimated that somewhere greater than 2 million new books are published every year around the world. A very dedicated reader may get through 100 or so books in a year, maybe a few more. Good luck.
In the academic context where I have been living the last several years, it’s actually quite common to discuss works one has either not read at all or read only in small part. Each subject matter and discipline has a sub-discipline within it that is devoted simply to keeping track of the history of the area of study. Whether you read theology, biology, the history of UFO hunting, or what have you, a huge portion of one’s knowledge about their subject matter comes from summaries of other books (or summaries of summaries of summaries, etc.). There’s only so much time to read, and more to read than could ever be read.
Talking about the (multitudinous) books you haven’t read
And so, part of me empathizes strongly with the basic point of this book (which I haven’t read). One who is generally knowledgeable about history, about current cultural trends, and about life, can talk about all kinds of books they haven’t read, movies they haven’t seen, TV shows they haven’t seen, places they’ve never been to, and other life experiences they’ve never had. It’s a rather peculiar aspect of humanity. We can persuasively and convincingly talk about and even coach other people through things that we have no practical experience with.
Are we “bible-reading” second-handers?
Setting academia, or hobby reading, or book clubs, or even schoolwork aside, does the habit of discussing things we haven’t read or seen seep into the life of following Jesus?
The world of Christian book publishing churns out an astonishing number of books. And, to be more honest with the way we engage with text, we have to consider blogs (like this one), magazines, YouTube channels, movies, podcasts, cartoons, etc. There is an entire swarming ecosystem of stories, information, and studies which promise to help you understand the bible, help with your Christian walk, improve your love life, improve your relationships, lessen your stress, make you happy, etc.
I don’t want to sound dismissive of the Christian literary apparatus which helps us understand the Bible and the Christian life. I myself have drunk deeply from many springs in this apparatus. It would be the height of arrogance to suggest that we don’t need to read what others have written and thought and taught, but should just read the bible and figure it out on our own. Yet a question calls for pondering: Have we become bible-reading second-handers?
That is, do we always engage the bible through a screen of someone else’s writing. We read someone else’s study, someone else’s blog post, etc. The default assumption in the information economy is that an answer, if not the answer, is already out there and someone has already figured it out. All you need to do is search for it online and it will pop up within the first 10 Google results.
The problem which I see in all of this is not that we don’t learn—one can learn an immense amount of information through second-hand reading engagement (or watching videos, listening to podcasts, etc.). The problem is that second-hander knowledge tends to be less transformative than first-hander knowledge.
Here’s the difference. I ran track and field in high school. I was phenomenally not good at anything in it, but I did do it. In one track meet my junior year, my coach decided to throw me into the high jump.
Up till that point, I had never competed in, or really practiced, high jump. However, I did know the theory of how you high jump. I know the sort of approach you’re supposed to take, the way you plant your feet, the way you jump up, the way you arch your back over the bar, the way you kick your feet up over top of the bar, and then how to land in the high jump pit. I could teach someone how to high jump. I know how it’s supposed to be done.
On top of that, at the time I was about 6 feet tall and had a solid 2-foot vertical. Starting height to clear was 4’ 8”. Just standing next to the bar and jumping up I could theoretically have stepped over top of the bar. Thus, in theory, clearing starting height posed zero difficulty to my high jump abilities, as lacking as they were. And that was all I needed to do. Clear starting height, and in doing so I would win points for our track team.
Well, as I presume you’ve guessed at this point, I didn’t clear starting height. The fact that I knew how to do it, and that I had all the physical abilities necessary to do it, didn’t add up to being able to do it. There’s a void which between knowledge on the theoretical level and knowledge in the experiential level. The only way to know how to high jump is to spend time high jumping. The only way to gain a deep knowledge of how to cook is to spend time cooking.
The only way to gain a deep knowledge of scripture is to spend time reading and living scripture.
Should we read and listen to the thoughts of others on Scripture and life? Absolutely. After all, that is part of what the church is for. However, we need to be aware of the phenomenon of second-hand reading/consuming. Knowing about something is quite different from knowing something. Learning by reading what others write, or listening to what others say, helps us learn about the Scriptures. That is good.
I can’t help but wonder, though, how much we miss in terms of vital knowledge of God and life when we habitually turn to the database of knowledge from others for answers rather than seeking them in prayer and study in the Scriptures themselves.