Literacy Crisis: The Way Forward is to Go Back
Guest Post by Douglas Bond
True confession. I am a slow reader. My wife blows through a book at three times my reading rate. While on a flight once, we found ourselves with only one book (pre E-book world, but more of that in a moment). She was drumming her fingers on the armrest when I was still solidly on the first page. She maintains that she remembers almost nothing of what she reads while I seem to retain much more. She retains more than she thinks; I wish I retained more than I do. Some of this is DNA.
My father had dyslexia and was held back in elementary school for the crime of writing in mirror image and reading too slowly. His writing looked fine to him and it worked better that way with his left hand. He read Scripture every morning with us, one word at a time. I was embarrassed when I had a friend over, but look back on it now, thirteen years after his homegoing, in an entirely different light: he was given the gift of being a slow reader and loved every word of it. He read God’s Word with such affection and appreciation—of every single word. When he was writing his doctoral dissertation, my mother (who reads like a hummingbird hovering over a hibiscus) read his source material out loud to him, he stroking his chin, nodding in thought, and jotting a note down here and there, his mind retaining and processing every word.
Some of this is the way God has made us. But not all. I’ve often told my children and students that the more they watch movies and television and play video games the more it will destroy their creative imagination. Unlike a book where my imagination must be awake and doing its job: creating images, awakening my senses, getting me involved in the story; on the screen, it’s all done for me. I become a passive receptor not an active participant, and my imagination grows dull.
Screen time retards our reading ability. But not only our ability, our interest in reading wanes as a direct result of too much screen time. Recent studies are piling up that indicate there are many disadvantages to spending excessive time on screen, including anxiety, depression, and more serious mental health issues that are being correlated to screen addiction. Studies show that, while Americans check their phones on average seventeen times a day, we are reader fewer and fewer books.
I hate my phone. Some of my best days are when my battery dies early in the day and I don’t bother to plug the thing in. I catch grief later for not replying to a critical email or answering texts or private messages from those I love. But the day was bliss and imminently productive. As a writer I’m forced to spend far more time in front of a screen than I would like. I’d prefer a goose quill or, better yet, a hammer and chisel and a chunk of rock. But that’s not the world I live in. So, I sit here in Iceland where I began this article, awaiting my connecting flight to London typing on my laptop, and staring at these words magically popping up on the screen before my bloodshot eyes.
C. S. Lewis never learned to “drive a typewriter,” as he termed it, because he knew it would destroy his sense of rhythm. He wrote by hand with a dip pen and persuaded his devoted brother Warnie to drive the typewriter for him. But the screen removes us another giant step from the tactile world of the typewriter with its ink ribbon, levers and gadgets, and real paper.
HOW TO RETAIN LESS OF WHAT YOU READ
Because I find myself travelling quite a bit, and because I’m a firm believer in travelling light, I do read some books on my phone while flying. But I do so with great frustration. I never quite know where I am in the scope of the argument or story. However unscientific and unsophisticated it sounds, I retain much less when I read on a screen. For a time, I tried memorizing Scripture using my phone, but I discovered a significant barrier to my ability to retain, a barrier that was only broken when I returned to writing down the biblical passage on 3×5 cards. Call me a dinosaur.
I do occasionally read my Bible app on my phone, at the dentists, or while waiting to pick up one of my kids, or while flying. But, there again, it’s with enormous distraction and peril to my ability to retain what I’m reading. One reason is all those pop-up notifications telling me that so-and-so just got a new puppy, or posted a picture of what they’re eating for their anniversary dinner, or of their lost cat. Think where I’d be if I didn’t know these things! My mind is flouncing here and there, assaulted by the chaos of busyness called modern life. I’ve discovered that by putting my phone on airplane mode, I can eliminate the pop-up notifications, but I usually remember this after the fifty-seventh notification has derailed my ability to concentrate.
Visual stimulation distracts me, as does being an extrovert. I like interacting with people, but the older I get, the more the Bond hereditary dyslexia kicks in, and I find myself far more easily distracted. When I’m in a church service where there’s a band and instruments stretching across the stage (yes, they even call it a stage), as I attempt to murmur along with the rest of the folks, I find myself studying the different people singing, swaying, crooning, strumming, and drumming on the stage; the words on the screens (so much for too much screen time again), well, they’re far from the most important part of what we’re supposed to be doing. It may be the sense that something is out of proportion that makes worship leaders keep repeating the words over and over again. Surely vain repetition will help us cut through all the distractions and get at the meaning of the words.
THE WAY BACK
What are ways you and I can help solve the literacy crisis? Unplug your phone. Let it go dead, for long stretches. Sing from real hymnals. Read real books, you know, the kind with paper pages and real letters and words inked on the paper. The tactile activity of reading a real book will slow you down. This is a good thing. As you read real books do so with real pen or real pencil in hand. I jot notes down, yes, with paper and pencil, and sometimes I use 3 x 5 cards or post-it notes, then organize the ideas I’ve jotted on the notes by moving them around on the desk or table. Sometimes I brainstorm using a white board and erasable markers, adding sketches of characters, or diagramming the progression of thought that I just read.
Read challenging books from dead authors (what am I saying!), and read them slowly. We will descend further and further into the illiteracy abyss the less we are intentionally letting ourselves be shaped by the ideas and stories of the past. Reading old books will make us far more able to discern nonsense when we see it flit across the screen. We gain a vantage point from which we can see our own world more clearly, where it is going, why it is going there, and what we can do to halt the decline. Sometimes listening to the best music from composers living in other places and in other times, uncluttered by the distractions and presuppositions of our world, can aid us in understanding and appreciating challenging literature from the past.
But best of all, have a concerted family time where all devices are shut off and put away and everyone sits in the same room and reads their own copy of the Bible silently (we do this aloud too). We’ve started doing this in our home. Afterwards we talk together about where and what we read, and give a brief summary of what we learned. It’s remarkable how quiet it is, how uncluttered, how together we are—without distractions–and how much of God’s Word we can read and take in without being interrupted by cat videos.
It’s not rocket science, nor is it more information technology or more social media platforms. There’s no app that will solve the literacy crisis. The solution to mounting illiteracy in our new social order is simple. Augustine took the advice of children playing a game. “Take and read! Take and read!” And so must we.
Douglas Bond, author of numerous books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology, is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, and leads church history tours in Europe. Watch for his forthcoming book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To). Learn more at bondbooks.net.
You can also see Douglas Bond’s books at: Grace and Truth Books / Douglas Bond