The Spirituality of Reading

Gary Shteyngart recently gave a talk in which he likened reading to religious or spiritual experience. An agnostic himself, he sees the writing (and reading) of books as close to spiritual experience as anything. Responses here and here.

But technology also is something of a religion:

technology possesses a similar strain of divinity as literature: it enables us to overcome our physical existence and to connect. It offers the possibility of transcendence.

In response, Julia Jackson pondered the different experiences of reading physical books and an ipad:

When I read a real book, on the other hand, I leave my cell phone and laptop in the other room and sit on the couch, and suddenly it’s just me and the book and the characters in it. I am truly alone yet truly connected. When I read a real book, I am forcing myself to follow one stream of thought—that which the author committed to paper. In today’s world, this simple act is meditative, even transcendent. I am able to do something that feels very futuristic—cross space and time and peer right into the author’s mind—with a technology that has been around for thousands of years.

In the New York Times, John Schwartz muses on the difference between reading “real” books and “reading” audiobooks, or one supposes, an ipad or kindle:

The truth, it seems, is that the way we read, and our reasons for loving or disliking audiobooks, are deeply personal. They are expressions of self, so tied to who we are. If you belittle the way I read, you’re belittling me.

A couple of things interest me here. First of all, what does this mean for religions of the book like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam? If one’s religious life is no longer centered on the physical reading of a text (and I rarely pick up a Bible to read it–I do almost all of mine on line), what is the impact on one’s faith and experience? Second, scholars have argued that it wasn’t only the relationship of individuals with the text that mattered, but rather that, in Christianity communities were shaped by texts, that Christian communities were reading communities (even when the reading was done aloud).

In the midst of this technological revolution, with all of its implications for religious faith and religious community, we may also need to rethink how we approach the sacred text.

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