Blog Archives

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.

Flotsam and jetsam (evening edition)


As I mentioned a few days ago, I had to put flotsam and jetsam on hiatus for a while so I could focus on some other projects. But, after several appreciative comments and emails, I’ve decided to try a few evening editions. I still won’t be putting these out on a daily basis, but hopefully this is better than pausing the posts altogether.

Ordinarily when we speak of “the Bible as literature” we mean the literary nature of the Bible itself.  My venture in this essay provides another angle on the concept of “the Bible as literature.”  I have explored what the biblical teaching on justification looks like when it is transmuted into works of imaginative literature–the Bible as literature, that is, as imaginative literature composed by extrabiblical authors.

  • Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article on Baylor University’s decision to open up more of its board to non-Baptists. (See also Al Mohler’s comments on the secularization of religious schools).

While a number of Baptist colleges and universities in recent years have loosened or ended ties to state Baptist conventions, the move by Baylor is notable because it is widely considered the flagship university of Southern Baptists. The move came despite opposition from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which last year voted down a similar proposal by Houston Baptist University to permit the election of a minority of non-Baptist trustees there, with church leaders arguing at the time that allowing non-Baptist trustees would dilute the university’s religious identity.

Thousands of defiant protesters in Iran‘s capital have clashed with security officials as they marched in a banned rally. One person was reported killed, with dozens injured and many more arrested.

Push-up bras, pedicures, hip-hop dance classes: These are now the social currency of the under-10 set. What happened? And how can we help our girls stay girls for longer?

The 5 Best Sentences in the English Language

It’s amazing what you can do with a well-crafted sentence. And, in his new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, literary critic Stanley Fish offers his list of the five most beautiful or arresting sentences in the English language.

Obviously there will be considerable debate as to whether these are in fact that 5 best sentences ever written in English – that’s quite the impressive claim! Nonetheless, I found his selections intriguing.

If you’d like to see a little explanation for why Fish selected each of these sentence, check out this Slate.com article.

Otherwise, here are the 5 sentences:

  • “Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began crying after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! Life! eternal life.” John Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678)
  • “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how  much it altered her appearance for the worse.”  Jonathan Swift (A Tale of a Tub, 1704)
  • “To such a tremulous wisp constantly re-forming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our lives fines itself down.” Walter Pater (The Renaissance, 1873)
  • “And I shall go on talking in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.” Ford Madox Ford (The Good Soldier, 1915)
  • “When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had commas and semi-colons to do with it what had commas to do with it what had periods to do with it what had small letters and capitals to do with writing going on which was at the time the most profound need I had in connection with writing.” Gertrude Stein (Lectures in America, 1935)

The 100 Best First Lines from Novels

American Book Review recently published its list of the 100 Best First Lines from Novels (HT). I actually considered making my own list of best opening lines a while back, but never got around to it. Here’s their top 10.

1. Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

3. A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)

7. riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)

8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

9. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

10. I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Apparently good opening lines are in short supply recently, at least according to this list. I could only find two entries on the list since 2000:

50. I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

62. Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

I know at least a few of you out there are big fiction fans. What are some of your favorite opening lines? I’d be particularly interested to hear if you have any favorites from the last decade or so.

Bloody bedtime stories

I was going to try and post something thoughtful and intelligent this evening, but then I ran across this article in Ten of the Bloodiest Bedtime Stories. That’s just not fair. How am I supposed to resist a title like that? Sure I still need to finish preparing my lectures for my Philosophy & Theology class tomorrow (don’t tell my students), but this is critical research that absolutely cannot wait. If I really thought about it, I know I could come up with a way of integrating this material into our philosophical ruminations. So, I’ll get to kill two birds with one stone. (See, the bloody imagery is everywhere.)

Obviously, I succumbed to the temptation and read the article. It was fun. Stupid Little Red Riding Hood stays inside the wolf’s belly where she belongs, two of those three whiny pigs get eaten, Belle’s father actually sells her to the Beast in exchange for his own freedom, the Little Mermaid dies and her beautiful prince marries someone else, and Pinocchio smashes Jiminy Cricket with a hammer. That’s outstanding. Why doesn’t Disney make these stories? They’d be so much better.

One question that comes to mind after reading these other endings: Do we coddle our kids too much or were the kids of an earlier era a complete emotional/psychological mess?

Hugo Awards 2010

The Hugo Awards (science fiction) for this year are out, and here are the winners in the best novel category:

I’ve been meaning to read Boneshaker for a while now and just haven’t gotten around to it (so  many books to read). If anyone has any thoughts/recommendations about the other books on this list, I’d love to hear them. I need some fun reading to balance out the philosophical theology I’m reading for my Th.M. seminar this semester.

By the way, I’m currently reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Would someone explain to me why his books are so popular? I read Anathem last year and found it to be tedious, didactic, and way too long. So far, Cryptonomicon falls in the same category. If someone wants to straighten me out on this, please feel free.

The top banned books of the decade

The American Library Associated has published a list of the top 100 banned/challenged books from 2000-2009. Here’s the top 10:

  1. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
  2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
  4. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
  5. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
  7. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
  8. His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
  9. TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Myracle, Lauren
  10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Apparently, I need to read controversial books a bit more, since the only ones I’ve read in the top 10 are the Harry Potter books, Of Mice and Men, and the His Dark Materials series.

Some interesting inclusions from the rest of the list:

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn comes in at #14. Still? After all these years, there’s still controversy. That by itself is a pretty impressive accomplishment. Go Twain.
  • My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier hit #27. What’s the deal with this one? This was one of my favorite books as a kid. I don’t know how many times I read it, and I don’t remember anything particularly controversial. Maybe I just wasn’t sheltered enough as a child.
  • I have the same question with the Bridge To Terabithia at 28. Is this really controversy worthy?
  • #35 on the other hand is one that I haven’t read, but the title alone probably explains the controversy: Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison.
  • The fact that The Kite Runner comes in at #50 is just a shame. Sure there’s a pretty tough scene in the book, but can’t we get past that and appreciate the power of the story?
  • The Junie B. Jones books (#71)? Really? Did we run out of things to complain about?
  • And, of course, there’s the normal list of great literature that touched on difficult themes and therefore should be kept from our children: The Color Purple (17), Catcher in the Rye (19), To Kill a Mockingbird (21), Brave New World (36), Fahrenheit 451 (69), and The Handmaid’s Tale (88).

I could keep going. There’s some great literature on this list. (It also looks like there’s some real garbage, but I can’t comment on books I haven’t read). Since I obviously haven’t read everything on the list, I’d be curious to know what books you think are on here that kids really should be reading.

Science fiction Saturday

I’ve come across several lists lately about science fiction, so I thought it would be fun just to bundle them all together. Here you go:

On learning to appreciate J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye

Image by Alberto Ollo via Flickr

John Mark Reynolds has a very interesting reflection today on the summer that he spent learning to appreciate J. D. Salinger. He confesses that he never really learned to enjoy Salinger as a young man (I’ve had a similar experience), but that things were different this time around.

Why? Partly it was because my childhood was too happy for me to enjoy the books. It is an unfortunate truth of my life that I loved my parents, my country, my school, most of my teachers, and enjoyed almost every minute of childhood. Seeing the troubles of the world and shouldering some well-earned shame, brought on by my own grievous fault, has cured me of that inability.

So, basically he’s learned to appreciate Salinger because he’s now seen enough of the world to understand the sorrow and longing that lie at the heart of Salinger’s writing.

There is a longing at the heart of all Salinger. The young men and women at the center of the book want to be good. They wish to save children from danger, the meaning of the “catcher in the rye” image, by snatching them from a decayed culture. But Salinger never, so far as I can see, tells us to what they will be saved.

Thus, Salinger exemplified a writer frustrated with life, desiring hope and meaning but unable to find it.

The whole post is well worth reading.

Flotsam and jetsam (8/14)

Some really good links for your Saturday reading pleasure.