Recently I was listening to The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps to Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch, a book I love and wholeheartedly recommend. But I noticed him falling into the same fallacy I see in a lot of places: deifying the act of reading.
In Tech-Wise, Crouch describes a home outfitted to foster engagement, listing things that are missing or deemphasized (like a TV) and things that are present to encourage creativity: musical instruments, a practical kitchen, art supplies especially for children, and books. These things, Crouch argues, help lead us to the development of character and wisdom, the goals of family life.
Look, I like the picture he’s painting. It’s not too unlike my own home! I’m a person who’s made my life around books — from my book review website at nine to my master’s in library science. But I think there’s a tendency among my sort of people, ones who are bookish to begin with, to elevate books beyond their proper sphere.
See, in his description of an ideal family home, he outlines a bunch of things to be used actively. A piano, say. An art table for the kids. He draws a distinction between “rest” (the things that cultivate connectedness and true refreshment) and “leisure” (I think the word “entertainment” might work here, but basically any kind of pleasure that outsources all the work to another, like watching a sports game, scrolling Instagram, or visiting a restaurant). Crouch puts books in the “rest” category, but I think they can often belong more under “leisure,” especially if we aren’t deliberate in how we use them.
Books can be a place where we deepen our faith, explore our interests, widen our empathy. But they also can be passive, consumable, escapist. They can be fluffier than the best documentaries and more corrupting than the most beautiful films. They can be a way to assume a certain identity, a way to pretend and posture and hide our own ignorance.
Unlike the guitar leaning against the couch or the watercolor brushes on your windowsill, which are restful and recreational and creative to the extent they are used, books may or may not actually strengthen the heart and soul and mind. There are some schools of thought that insist that any reading is inherently virtuous, but unless your only goal is to ace the vocab exam, unless you categorize any exercise of the imagination as an intellectual workout (even if you’re reading about undead pets), then what you read and why you read matters more than the simple act of reading.
Like the Internet, books are a neutral tool, and they require additional effort to be made restful rather than leisurely, to adopt Crouch’s language. It’s not hard, but it’s not an automatic next step. Maybe you keep a commonplace book, or discuss your reading at book club or around the dining room table. Maybe you read aloud as a family at night.
But just whipping through a frothy novel on your own? That’s definitely not a crime, but it’s far from guaranteed enrichment.