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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

To Read, or Not to Read?

Written by: on November 17, 2019

Johannes Gutenberg developed the Gutenberg Press in 1454 by merging two of his key inventions: a printing press and a mold for making reusable, movable letters.[1]In his experimentation of book development, Gutenberg desired to produce letters that were equal in quality to that which expert scribes were able to produce by hand. The first font used had 180-190 different characters. The most laborious task of printing was the setting of the text, but once set the printing was quick and efficient, producing upward of two hundred copies of the same page. Once a page was printed, the text would be cleaned, and placed back into proper storage boxes, ready for set up and printing of a new page. This method was so effective, only minor changes occurred in the print industry in the centuries following the press’s invention.[2]

Over the course of fifty years, access to the printing press moved from Gutenberg’s Mainz, Germany, into over two hundred cities in Europe.[3]With the advent of the printing press came the printing industry. Craftsmen such a publishers, bookbinders and miniature painters developed their trade in the industry which moved toward more standardized methods. Over time, the career of publisher became differentiated from a printer and bookseller. Often these publishers possessed well-rounded educations, allowing them to understand literature of both past and present.[4]Due to population concentration and higher literacy rates, publishing centers developed in major cities. In the sixteenth century, six major markets (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, and England) were responsible for ninety-five percent of all books published in Latin. Due to the inherent financial risk of book production, publishers maintained strict controls and developed their own industry regulations. Indeed, the European book market’s protective measures were in place before the Reformation.[5]

The first fifty years of the Press’s existence produced manuscripts primarily written in Latin. These works were addressed to and accessible for learned audiences comprised of scholars and clerics. Due to high illiteracy rates and prohibitive costs of printed works, the sixteenth century commoner could never imagine reading published words. During the Reformation, limited accessibility and comprehension of printed materials began to shift both in location and demographics. The catalyst for this shift came in the form of a German priest and theologian named Martin Luther, who was passionate to bring about reformation to the abusive practices of the Catholic Church. “Luther did not set out to advance the cause of the printing press. But in the process of spreading the Gospel and defending the Reformation doctrines, he and his co-reformers brought about a print revolution which would change the course of history.”[6]

It’s been 500 years since the rise of the printing press and the Reformation. I wonder if the Luther-driven printing industry could ever have imagined a day when books would be so prolific that they could be found in people’s basements, garages, and garbage bins? Could they have envisioned a day when bookshelves housed not one Bible, but many, and in numerous translations? Or more unimaginable, that people would be encouraged to not read the books, to skim the books, and to simply locate the books amongst others?

Pierre Bayard, professor of French literature at University of Paris VIII and a psychoanalyst, tackles the sometimes shameful and often complex relationship that has developed throughout history between readers and their books. In his classic, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, he acknowledges how the system of book reading is repressive and filled with heavy obligations. He desires to eliminate the guilt that accompanies one’s admission of not having read a specific book or even books in general.[7]In his attempt to encourage readers to be liberated creatives, he equips them with a handful of “tools” to enable them to communicate about books they’ve never heard of, have only skimmed, have heard about, or have completely read and forgotten.[8]These tools include: “listening to the potentialities of the work, analyzing its ever changing content, paying attention to others and their reactions, and taking charge of a gripping narrative.”[9]The goal of Bayard’s instruction, “is to reveal to students what is truly essential: the world of their own creation…(or) self-innovation…and to assist others in overcoming their fear of culture, and in daring to leave it behind to begin to write.”[10]

While this objective seems noble, I wonder what is missed in the self-innovation process when historical and contemporary voices are silenced? As I consider the history of why we have so many texts at our fingertips, it seems a disservice to our communities to not read books simply for our own self-innovation. In fact, this suggestion, given from a place of privilege, power, and platform, is in opposition to why the Gospel was made available for everyone to read. The words in Scripture, as well as countless other books, have been formative in the lives of generations of readers, as they reveal history and hope, from diverse and divine perspectives.

Who would I be without the lessons learned from Abraham, Jacob, Ruth, and Mary? How would I have discovered my inner mystic without having read the words of Julian of Norwich and Brother Lawrence?  What transformational truths I would have missed if I had merely placed Parker Palmer and Leighton Ford’s books on the shelf with the mystics of old? What if I had simply let the Bible sit with other religious texts, or only skimmed its pages? Indeed, I would have missed the life-altering experience of hearing God whisper, “Come, follow me.”  Yet still, I have a couple stacks of books, mostly gifted to me, that I likely will never read, simply because they fall into the category of popular Christian self-help, where a glimpse at the title and the table of contents appeases any curiosity I might have had about what lies within the pages.

Reading, itself, is a transformative endeavor.

Choosing what to read or not read, and to what extent, is also a transformative endeavor.

It would seem then, what is missing in Bayard’s book is mention of the importance of the role of discernment, or the ability to judge well.[11]When is it appropriate to jump into a book with both feet, allowing oneself to be immersed in all the book’s goodness, or when do we just look at the book from a distance, call it good, and walk away? Thus, in the process of becoming our truest, most creative, and life-giving selves, “To read, or not to read?” – that is the question that must be asked and answered by each and every reader regarding the countless printed or digital communication sources we encounter each and every day.

 

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič – @specialdaddy on Unsplash

[1]Louise Chipley Slavicek. “Martin Luther and the Printing Revolution,” Calliope9, Issue 9 (May 1999): 24.

[2]Author unknown. “The Printing Press: A Development That Transformed the World,” Calliope21, Issue 8 (May 2011): 6-7.

[3]Mark U. Edwards. Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther(Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1994) 15.

[4]Louise W. Holborn. “Printing and the Growth of a Protestant Movement in Germany from 1517 to 1524,” Church History11, Number 2 (June 1942): 125.

[5]Andrew Pettegree. “Books and Printing,” in Reformation and Early Modern Europe: A Guide to Research Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, Vol 79(Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2008) 437, 445.

[6]Trevor Zweck. “Luther and the Mass Media” Lutheran Theological Journal 17, Number 3 (December 1983): 94.

[7]Pierre Bayard. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read(New York: NY: Bloomsbury, 2007) xvii-xviii.

[8]Bayard, 182 and Table of Contents.

[9]Bayard, 182-183.

[10]Bayard, 184-185.

[11]I may have missed mention of this while skimming this text. This is a funny more than a confession;)

About the Author

mm

Darcy Hansen

15 responses to “To Read, or Not to Read?”

  1. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Darcy, can I nudge you a little? There’s no need to make your confession in note 11! You have such a mastery of Bayard’s topic with an eloquent critique, but that confession tends to discredit you. Are you familiar with Cunningham’s Law? “The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward_Cunningham#Cunningham's_Law) I know you are shedding yourself of self-given rules, so I hope my nudge is welcomed. Who knows, maybe I could (should!) learn something from your honesty.

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Shawn,
      Thanks for the nudge. Actually, it was meant to be a funny:) as I did read most of the text, except all those long story examples that felt laborious. But Cunningham’s Law, that’s a new one for me! Thanks for the info. And yes, the perfectionist shedding continues, but not so much in this instance. Maybe I need to add an emoji by the footnote?

  2. mm Joe Castillo says:

    Regardless reading continues to be the most important and useful activity that the human being performs throughout his or her life. First, reading, like all other intellectual activities, is an exclusive activity of human beings, the only living beings that have been able to develop an advanced intellectual and rational system.

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Joe,
      Agreed. It’s imperative and an integral component to our growth and development. I think Bayard’s argument comes from a place of extreme privilege. I know many humans that would love nothing more than to learn to read. I get he wanted to free people from the guilt of not reading, but to reduce it to an option for self-actualization seemed like a stretch.

  3. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Reading definitely is something transformative. I don’t think we’re ever completely the same after we read a book (think I mentioned this in one of the earlier blog posts) as new ideas are introduced or old ideas are consolidated. But the question of “To read or not to read” is one that’s also vital. I think this is where Adler’s book comes in handy. If his question is, “How do we read and speak intelligently?” then Bayard’s is “How do we NOT read and speak intelligently?” I find Bayard’s book more applicable for those books we’ve already put in the category of “There’s no way I’m going to read that” while Adler gives us the tools of discernment for which books are worth reading.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Dylan,
      I do appreciate having these tools for learning. Total gift to have new questions to ask of a text and then decide how much, or if even to read the text. Thinking I’ll share these resources with my kids. Might save them loads of stress in life:)

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Darcy,
    I think the power of books like Bayard’s, as well as, Adler’s is that they provide tools that allow us to answer your question “To Read or Not to Read?”
    Bayard gives us permission to choose to read or not to read without guilt. For people who are stuck in the rut of the need to read every word of a text this can be a freeing concept.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Yep. And recovering perfectionists (like myself) always appreciate when they are given permission to not do something, especially if the not doing something can actually still be done really well:)

  5. mm Jer Swigart says:

    I love that idea of discernment that you mention at the end of our piece. Each of my mentors, in one way or another, have invited me to be very discerning about the books that I choose to dive into. To Bayard’s point, there’s only so much time to navigate the moutains of literuture on a given topic.

    All of this makes me wonder: If our pursuit is to be transformed rather than merely informed, how does that end inform our choices of titles, the time we take to navigate their content, and how we interact with them? Is it okay to see a book as merely informational rather than transformational?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Jer,
      Personally, I love interacting with an author via their text. I’m all about the highlighter and underlining and writing in the margins. Some texts are more transformative than others. Some invite me to make complete paradigm shifts in one sentence, others are just thoughtfully written and allow for further consideration. And then there are some, like you said, that are just purely supporting or contrary information for the structural pieces I have established as foundational. I still tend to take a deep dive in most texts, because I do, the books go everywhere with me. How do we select? I pray, explore and examine on a consistent basis. If I’m paying attention through my days, the books pick me, in a weird sort of way. Will I miss things along the way? Absolutely. We all will. Am I ok with that? Absolutely. Just as I am ok with every reading endeavor to not be gut wrenching transformational. I can only take so much at one time. I think God knows that and thus gives me a balance of informational/transformational content:)The transformational components settle deep and never leave. But what I need is a mind like Shawn’s that has mad information organizational skills to keep the rest all together!

  6. mm John McLarty says:

    I was at lunch with a friend today who asked me if I had read a certain book. I had not, so she summarized it for me. Then she said, “Well, that’s what I thought, let me know what you think if you read it.” I replied, “Why do I need to read it? You’ve summarized it beautifully!” Then we talked more about some of the ideas that it generated. Prior to Bayard, I think my response to her would have been different- something along the lines of “oh yeah, that sounds interesting, maybe I’ll get a copy.” And if I actually did, would we actually pick up the conversation days, weeks, or months later? It was fun to give myself permission to admit that I had not read, listen for a bit, then participate in an exchange of ideas that was probably just as informed. I dare say I think I may understand more about what we were talking about because we had a conversation, than I would have had I just sat and read words on a page. Did I do a disservice to the author/book she brought up? Or did I do precisely what thoughtful people are supposed to do?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      John,
      It sounds like having permission to admit you hadn’t read the book and then engage in conversation was very freeing for you. Your engagement with your friend sounded thoughtful and purposeful. I’m sure she felt valued for what she contributed to the conversation, as did you in your questions and responses. Is that a disservice to the author, I don’t think so, and I think Bayard would agree.

      I wonder though if the text was Biblical, and that was how you gathered all your content? Would that be different? Would that then be a disservice to not only the author but also your community? The conversation would have been stimulating and quite thoughtful, but would it have been transformative in a way that then made you a more thoughtful person regarding a specific subject? I think for me, Bayard, while giving permission to not read books and to be free from the shame that might come to some because they didn’t read the book, it seems there is still a level of thoughtful intellectualism and consideration that a person must also own. By that, I mean, we can’t always be the person walking around saying, “No, I haven’t read that book. Please share with me what you learned.”

      I’m reading a book right now that is fascinating. It is 398 pages. It has 5 books listed in the bibliography. There is much content in the book, most from the author’s life experiences and observations. But there is no documentation or substantial “evidence” to back up his claims. I find the info thoughtful and in fact, I’d agree most is true. But without him standing on the shoulders, so to speak, of those who’ve come before him, I will have to do work to validate his claims by researching other books/articles.

      So depending on what we intend on using the information for matters. If we’re there to be a good friend and be transformed from a vibrant conversation, then that’s one thing. If on the other hand we are indeed to be transformed by the content in a way that is substantial and sustainable, then further effort needs to be invested to better understand the topic. And maybe that’s actually the transformative piece? A spark that ignites a desire to learn more about X, Y, or Z?

  7. Nancy Blackman says:

    Darcy,
    As a graphic design student many years ago I interned in a print shop and then later worked in a silk screen shop. Both industries involve moving a concept from idea to print. Learning how to run a press was fascinating although I wasn’t allowed to do it very much as I was one of the graphic designers on staff.

    What continued to impress me about the print industry is the amount of set up that is involved. Just as God created each of us so intimately, so is a book set up so intimately. The writer’s thoughts go from typed paper to a designer who makes sure that it is paginated properly and making the book aesthetically pleasing to then (back in the day) having pre-press of each page. Finally, it goes to the press. Even when it gets to press, the person running the print press is intimately aware of how that press operates because when the paper jams and the ink smudges they have to stop and clean things.

    That, in itself, is such a transformation. And then, as you said, reading is such a transformative endeavor.

    Why do you think that reading is becoming less and less interesting to the generations after us? What do you think would help the younger generation become more interested in reading?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Nanc,
      I wonder if our tap and swipe culture contributes to the decline in reading? I know for me I get very restless when I have to sit and read. If I’m there for 20-30 min, I get antsy and need to check my phone. I’ve learned when doing homework or focused thinking, I have to keep my phone plugged in away from me to avoid the temptation. My son struggles similarly.

      I’m not sure how to get them interested. I can only speak from our perspective. We have had to help my son find books that are interesting. Right now he’s in the Dune series. But I can’t get him to read the NY Times or even add a news app on his phone. He has little idea what’s happening in the world, and he said his friends never talk about current events. He reads as he scrolls through IG, but that’s about it on a consistent basis. So maybe, take the phones away? Learn better technology habits? Thoughts?

  8. mm Steve Wingate says:

    I wonder if the Luther-driven printing industry could ever have imagined a day when books would be so prolific that they could be found in people’s basements, garages, and garbage bins? Do you think that we respect books less?

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