When did you last read a book?

When did you last read a book?

Are you a reader? I don’t mean ‘can you read’; the vast majority of people can read. I mean, do you read books? I find that so many people never read books at all. The Buggles once famously sang that “video killed the radio star”, but the popularity of video has also meant that many people no longer read books at all.

(I know, I know: statistics show that during the pandemic, book sales have increased. That is true. I do think that this is because people have realised that video and casual website browsing are not enough if you face extended times inside. But when allowed back to normal life, most drop the reading and return to the casual skimming they did before.)

Especially among the younger generations, reading books is unpopular. My teenage sons, who are big readers, report that many of their peers are big library users at school in Year 7. By year 9, few of them remain book readers. Social media has taken hold for most by then. If books are read at all, they are casual, simplistic affairs. At their school, the most commonly reserved items in the library are graphic novels.

I know what it is like. When we get five minutes spare, we take out our phone and browse news websites or blogs or check YouTube. Who knows what we might have missed on Facebook or Instagram? We skip and skim and look at things briefly. If something doesn’t immediately grab our attention, we move to something more interesting. We gather masses of information but don’t stop to think hard about any of it.

If this is our usual pattern, it does horrible things to our brain. We lose the ability to concentrate deeply and thoughtfully on something for any length of time. When we need to sit down and work hard at something, we struggle to do it, feeling we should be checking email or social media or the news constantly. We can feel jittery and scattered. We fear we are missing out all the time.

Reading books matters. If you read books, you need to be able to concentrate on a story or idea for an extended time. You need to think. It is a skill that is in short supply but great demand.

Of course, it does matter what you read. I will write another blog post about reading widely later this week. But the basic idea is that reading extended pieces of writing will help you concentrate and think. And few skills matter more.

Video and social media are different to reading books. You are more passive. The information is briefer and there is no extended argument to think about. Much of it, we all know, is pretty worthless. I love funny memes and cat videos and dancing too, but it is hard to make a case that they benefit us or society a great deal. News articles and social media posts are like fast food for our bodies; they satisfy us at the time but we know it’s bad for us. Long-term, they will hurt us more than we realise.

If you want to make a difference in our culture, especially if you want to thoughtfully follow Jesus, you need to think. You need to understand the culture and not just absorb it and be immersed in it. To do that, you need to consider ideas, and most of us never take the time to do this. If you don’t have time to sit and read, consider audiobooks; they give a similar benefit in terms of considering ideas and concentration, and they can be consumed while exercising or driving.

I can measure my mental health by how I can concentrate on a book. If I cannot sit still and focus on a book for any length of time, I am mentally tired and need a break. Even reading a light novel is better than social media browsing.

You need to read books. It is advice we give to our children and it remains good advice for adults. Books are like solid food for the mind. Don’t spend all your spare time in the shallows of the internet; turn off the screen and wade in deeper. Pick up a book. You’ll be glad you did.