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The virtues of reading

Bestselling novelist George R. R. Martin says, “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Reading is a wonderful and transforming experience. It challenges the mind and enlightens the soul.

However, reading has been reported to be on a slow decline over the last 15 years. Different reasons have been given to explain this phenomenon. The top two culprits are television and the internet.

Once TV airtime increased, many people exchanged their reading time for TV time. And that has grown even more with the rise of TV show sites: Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video. The Washington Post reported that in 2017 the average American spent more than two hours and 45 minutes watching TV every day of the year. It is easier to relax and be entertained than to sit down and dig through a good book.

The internet is more insidious to the art of reading. We skim through news articles and research papers. We succumb to click-bait ads and stories on the side bar of those sites, which lead us to other sites and the cycle continues.

Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows,” laments about how the internet changed his brain and reading habits, making it difficult for him to fully immerse himself in a book like he did in the past. Social media, email, YouTube, etc. give us dopamine rushes when we continue to use them, which train our brains to be more unfocused and skip from one activity to another constantly.

Despite these obstacles of the 21st century, reading is still an achievable and important skill to possess. Reading makes you see life from different perspectives. We tend to isolate ourselves in our various intellectual, political and spiritual bubbles, while ignoring other important viewpoints. Reading can transport you to another world, time, country or culture.

I read “Native Son” by Richard Wright last summer with some jazz music playing and I felt like I was transported to the 1900’s where segregation still existed and African Americans were struggling to find their place in the world.

Reading also makes you more compassionate toward others. A few weeks ago, I read a memoir by a preacher about the painful experiences in his life from childhood to adulthood. It made me have more compassion and less judgment toward church leaders. It reminded me that they are humans with weaknesses just like me. I felt like I touched the suffering of another human being.

Karen Swallow Prior in her wonderful new book “On Reading Well” suggests that we should  read virtuously. Reading diversily means reading widely on different book genres and subjects. Virtuous reading, on the other hand, entails reading and interpreting a text in its context faithfully, insightfully and accurately. The habit of reading in and of itself is virtuous because it requires prudence, diligence, discipline and patience to get the most out of a good book rather than jumping from website to website or scrolling from photo to photo.

When I talk to different people about why they don’t read, the common reasons given are lack of time, interest and money. It’s interesting when people tell me that they can’t find the time to read. Yet, they have the time to scroll through Instagram and Facebook. They have the time to watch the latest episodes of “The Flash,” “Riverdale” and “Stranger Things.” It’s about priorities. If it’s important to you, you’ll find time.

When it comes to interest, many of us were forced to read books that we didn’t like in high school which made us dislike reading. Now that you’re no longer in high school, you can choose the books you want to read—and, no, your textbooks don’t count. Choose books that are enjoyable and challenging.

As Prior argues, “The greatest pleasures are born of labor and investment. A book that requires nothing from you might offer the same diversion as that of a television sitcom, but it is unlikely to provide intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual rewards long after the cover is closed.”

Don’t get bogged down by people’s “books you must read” lists or the bestsellers lists. Read a challenging book that you like. As writer Rosie Leizrowice argues, “If you only read books you don’t like that much, you’ll end up thinking you don’t like reading. So, you’ll read less and less—and your ability to focus on a book will get worse.”

If you are not a habitual reader, you can start with fictional books. You can read a physical, digital or audio book. It doesn’t matter. Choose what’s best for you. There is no formula to becoming a good reader. Just start reading.

If money is a hindrance, you can visit thrift stores, libraries and used bookstores that have books on sale. A few months ago, I bought six books for five dollars in a Tulsa library.  Or you can even just borrow books from the library.

It is also wise to re-read books that have shaken you to your core—economist Tyler Cowen calls them “quake books.”  As Alan Jacob argues, “a first encounter with a worthwhile book is never a complete encounter, and we are usually in error to make it a final one.”

The ultimate aim of all reading, of course, is to become more virtuous people who love God and the people around us.