On “The Exquisite Pain” and Goodness of Reading

Shelter-in-place has had many consequences, some good, some bad. For many, it is more time with family. For others, a time to relax or reset spiritually, emotionally, or physically. On the other hand, education is in a time of struggle, particularly for younger students and even more so those with special needs. More people are watching pornography, or the same people are but at higher rates (see my previous blog post). Suicide hotlines have received a spiked amount of calls. 

Most people have found themselves with more time than ever. How people use this time varies. Some, or lots, turn to television: “Netflix added 15.8 million new subscribers worldwide during the first three months of 2020, more than doubling its forecast for the quarter as global lockdowns designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus dramatically increased demand for the streaming giant.” 

I have a personal confession to make: it is rather difficult for me to sit down willingly and watch a TV show or movie. If my dad or girlfriend wants to watch a movie, I can be talked into that. But outside of that, I am quite limited in my television intake. I will watch a cable news network opinion show occasionally if my dad and I have one of the channels on in the background. And right now, I am watching the new (and fantastic!) The Chosen series, free on YouTube. Its depiction of Christ’s heart is incredible. I am also enjoying The West Wing and think it is an amazing show, but just to give you some insight: I started it last summer, and I am on season two. I started The Chosen three weeks ago, and I have finished three episodes. I often feel quite lonely in this, particularly because rather than feeling able to spend hours per week watching the newest Netflix series just to pass the time, it feels easier and more comforting to sit down with a good book. I feel as though I could spend forever abiding by shelter-in-place policies, perfectly content with my Bible and a large stack of books to read (constantly replenished with a never-ending stream of books ordered on Amazon as they come in the mail). 

Because of this feeling, a piece in The Atlantic recently caught my eye: “The Exquisite Pain of Reading in Quarantine.” Or, more accurately, its subtitle did: “Books, precisely because they are so demanding of our attention, might be the best antidote for the psychological toll of a socially distanced life.” 

The article’s author, Connor Goodwin, writes, “Several weeks into quarantine, some might crave an experience that requires more active participation, something that can consume us just as we can consume it. As watching a sitcom starts feeling too passive, we might turn more and more to reading, precisely because it is so demanding of our attention.” While for me “several weeks into quarantine” was “day one of quarantine,” I think that this analysis highlights the role of books and our interaction with them. Reading is more than absorbing information (but certainly no less than). In the Scriptures one encounters the true and living God. Time in the Bible is not primarily about memorizing verses, it is about knowing God through His revelation to humankind and understanding how our union with Christ leads to communion with God (for thinking through “union” and “communion,” look to Kyle Worley). But other books are also not solely about absorbing information. Part of reading is entering into a conversation about a topic, and reading is the “listening.” As Russell Moore has said, we are shaped and formed as we find ourselves arguing with the page about certain points. And just as you might not remember what you ate for dinner four days ago, the meal still nourished and fed you. Books do the same, for the soul. I have been asked by a couple of people, “but do you actually feel like you remember most of what you read or does it actually make a difference?” The answer is a resounding yes. Not only can I say what was said a few sentences ago, but I can honestly say that I will find myself thinking back to over 75% of the books that I read as different sorts of moments and interactions pop up in life (and 100% of the good ones). Reading calls the mind to action and leaves a lasting imprint of ideas and understanding, even if we don’t agree with everything a particular author might have to say (a great example of this last point for many of us might be the great writing of C.S. Lewis). Goodwin claims that there is just as much in “the therapeutic value of books” as exists in the moral of the story or in the distraction reading provides. The “therapeutic value” could be interpreted in several ways. But one thing is clear: there is more to reading than the words or the stories. 

Goodwin closes by talking about picking up a book recently and feeling “restless, anxious, on edge.” I think this common feeling for many of us is linked to what usually captures our attention. Tony Reinke of Desiring God captures this beautifully:

Christians are “people of the book.” People of a given Word. A supernatural revelation. It is important that we treasure words. Specifically, words in a book. Along with His Son, the Scriptures serve as one of the two primary methods through which the Father reveals Himself in specific ways and words to us (“special revelation”). The biblical canon is full of God’s revelation, showing how the Lord lovingly works in a big, unfolding story of reconciliation. We all love stories because we are embedded in this one. One grand story, full of promises and redemption and hope. And often our anxiety or stress roots in our lack of control over the grand narrative. We have a tendency to believe the false stories of our culture. But even amidst a public health crisis, we can rest in the Lord of the Sabbath, the one who sustains all things (Heb. 1; Col. 1). 

Perhaps the Spirit is using a time of quarantine to provide a time for our souls to slow down and for us to lengthen our attention span. We are created to behold — specifically, to behold God. Reading a book (a good one) helps us (or trains us to) gaze at beauty for a longer period of time. Because of this, knowing we will gaze at ultimate Beauty in fullness one day, we can participate in God’s creative nature and go pick up a book. 

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