The Dying Art of Reading

Approximately 120,000 books are published in America every year. Sadly, few of us ever read them. At least, that’s what some recent stats suggest.

According to a survey from the Jenkins Group, Americans have some dismal reading habits (HT Mental Floss).

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
  • 57 percent of new books are not read to completion.

As a self-confessed bibliophile, that’s just depressing. I’m not sure which is worse, that even college graduates have such terrible reading habits, or that so many families didn’t even bother to buy a single book last year. (I have to confess that I rarely buy books from concrete-and-mortar bookstores either, though I still go on occasion to enjoy the ambiance. Yes, I’m a hypocrite that way.)

But, more importantly, I worry about this lack of attention to the written word for the church today. Granted, the church has often demonstrated the ability to flourish in non-literate cultures. So, reading itself isn’t the only medium of formation. But, in all the examples that come to mind, those cultures retained a strong emphasis on oral education. And,we’re not doing that.  At the same time that we are neglecting the written word, we’re also at the tail-end of a decades long shift toward shorter sermons and fewer weekly services dedicated to serious lay development. Put those two together, and you have a recipe for spiritual anemia.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on April 25, 2011, in Culture, Ministry, Preaching, Spiritual Formation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. What a depressing but poignant post. I’m not sure what to make of it, other than it seems to match up closely with my experience in the public school setting and church life.

    • My wife is a public school teacher as well. And, although she thought the 80% number was a bit high, she agreed that the rest fit her experience also.

  2. Thanks for this post. I’m a bibliophile too. I love reading and books. Your thoughts match up with my personal experiences in society and the church too. Spiritual “anemia” is rampant. It is an odd contradiction – We have more books and material available to help us understand the Bible and Christian faith than in any previous time in Christian history , yet ignorance seems at an all time high. Any thoughts on how to encourage people to read? Since a love of learning and reading has always been “natural” for me, I sometimes am at a loss at how to encourage people in this way.

    I found your blog when you were freshly pressed. Glad I did.

    • That’s a great question. As a parent, I’ve done more reflecting on how to help my girls develop a love for reading (they’re both avid readers now), than on how to cultivate a love for reading in the church. To some degree I think we’ve dropped the ball in fostering a love for learning in general in our churches – at least in American evangelical circles. Like parents, those in leadership need to model and foster a commitment to learning in general, which in our culture should include a love for reading among other things. And, we need to help people see that the intellectual life is not something that stands separate from your “spiritual” life, as though those were opposed to one another.

      That’s all that comes to mind at the moment. I’m sure it’s far more complicated than that. Glad you stumbled on the blog, by the way. Enjoy!

  3. I also love books too and it is a sad fact about how reading habits among Americans have dwindled so much. If you look at East Asia and Scandinavian countries, they are avid readers who read anything from novels to comic books. If you think Americans’ reading habits are that dismal, how about try hearing the fact that Malaysians’ reading habits are dismal where most of them read an average of 2 or 3 pages from a book per year (an avid reader from Malaysia is very hard to find nowadays)

    • If I’m not mistaken, Malaysia is a pretty wired country with well-developed internet access. I wonder what impact the internet, mobile technologies, and other modern media are having on statistics like these. It’s entirely possible, of course, that people aren’t reading less, they’re just reading differently (e.g. blogs instead of books). If so, then it could be more a question of how such changed reading habits affect people.

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