My family has an annual fantasy football league. I’m consistently last. And I don’t mean a competitive last. I mean that by three quarters through the season, I all but resign because the hope of any respectable finish is about as dim as the Luray Caverns. I’ve tried to figure out why this might be. One thing I’ve come to is that I have the longest sustained interest in the NFL out of my family—my wife, my four sons, and me. That may seem like a strength, but it isn’t. I grew up watching NFL teams. My sons have grown up watching NFL players. And fantasy football caters to this generational shift. Fantasy football allows each participant the opportunity to draft a “team” out of individual players from any franchise. Your fantasy football team then represents a new personal, individualized team that isn’t reflected in any of the NFL standings. It isn’t, “How are the Redskins doing?”,1 it is, “How is Joe’s ‘Bottom Dwellers’ fantasy football team doing?” NFL teams have been atomized for fantasy football purposes and all of the commercial benefits it provides.2
What is atomization? It means to treat a whole as if it were only its discreet units. It isn’t the Ravens. It is the high-performing members of the Ravens and whatever individual accolades they can rack up from Thursday to Monday night. It isn’t wrong to atomize. It is wrong to only atomize. My car mechanic will atomize my engine to diagnose and fix a problem. But he doesn’t ever forget that, in the end, I won’t drive a spark plug out of his shop; I’ll drive a car. Atomization also extends to reading and how we’ve effectively killed the book.
Training Pastors Who Read Books
At Grimké, we train pastors. Christians aren’t just a people of the Book, but they are people of books. Reading is a requisite practice for effective pastoral ministry. Books have been undermined by this societal atomization of everything. For example, Kindle highlights can produce short quotes that can be shared without their context, wielded in any direction the poster pleases.3 Few readers will go back to check to see if the quote is actually quoted in context. This means that students, and future pastors, are reading books, even long ones, without looking for the overall meaning. Many are blissfully unaware that a book should even have an overall meaning. They may be pleased by a few punchy sentences, but they aren’t aware of or haven’t developed the skills to follow the book’s overall argument.
“The book doesn’t have to stay dead. We can revive it. But it will take work.”—Joe Holland
When I teach my writing seminars at Grimké Seminary, I impress on students the necessity of having a thesis that is your work’s argument, an argument you seek to prove. Then each paragraph must have a topic sentence. Each topic sentence must contribute in some way to the overall thesis. If I encouraged them to write a book (and not a research paper), we’d discuss how chapters are constructed of thematic paragraphs, building a tiered argument supporting the book’s thesis. But I also show these students how knowing this helps them read a book. A good author will present his thesis early, usually in his introduction. He is going to use topic sentences and key points for each chapter. If you pay attention, you can “skim” the book, looking for these literary road signs and following the author’s overall argument. For example, if you read only the author’s thesis and each paragraph’s topic sentence, you would have a decent overall idea of the author’s argument and supporting reasoning.
For so many students, the light bulb goes off at this point. They realize they’ve fallen prey to the atomization of culture. It is almost as if they discover that books have a hidden, higher meaning that is plain as day but missed by so many readers. They realize that they’ve read books like they read Twitter, scrolling their way through for an interesting few sentences here and there. If you find yourself experiencing that same reading negligence, here are some things you can do to relearn the art of reading books.
Learning to Read Again
- Follow the author’s argument. Usually, somewhere in the introduction or first chapter, the author will clearly state the thesis of the entire book. Don’t move on from the front of the book until you’ve found it. Maybe write it on the inside of the book’s front cover for quick recall. Everything the author says will somehow relate to that one main point.
- Read (listen) to audiobooks. This may seem counterintuitive since we’re discussing reading and not listening. But audiobooks are great because they present a book in the form of a lecture. You can’t skim sentences in an audiobook. You have to listen to the whole. Learning to track a work’s overall theme can be easier by listening to books this way. Increase the reading speed if you have to.
- Reduce your consumption of atomized information. If all you ever do is scroll social media, stream songs, and pick up players off of waiver, you are participating in completely atomized media. Instead, engage with art and media as a thematic whole. Listen to an album (they still exists). Follow a sports team. Read long-form writing.
- Learn to construct your own arguments by developing your writing skills. We teach our students to do this when we teach them to write at Grimké Seminary. Most bad writers aren’t bad at writing; they are bad at thinking. Learn to outline your thought and reasoning around a central theme or argument. Craft and edit it until your argument makes cogent sense. Then write about it.
If this interests you, I’ll suggest the book I recommend to our students all the time: How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. Every serious reader should read it.
The book doesn’t have to stay dead. We can revive it. But it will take work.
- Yes, calling the team by this name dates me. ↩
- I don’t have the space to expand on this concept represented in other forms of media and entertainment. If I did, I could point to how streaming music atomizes the album out of existence or how social media and ad-based online publishing has led to a generation of skimmers rather than readers. ↩
- I am an avid Kindle reader, and have to fight this temptation . . . all . . . the . . . time. ↩