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If you have ever muttered to yourself, “Kids these days! They have the attention spans of gnats!”, I am here to report that the kids themselves agree. At least the twelve students in my Senior Seminar course for English majors do. We spent a seventy-minute class period this week lamenting our diminished ability to concentrate. And I include myself among the “kids” in this case.

We came to this concern through our reading of Maryanne Wolf’s 2018 book, Reader, Come Home. (Note: Thanks to Jennifer Holberg for originally adding this book to our Senior Seminar syllabus.) Wolf is a cognitive science and literacy researcher, and Reader, Come Home grapples with the way our intense relationship with digital media is changing our brains and diminishing our capacity for what she calls “deep reading.” She is not a total Luddite: she acknowledges that digital media bring numerous gifts and advantages. And she concludes with a call for cultivating a “biliterate brain,” one that can nimbly navigate the digital world while also retaining the “cognitive patience” needed to read difficult works with attention and empathy.

On our way to that conclusion, however, my students and I felt “seen” as Wolf describes in early chapters our lives of “continuous partial attention.” She cites a couple studies concluding that “the average person consumes multiple gigabytes [of information] across varied devices each day. Basically, that is the equivalent of between 50,000 and 100,000 words a day.” In other words, the size of a novel. But of course, we don’t read these words carefully; we skim. We skim across the surface of this roiling information ocean. Wolf quotes Walter Benjamin from the 1930s, who noted (back then!) the temptation to “pursue a present,” slurping in “information that does not survive the moment in which it is new.” What would poor Benjamin say about Twitter?

As my students pondered this assessment of our cultural slide to fragmented attention, they recalled how once upon a time, they loved reading. After all, that’s how they ended up as English majors in the first place. As kids, they had immersed themselves in novels especially, and entered the minds of other people and the thrill of other worlds. They felt their inner souls quietly shining with the glow of discovery. It was amusing to listen to my students recalling middle school fondly.

What happened? Well, it’s not just phones and TikTok. Middle school, they reflected, was the time before the weight of the world crashed in on them, along with the knotted tangles of adult responsibilities and the relentless demands of the high school achievement mill. Back in middle school, they could still spend a whole afternoon away somewhere in their minds—in Middle Earth or nineteenth-century Sussex, inside the consciousness of some intriguing protagonist.

Even allowing for the shift from pre-teen glories to adult drudgery, we all admitted that Wolf is right about media. Our brains are altered by swimming in digital media, its allures and distractions. And our lives of continuous partial attention make deep concentration more difficult. We can still do it, but it’s harder. I feel this too, and I’m a professor of English, for crying out loud. I’m basically a professional reader. Sheesh.

So what? Does it matter that we are losing the ability to spend long hours lingering our way through Anna Karenina? Wolf argues hard for the benefits of “deep reading,” especially of literary novels. She spends a good number of pages exploring how deep reading fosters empathy, parsing out the building blocks of this virtue: analogy, inference, knowledge, insight. I think all of us who are readers recognize how reading has stretched our own empathy. However, we have to admit that whatever empathy emerges from our reading depends a great deal on the posture of openness with which we enter the reading experience in the first place.

Wolf argues that much is at stake if we lose this ability to read deeply and hospitably: we begin to “outsource our intelligence to the information outlets that offer the fastest, simplest, most digestible distillations of information [that] we no longer want to think about ourselves.” Ouch. That tracks. Yes, there are broad implications for democracy and for our social fabric when we lose our cognitive patience.

So what to do? We left class on Thursday with this question somewhat up in the air. Next week, we’ll finish the book and consider Wolf’s summary prescription. She ends up recommending (based on Aristotle) that we think about—and structure education for—three layers to the “life of a good reader.”

Layer 1 is the ability to slurp up information and knowledge. Digital media proffer opportunity in abundance here. Layer 2 is the entertainment layer—actually, I think Wolf might more accurately call this the immersion layer. Getting immersed in stories or mysteries or biographies is good imaginative exercise—it builds knowledge and even empathy. Digital media are helpful here, too, though Wolf does argue for the uniquely valuable brain-work required to read long works on the printed page.  

Layer 3 is the biggest challenge: the reflective life. Wolf writes, “The third life of the good reader is the culmination of reading and the terminus of the other two lives”: that is, the cultivation of a mental space where “we can contemplate all manner of human existence and ponder a universe whose real mysteries dwarf any of our imagination.”

Sure. Marvelous. But here I have some questions that I plan to raise with my students next week: Should we not, as religiously observant people, be especially adept in that third layer? Obviously, we too are affected by hyper-fragmented attention and the furious pace of a digital-media world. Its temptations to shallow reactions and outsourced thought clearly plague us, too. But we religious folk also have unique resources and practices to draw upon. What if we doubled down on all the resources we have and, knowing what’s at stake, rededicated ourselves to cultivating the loamy soil of that third layer?

Reading, yes. I’m a little nervous about Wolf’s argument that reading is the royal road to the inner life. I think she’s largely right—I’ve lived that experience surely—but I want to be cautious about ignoring other possible roads. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we, as devout people, be especially fond of cultivating deep reading? We are supposed to read the Bible deeply and knowledgeably, not skim its surface and pluck out proof texts like stones to throw in our tribal power plays. Moreover, we in the Reformed tradition have traditionally respected the life of knowledge and study in general. We have championed and supported the life of the mind, the expansion of all kinds of knowledge, and the serious contemplation of the deep things of God. This is a heritage that needs constant reclaiming.

And what about prayer? We are supposed to spend time in prayer daily, and many of us do, trying to cultivate that inner space where we encounter God personally. Can we continue to teach this practice well to our children, model it well? Can we help one another get out of the “checklist of tasks for God” rut in our prayer, and instead encourage one another to make space for quieting the mind and seeking, simply, presence? It’s terribly hard! I’m not good at it, even after all these years. But perhaps contemplative prayer is a counter-cultural practice we need more than ever. I know I do.

And how about Sabbath? What if we regarded our Sunday worship and indeed the whole day as practice in attention, contemplation, pondering? I’m not simply suggesting “social media fasts.” Maybe that would help, sure. But mostly I’m thinking of receiving the gifts we already have: listening, music, communal prayer, conversation, feasting, resting. All these familiar practices—we can think of them as exercising those indispensable muscles of patient thought.

I was reading the story of the Nativity in Luke the other day, and I realized for the first time an odd pause in the narrative. Amid all the commotion—angel choirs singing and shepherds bustling into the manger scene—for one verse, the narrative pauses to say, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” In the next verse, the shepherds bustle off again, noisily rejoicing.

Why pause to note and honor this young woman’s inner life? I’m pondering Mary’s pondering here. I suppose this is one of many places in scripture where the ability to ponder is held up as a godly thing. Something to emulate.

It makes sense that in the European Middle Ages, Mary was regarded, perhaps unhistorically, as the model reader, often depicted reading a book with toddler Jesus squirming on her lap. It’s an emblematic way to honor the spiritual importance of meditative thought, that inner space where, even amid this mortal coil, the Word comes to us and we are, if all goes well, profoundly changed.

Madonna of the Book, Sandro Botticelli

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

28 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I love your point about the Blessed Virgin Mary. And you mention music after Sabbath, and I think for your larger point, for Christians, music has a special place (“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”). Which is why it was such a disappointment to us when we sent our kids to Christian high schools in both Jersey and GR, the worship music had gone so shallow, so undeep, so cheap, apparently in an effort to win the kids for Christ. Deep singing is a kind of deep reading. Not at all to distract from your main message, which is critical, and thank you.

  • David Hoekema says:

    If Francis Bacon were here I know what he would say. Some Twelve postings are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. Thank you, Debra, for this one, definitely in the last category. (But rather than reading on a screen I should be finishing Tolstoy’s War and Peace for my book club — I’m not making that up.)

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thank you for this, Debra. As I think about my new grandchildren, I wonder if they’ll catch the love of reading print books and the love of staring out and wondering. The church plays a part in this, called to model best practices. And what Daniel said . . . To hear and sing the great music of the church and wonder.

  • Ria says:

    Coming from someone who is a former librarian and who lives in the controversial Jamestown library district, I absolutely agree with what has been said. This is why libraries are important. They produce readers who develop a depth of thought that cannot be found by consuming only one news outlet. I have been saying this for years – reading not only imparts knowledge but creates empathy for others.

  • Henry Ottens says:

    I shall forward this to the members of my (and David H.’s) book club. A well-timed encouragement to keep at it.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    This all rings so true, especially your confession of getting into the habit of skimming for information instead of deep reads. Having also noticed having to push myself to read the deeper articles, which would not have happened 20 years ago, the ramifications for youth today is a bit frightening. This summer one of my grands was required to read Les Miserables and submit a report. Having gotten partially through it, this one found what was needed on the internet, with a confession most friends do exactly the same thing all of the time. However, like Henk and David, my book club of some 40 years still reads deep and challenging books each month. Reading, especially as Christians, allows us to ponder the human condition in its glory and grit. You’re right – there are profound implications if we loose ‘cognitive patience’.

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Thank you, Professor. And cheers for the ongoing cultivation of mindfulness that the Reformed tradition can help to encourage. And, yes to how the genre of poeming can support the practice of contemplation. Also, wanting to mention with appreciation Richard Rohr’s wisdom way back in 1987 in founding the Center for Action & Contemplation, mining the alternative orthodoxy in his own Roman Catholic tradition. What times we are in – for re-thinking the verities. Thank you for doing your part!

  • A reader says:

    I am a reader as well but I have family members who simply don’t enjoy reading- at least not novels, fiction, literature. It’s certainly not a lack of intelligence but they simply don’t enjoy that kind of reading.
    How does this play out for them? Or not make them feel “less than.”?

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Exactly. That’s why I am hesitant to insist on reading as the royal road to an inner life. I do believe there are other paths (it’s not like people before widespread literacy did not have deep thoughts!). I can imagine music making/listening, meditative and repetitive tasks, time in nature, and good conversation as other ways to practice cognitive patience.

      • Ann Kapteyn says:

        I think you are right to be a little bit nervous about placing reading as THE road a rich inner life. As you say, there are other paths to wisdom and a reflective life. In many cultures around the world, people may know how to read but they also may have no access to literature and/or no tradition of reading for pleasure, but they do not therefore have dimished inner lives. I like your list in this comment of other ways in which people develop their inner lives – music, meditative tasks, time in nature, conversation. I would add story-telling in community and also just silence. In some cultures, there is a LOT of sitting and waiting involved in life, and people seem to just accept that. It gives one lots of time and space to contemplate life and reflect on things. Maybe that adds to cognitive patience as well.

      • James C Dekker says:

        Amen, from one whose most, but not all grandkids read widely and fairly deeply. They still sign up for zoom rdg once or twice a week. Hobbit, Tollken’s trilogy, Wundersmith’s 3 and 2 of Lewis’s Space Trilogy have survived my faulty interpretations. And these are 14 and 15 year olds. YAY and thank God. The others prefer rdg with the old boy next to them or on his lap. Btw, I started rdg Anna Karenina Monday evening and am captivated. Thanks.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Debra, you led me to ponder. Pondering is something every preacher should be doing on Saturdays!

    That sentence, “…not skim its surface and pluck out proof texts like stones to throw in our tribal power plays.” It is far and away the best sentence I read all week.

  • Arlyn J Bossenbrook says:

    The concept of layered reading is good. It gives some structure to the process and says it is OK to skim my Iphone, but keep it to skimming.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    I’m deeply involved in a Lilly funded initiative on Compelling Preaching. I immediately wonder, What are the implications of diminished cognitive patience for sermon listeners? What implications do these changes in the way we read have for preachers and preaching? I’ve filed this away — great resource. Thanks!

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Oh great question! I do marvel every Sunday at the fact that (in my church) we sit and listen quietly to a single speaker for a good 20 minutes and no one is on their phone. (Except my husband Ron and he’s consulting the Greek text, not even kidding.) This is a countercultural practice! Not that quietly is the only proper way to listen. Call and response is equally about sustained attention. All that to say, the traditional sermon seems to me a practice that builds the capacity for attention. Do we ever think about training a congregation to listen well to a sermon? Hmmm. I wonder.

      • Henny Flinterman Vroege says:

        I remember, as a kid, how my aunts and uncles and friends would get together at each other’s homes after the morning service and, over coffee and cake, would discuss the sermon we’d just listened to. (Good pondering, and also good examples for us kids.) That generation knew their Bible, the confessions, the writings of religious scholars.

      • Daniel Meeter says:

        I once served a congregation of Dutch farmers on Ontario who could listen to a 40 minute sermon, and wanted to.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Duane: You will surely see at some point the proposal I sent to Lilly and when you do, note how many pastors to whom I listened this summer who lament that one of the biggest negatives of people who now consume worship via Livestream or YouTube is that they consume sermons the same way as all other videos on a screen; viz., passively, without any expectation of change coming via the watching, and with a willingness to fast forward through the slow parts . . .

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Deb, it is very clear that Luke did tremendous research and interviewed countless people to write up his Gospel. He surely interviewed Mary (hence the welter of material unique to Luke in Luke 1-2) and if so, how remarkable that Mary herself made a point to mention her silent pondering in her heart. It meant something to her. Years later, she remembered.

  • Jerry Kramer says:

    Really a thought provoking piece. I have my I-Phone, I-Pad, I-Watch, and computer and do my daily shuffle of what I need done, but still prefer reading a good book I can smell and hold in my lap. It wasn’t always that way. An executive presbyter once asked me what I was reading. I prided myself responding, books on theology, psychology, and church growth. “And what do you read for leisure?” she said. “I don’t have time for novels and reading for fun,” I said. Then, she changed my life. She encouraged me to read books by Susan Howatch and her Starbridge Series. Reading fosters my empathy and understanding of human natures and the cries of all creation. Oh, such reading helped my preaching, too. My sermons were more relational, earthy, compassionate and shorter-the kind that digital and reflective people enjoy. Maybe, I’m only kidding myself!

  • Ron Polinder says:

    May I be this honest and practical?

    1. As I age, I get sleepy when reading? Do others have that problem? I have found that listening to the audible version while reading along has helped me. Thus reading “Jesus Through Middle East Eyes” for my men’s group is being accomplished.

    2. When delivering a speech to the Lynden Christian faculty last week, I fretted that it was 28 minutes long. But reminded them upfront of what Charles Spurgeon said, “Sermonettes are for Christianettes.”

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Focused/deep reading was hard in the 70’s and 80’s as well, at Calvin for undergrad and then later in Chicago in grad school, where I “squandered” two opportunities to read _Middlemarch_ (don’t judge me, fellow English majors). The first time I had an incredible reading semester already, plus relationships or two to deal with; the second, I was teaching h.s. by day, doing grad school and young family by night/weekends.
    Maybe when I retire I’ll pick it up—is it really that good? 🙂

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Oh that’s a great question for Jennifer Holberg! Middlemarch is a big book. I read it in grad school back when I had what now seems like infinite capacity for huge books. I think today it would be more of a challenge!

  • Dave Vroege says:

    I found this article difficult: I tried skimming it, but it was soooo long! And then many of the words had over 2 syllables – sometimes up to 4 syllables: almost double! Plus there were nuances – those wasted my time. I don’t know how I can learn about deep reading if an article like this is going to be longer than 140 characters. Words schmords!

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