The Need for Art in the Age of Simulation

There is a new faddish piece of tech nonsense bouncing around social media—maybe you’ve heard of it: AI “art.” I put the word “art” in scare quotes intentionally, because it is, perhaps, the furthest thing from art that one could possibly imagine. AI “art” consists of a highly advanced nodule of machine learning, into which you feed commands: Dog riding a skateboard; man with cat ears; very fast spaceship, etc., etc., etc. The algorithm then slams a bunch of pixels together into a digital object that is vaguely reminiscent of a coherent image, although only if one glaces at it with a minimal amount of attention. The slightest amount of critical vision immediately destroys the illusion. Like a corrupted file, pieces of the subject and background are missing, void, non-existent, in a way that is completely alien to the manual processes involved in creating art of any medium.

As you can probably tell, I am a bit worked up about this. I think that AI “art” is just the latest pointless waste of human talent and time, a stupid joke of art irony that somehow supersedes Duchamp’s Fountain. I also, legitimately, think that it might be analogous to the head in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength [spoilers], which is why I refuse to post any links to examples and why I physically avert my eyes when shown it in real life. But I digress.

Art is something of a sacred task. Art, conceptually, only makes sense to the rational animal, the human person, that being that has body and soul, imbued by God with the capacity and desire to create in a way that is more limited than but not dissimilar to His own divine creativity. The minute acts of creation involved in art are saturated with meaning and importance: with every word, every brush stroke, every chord, you are choosing to either honor or desecrate the incarnated universe into which we have been placed. No algorithm is capable of bearing the moral weight of creating art, let alone the complex physical and mental activity involved in translating something from the fluid and fickle physical world into the fixed and symbolic world of art.

Photo by Allan Mas on

What is the point of art? Art is a way that we say “Amen, amen” to God’s proclamation of the goodness of His creation (Gen 1:31). Art does not exist as a vehicle of cynicism or corrosive irony—if it were, children would not be brimming with creativity and a love of drawing, painting, sculpting, making. But we grown-ups have grown sick of God’s good world and have grown callous to our need to make and enjoy art. Our lives have become so empty of prayer that we even outsource the prayer of art—those prayers of thanksgiving, of mourning, of intercession, of hope—to the machines.

Luther famously said that “next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.” I think we could expand this to art, generally, and I think we could say that, next to the Word of God, art—good, true, beautiful art—is what is most lacking from so many people’s lives. We fill our days, whether by choice or by outside compulsion, with ugliness, with kitsch, with visual and aural garbage that is meant (consciously or not) to grind man down, to dehumanize him, to make God’s calling repugnant to him. Whether it’s corporate art, muzak, obscene art, or AI “art”, it all produces the same flattening and undervaluing of human life—and it’s all around us, everywhere, all the time.

What are we to do? Return to real art. Make and enjoy real art. Do not let the faux-arts squash your fragile heart. Affirm the goodness of creation, of life, of being itself by taking out your colored pencils, going to a concert, walking to an art museum, getting back to playing piano. You cannot be replaced by a machine, no matter how advanced and technically complicated. Your being, your body and soul, your thoughts and feelings, your creative pursuits, you are redeemed by and matter to the most holy God. Your existence is a gift to you from God. Remember that by partaking again of art.

Matthias GrĂĽnewald, “The Resurrection”


I apologize for the quiet interlude that has befallen my blog here. The moving ordeal has proven to be longer, both in its lead-up and in its execution, and I am still working to get my desk tidied and the things cleared off my kitchen table. The past few months have been of an unexpectedly challenging nature, not a poetic melancholy but a dry thinness that defies even my best attempts to allegorize and, thus, soften it. I am slowly chipping away at a million and one humdrum things in the hopes that, soon, they will start to look cheerful again.

I have found a surprising source of solace in this season: our newfound lack of Internet access at home. Jonathan and I have just moved into a 100-year-old, 500-square-foot apartment, from which we will wage his final year of seminary. Our budget was projected to be somewhat lean, and we decided that we’d rather have the money that would otherwise be spent on Wifi on groceries, so we have decided to do without. Jonathan doesn’t much like working from home anyway, and we both thought this might encourage us to be a bit more intentional about our use of computers.

We got rid of our smartphones about a year and a half ago, which shocked us into realizing how much time in our lives we had the ability to reclaim. We figured out which burning questions that hit us on our walk through the park or our ride to church were actually burning enough that they remained with us until we got home to our computers. We’d quite enjoyed our experiences with our “dumb phones,” and so we thought this might be an interesting experiment as well.

It really has been. This is probably the least amount of Internet access that I’ve had since I was a child, whenever we got rid of dial-up. We still sometimes use the data on our phones to hotspot at home, when we need to look up an address or something, but most of our time at home is spent doing other things. This also rules out streaming music and video, but we’ve been slowly downloading or purchasing the movies, television, and music we’d like to have access to. We play the radio. We listen to CDs. I just bought an opera on vinyl. I have to plan out what I do with a lot more intentionality: I need to go to the library or get to work a few minutes early if I need to check my email. I am writing this blog post at home on my laptop, without the distraction of the trillions of bits of info on the Net, and will post it up on my blog at some chance I get tomorrow. The added thought and planning really helps make it obvious what things I really like, what I really want to spend my time on, and what I was doing just to “fill dead air.”

Perhaps more important than what has been added is what has been taken away. I was a bit nervous about telling people that we weren’t going to have Internet at our house. I imagined people’s mildly-horrified responses when, asking for the Wifi password, we informed them that there was no Wifi to be had. I was sure people would think I was a crazed Luddite, forcing my poor husband to go without. I’ve been shocked at how many people have said something along the lines of, “Wow, that sounds really nice, actually. I wish I could do that.” A friend told me her thirteen-year-old son had a reaction along those lines—a boy who is just as plugged in as any of his peers liking the idea of getting unplugged. But I think I know why. The people who want to reach me still reach me, by texting me on my cell phone (even if it is in those uncouth “green bubbles”) or calling me on my phone, or they wait until I see their iMessages on my laptop when I am once again reconnected to the World Wide Web. But work and news and all those niggling little things that have made my patience just a little more strained, my melancholy a shade or two deeper, my mind a little more addled—they have to wait until I choose to deal with them, at my leisure and on my terms. Work doesn’t follow me home because it can’t. I’m not as up-to-date on what’s going on online because I am, for the majority of my day, offline. I have no choice but to deal with the problems that are in front of me—the crate of tea that I need to unpack, the flowers I need to put in the case, the absence of the two living room reading chairs that are currently trapped in a friend’s apartment without a working elevator—and leave the problems that aren’t in front of me for another day. It’s a stark, but oh! so freeing, reminder that I am entirely limited, incapable of even keeping up with my daily chores and to-do list, let alone the everything everywhere all the time always of the Internet. 

My upstairs neighbor is exercising; I think she is doing burpees, or something like that. The fridge is making a sound kind of like a Star Trek special effect. I need to start the fan going before I get in the shower so that the bedroom is nice and cool when I go to bed in an hour. My laptop is charging, and it should be ready to go in the morning when I walk over to work in the morning and the library in the afternoon. I’ll be able to check my email and my messages then, when I have Internet connection. But until then, I’ll be here, unplugged.

Home Matters

If you’ve read this blog somewhat-regularly or if you know me in real life, you know that I’ve moved around a lot. I grew up in the Los Angeles area and moved to north Alabama my senior year of high school. I went to college in Tuscaloosa (central Alabama), grad school in St. Louis, have spent the last year in west-central Illinois while my husband does his vicarage (pastor internship), and just moved back to St. Louis a couple days ago. There’s even more “little moves” in between the main ones, too. I liked in an apartment until I was seven, then a house until I was 13, then another house until I was 17. We lived in my aunt’s house for a month when we first came to Alabama, then a house, and then my parents moved into a new house when I was 20. I lived in three different places in college (a dorm and two different apartment complexes), and am on living arrangement number three during Jonathan’s time in seminary (two years in on-campus married housing, one year in the vicarage condo, and starting one year in an off-campus apartment). I’ve moved a lot, especially in the last 10-ish years.

All of this moving has allowed me to notice something, though: nobody really seems to care about home anymore. Growing up in Southern California, in “the media capital of the world,” where there was basically an infinite number of things to do, great weather, at a school that had a lot of opportunities for students to express themselves and pursue whatever interests they had, people still complained, nearly constantly. Everybody wanted out. It wasn’t any different in Alabama, though. We had a close-knit school community, a lot of freedom to roam around, everything we wanted to do was cheap and accessible—but still, everyone could find something to complain about. Now, in St. Louis, it’s more of the same. From Burbank to Hartselle to Tuscaloosa to St. Louis, there was no real “pride of place” among a lot of the people I knew, really regardless of age.

On the one hand, I get it. For a long time, I cultivated this weird, almost Schadenfreude-esque pride in not feeling at home in places, not participating in pep rallies, not having school spirit or team pride. Sometimes it was because I was going through a rough spot socially—maybe I was stressed or lonely or felt left out. But a lot of the times, it was just a choice: a choice to be jaded and detached, to “know better”, to be different and cool and sad, to create distance through an impenetrable detachment, so that I would be less likely to be upset when something bad inevitably happened.

That attitude is a lot less appealing to me at 25 as it was at 15. I can’t keep the act up anymore—it takes too much out of me and it’s just, frankly, annoying. At the end of the day, I am a person, not a computer program or an unembodied spirit. I am bound to the specific place and time and circumstances into which God has chosen to place me. I may not always be over-the-moon about those settings—some of them are hard, unpleasant, challenging, frustrating, or just simply not what I wanted. But I’m sick and tired of making myself miserable in an attempt to avoid the inherent pain of connectedness and vulnerability. It’s not cool, it’s not better, and it’s just not worth it.

We’re in the middle of unpacking our apartment. It’s still a bit of a wreck. But Jonathan and I have both noticed that it’s starting to feel like home. It’s starting to really feel like we belong here—and that’s something we both really needed. And I think you really have to belong somewhere in order to effectively leave that place and explore the world. You can’t have a window without having a wall—you have to have a safe haven to call home to return to, recharge within, and go out from.

Math is proof that God loves us

For most of my life, most people I’ve known haven’t liked math. Whether while in school or since as a tutor, most people seem to view math as a means to an end—and usually, that end is a decent GPA or a good score on a standardized test.

As you can probably guess, I’m not one of these people. I like math. I did well in math in school. I am a big fan of Algebra, but Calculus was probably my favorite over all. I think there is something special—beautiful, even—about math, something that we never really got into in school, but something that is absolutely vital to understanding mathematics.

I had my math breakthrough in eleventh grade in my physics class. Physics was one of the hardest classes I took in high school, maybe even the hardest class. Our teacher was a small-framed German-educated Armenian man. I discovered halfway through the year that he had a doctorate in physics, but he never talked about it. He had a dry sense of humor, had a flair for the dramatic (lying on a bed of nails, donning a baseball cap to clamber onto his lab table and swing a bat around while seated in a swivel chair), and was absolutely brilliant. We jumped straight in to Newtonian physics, the science of motion and gravity, and I was blown away. (Though, to be perfectly honest, by the time we got to things moving around in circular paths and orbits, I got lost for a little while. I managed to pull through and it was pretty much smooth sailing until we got into wave-particle duality, but that’s for another blog post.)

In physics, with just a few pieces of information, I could write up an equation that would describe how a ball would move through the air when thrown, how a pendulum would swing when released, how a car would navigate a tight corner, or how a planet would journey around a star. I could understand movement—the here-and-now world around me—using numbers and arithmetic operations. Gravity, the force I felt every day without realizing it, could be represented by 9.8 m/s2, some lines and curves on a page corresponding with a force that controls everything in the physical universe.

I was also enrolled in Calculus at the time, and we ended up doing some similar things. If you gave me some information about a cannonball or a tennis ball, I could make an equation, map out the projectile’s course, and then tell you its speed and rate of acceleration along all of the points on that path. I could crystalize the fleeting movement of a game of catch onto graph paper and think of it in this orderly, numeric way.

Maybe this all sounds kind of boring to you. (Sorry, if it does.) But to me, an often-lonely, often-discouraged teenager, it meant the world. When you’re sixteen years old, it can feel like your life is just sort of happening to you, without meaning, without significance. The tiniest thing can go wrong with your day, and suddenly you’re in freefall. It can just feel so random. But math gave me a window into something orderly. Even the seemingly-random, seemingly-insignificant action of throwing a ball into the air or children playing on a seesaw is so orderly, in fact, that it can be represented by numbers, patterns, equations, and graphs. And those patterns and numbers show up again and again, across large and small scales, natural and man-made settings.

Surely, a God who makes even the speed of an acorn falling off a tree branch abide by universal rules of gravity and acceleration, surely He loves us—surely He loves me.

We know that order is good. Whether you like to get your “order fix” from watching Marie Kondo or listening to jazz or looking at flowers or dancing or doing origami, whatever you do and enjoy, there is probably some element of it that is orderly—that is mathematical, in some way. Music theory is math. The rules governing aesthetics are math. Interior design is math. And that’s not to diminish these pursuits, or to try and make them cold and inhuman. I don’t know when math became the bogeyman, some sort of robotic killjoy, but I really don’t think that’s it at all. Math is pattern and order and balance, things that we crave in all aspects of our lives. We fear chaos, disorder, dissonance, imbalance. We fear the absence of order—the absence, well, of math.

Which is why I think that a God who gives us math—who gives us a universe that is full of harmony and rhythm, of flowers and shells in perfectly repeating arches, of circles and squares and binomial pairs—that’s a God who loves us. We know that God Himself creates and delights in order: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (1 Corinthians 14:33, New International Version). Part of our bearing the likeness of God, I think, is that this love of ordering is reflected back in us. And, in spite of our many and constant attempts to foment disorder, God continuously gives us the gift of order in many different ways. Of course, Jesus is the ultimate Restorer of the most important order we have lost—our right relationship with God, which was thrown into disorder by sin and ultimately leads to death. But Jesus, by taking upon Himself our disorderly sin and death, restores to us the original, divine order experienced by Adam and Eve in the Garden, which will be fully unveiled at the end of time and the renewal of all things.

In the meantime, though, teenagers still go through blue spells, and the rest of us do, too. There is a lot of disorder and hurt out there, whether you’re sixteen or sixty, and life can really start to feel out of control at times. But it isn’t. Our God is a God of order, who loves orderliness and gives it to you in many, many ways. And that love, I think, even extends to giving us math.

Take it Slow

A lot of life has taken on a motion-blurring warp-speed pace, a quickness that belies reflection, awareness, or even just enjoyment. In some ways this is good. As I write this, I have two loads of laundry tumbling around in the hallway washer and dryer, and it’s nice to be able to multitask on chores that used to take a lot of time and energy. Sometimes I hand-wash or line-dry clothing, especially when I have a lot of time or I have garments that need special care. But sometimes I don’t, because I really need that towel dry by tonight or because I just don’t really think it’s necessary to wash my jeans in the bathroom sink. Sometimes the quickness with which we can do menial tasks is good.

But sometimes, I miss the slowness.

I’ve had electric kettles ever since I moved off to college. My freshman dorm didn’t have a stove in the unit, and the shared kitchen wasn’t on my floor. Additionally, nobody really thinks to have a nice, wholesome cup of tea at the ready in a college cafeteria. So, if I wanted my tea, I needed to make it in my dorm, and I needed to make it quickly. So, naturally, I got an electric kettle. My first apartment was a bit of an unhappy situation so far as roommates go, so I kept all my tea things in my bedroom as a way of carving out a little happy corner in which I could hide away. Again: no stove in my bedroom, so out came the electric kettle. That kettle lasted me until sometime in grad school, when it finally went kaput, and was replaced with a similar model. Both served me well and brewed many a cheerful cuppa.

But at some point in the last year, I was looking around my kitchen and feeling a little glum. I wanted a pretty kitchen, a kitchen that “sparked joy” when I went to make myself or Jonathan something to eat or drink. And it wasn’t doing that. Why?

I looked around. A lot of it was stuff I couldn’t control (I’m still in an apartment), but that wasn’t really what the problem was. Then it hit me: I wanted a happy kettle.

The electric kettle is a helpful invention. It’s great to have access to tea in settings where you can’t have a stove and a regular kettle. But it just isn’t as chipper. Sure, it’s quieter. It’s also a lot quicker. You can get really specific with your temperature settings, too, which is extra nice if you’re a tea aficionado.

But I wanted a whistle-pot. I wanted a kettle. I wanted something old and slow, something I’d have to wait on, listen for, run across the house to catch just when the top was about to blow off. I wanted to have to pay attention to my little tea time. Even if that meant having to bust out a thermometer (or just guesstimate by counting out 30 seconds or however long) for those times I wanted to make an oolong or a green tea, I wanted slow.

So I got slow. I got a little blue enamel tea pot, with a chipper little whistle when the water boils. It looks a little silly on the flat electric stove, with its bright blue color and it’s quirky, retro Scandinavian-looking handle. But it makes me smile every time I wait for it to boil. It makes my tea making a little bit more intentional, a little bit more whimsical. It makes me happy.

I think sometimes it takes going slow—or at least slower—to experience the gentle contentment of everyday life. I’m not very good at it, I’ll be the first to admit. It’s hard. It’s hard to stop and just focus on the thing in front of me and do it. It’s hard not to be buffeted about by that low-resolution anxiety that seems to permeate my day.

But—slowly—it’s getting better. It takes practice. It takes sipping on a cup while reading in the morning, playing with the cat for a few minutes uninterrupted, watching the onions and garlic caramelize without running out of the room to anxiously check email for just a quick second! And that takes patience, and time, and commitment, and self-control, and attention. But that sense of cozy, homey, very small but very real contentment comes along with it. Sometimes, it pays to take it slow.

Anniversary Reflections

Today, my husband, Jonathan, and I have been married for three years.

Jonathan and I got married about ten days before moving from our town in Alabama to St. Louis, where (two days laters) I was going to start a summer job and (two weeks later) he was going to start summer Greek for seminary. We were both going to be full-time graduate students that fall.

These first couple of years of marriage have been…non-traditional. The “broke grad student” part of that time has been probably the most normal part of it. In the course of these three years, we had to temporarily move back home during the 2020 shutdown; we’ve faced health emergencies, upsetting diagnoses, deaths in the family, and periods of heart-deep hardship. But, in all of it, I have always been so incredibly blessed to have been struggling through it with Jonathan.

I think about before Jonathan and I started dating, back when we were just friends. I remember riding shotgun in his SUV, my constant chaperone while I waited first on getting my driver’s license, then on getting a car. I remember making each other laugh so hard we cried at the absolute stupidest things imaginable, and then a few minutes later having some serious conversation about history or politics or religion. But one of the things that I remember most was the incredible feeling of safety I felt around Jonathan. I used to joke that, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I was taking myself and everybody I knew to “find Lackey.”

I still feel like that. I have always felt like that. I will always feel like that. Whether it’s been the thing going “bump” in the night or the bug on the ceiling or the copperheads in the river or the dark night of my soul, Jonathan is always there, always ready, always willing to do whatever it takes to shelter me. He so well embodies “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25, ESV). I do not always do a very good job at holding up my end of that passage, but that has never stopped Jonathan from patiently, lovingly doing his part.

I love you, Jonathan. Happy anniversary.

Words of Peace and Protection: Pre-Order Now!

I am very very happy to announce that I was blessed with the opportunity to contribute to Concordia Publishing House’s Words of Peace and Protection: Devotions for Women! This wonderful devotional brings together lots of lovely ladies, each considering a different passage from the Psalms. I won’t spoil anything, but I was very pleased with my assignment, as it was a Psalm that is very close to my heart. It was a joy to work on this project, and I hope that you will find it comforting and uplifting!

The book is available for pre-order now through Amazon, and will be up soon on the CPH website, too. You can pre-order it here.

A Twenty Minute Reflection on Change

I’ve been wanting to write something here for the past several days, but I’ve been struggling to figure out what to say. So, as a reward for vacuuming, I’ve set a twenty-minute timer to just write. Let’s see what happens.

I am on day eight of a meandering stomach bug. After two days of rather intense symptoms (I will spare you), things have now subsided into waves of general discomfort and an overall lack of normal tummy behavior. My prayer is that today will be the last such day, because I hate stomach bugs. They’re just unignorable. With a fever, in a pinch, you can take an Advil or something and be on your way. Even if you can take something for a stomach bug to get to a baseline level of function, it’s really not enough. You just have to be patient and wait as your body fights it off and heals after the war. And that is no fun at all.

On the bright side, though, the weather is finally getting spring-like where we are. We had an utterly miserable winter and most of spring in central Illinois, which is the farthest north I have ever lived. Southern California and northern Alabama are both generally warm, with the obvious differences in humidity. I never realized until this year how much I rely on warm weather. I like winter, usually—I like sweaters and tea and rainy, quiet reading days inside. But so cold I can’t venture outside for a 20 minute walk? I can’t do it. (I’m sure that the car/ditch situation didn’t help my overall view of Illinois winters, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I think the tummy bug and crummy Spring have done a lot to challenge my ideas of my own mental and emotional elasticity. People talk a lot about how young people operate under delusions about the own mortality, or lack thereof. I think I also was working with the assumption that I was a lot more able to change, potentially infinitely, than I realized. I’m starting to think that human personalities are actually a lot more stable than we realize.

An at times faltering project of mine these past couple of years has been to try doing things that I enjoyed as a kid, especially things I used to do a lot or even just did casually before school got too hectic. I have not had universal success in picking things up—I would be lying if I said I didn’t have hobby books and supplies sitting on shelves that I really do intend to pick up again one of these days, despite my best self-sabotaging efforts to forget about them. But a lot of things have been good. I remember being maybe 14 or 15 and volunteering to walk our lumbering basset hound on cool rainy mornings in the spring, watching the rain fall under my huge, goofy bubble umbrella while the dog sniffed every single blade of grass on our street—and loving it. I’ve enjoyed resuming these quiet rainy (and sunny) walks with Jonathan, and noticed how much I missed them when we couldn’t over the long, bleak winter. Like I wrote the other day, getting back into reading, especially novels, has been eye-opening.

I don’t know why I stepped away from doing so many of these things. Probably just life getting busy, or getting bored, or thinking it’s a waste of time, or feeling anxious about not doing something else. But despite my conscious and unconscious efforts to change—to abandon a hobby, to get my stomach back to normal, to be okay with sub-zero windchill—I’m a lot less malleable than I thought I was.

Sometimes things just take time. Hopefully, this time next week, my tummy woes will be a quickly-fading memory. Other things, I think, are outside of time. I don’t think any amount of persisting, doggedly, in overwork or dumb forgetfulness, will take away my love of drawing. I don’t think any amount of living in a colder clime will take away my enjoyment of a springtime spent in sunshine and mild rain. And you know what? I think that’s okay.

My timer just went off, so I will leave you with that today.

On Reading and Starting Anew

Jonathan and I have talked at length about reading, especially fostering that love of reading that so many of us experienced in childhood or adolescence. It’s clearly a significant topic, because it’s also cropped up in both of our friend groups. I’ve been sitting on some thoughts about it for a while now, and figured it was time to share with you all.

The Problem

I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I remember writing little notes to my parents and hiding them around the house when I was three or four, reading Bob Books and Dr. Seuss, and trying to write the longest sentence in my kindergarten class. I started reading Junie B. Jones books in kindergarten or first grade, and I vividly remember reading my first “big kid book,” The Wizard of Oz, in second grade. I was a voracious reader throughout elementary and middle school.

And then that sort of shriveled up sometime in high school. I’d have little fits of reading for pleasure, like the summer I read Pride and Prejudice, but for the most part, I stopped. I read for school still and, for the most part, enjoyed it, but not much reading happened on my own time. It got worse in college; I read even more for school then, but didn’t feel like I had time to read on my own. I did, of course, but just wasn’t choosing to make time for it.

This reached a breaking point in grad school. I was having to read two, three, four entire books a week (and write on them!) for class, and it was back-breaking. There is supposed to be some method to get through books for academic purposes like grad school. In all honesty, dear reader, I never figured it out. I would just slam a book, skimming or skipping sections in a feverish anxiety to try to force down a thousand pages a week and be able to speak moderately-intelligently about the content. It was driving me batty.

About the time I figured out that a lot of my schooling, intentionally or not, had the result of producing a kind of reading that wasn’t enjoyable anymore. Let me be clear: I had some wonderful teachers throughout all of my education, and I don’t think any one of them was trying to make reading into a chore. But telling a teenager who’s still trying to figure herself out to take a stance of authority over a book, to do a “close reading” with endless notes and commentary before even finishing a chapter, to hold something in a critical stance without really even knowing what makes a book good, bad, or indifferent—it’s just plain not enjoyable. Vivisecting a work of art kills it, and with it dies the possibility of enjoying it. This is very true of books. There’s a time and a place for critical engagement with a text; there’s also a time and place for just enjoying it, gleaning what you can, and letting it be.

The Solution

I hit a wall with reading sometime between my first and second semester of grad school. The words of a friend rattled around in my head: a few years previously, she said that, over the course of grad school, she’d “lost the ability to read for pleasure” (paraphrasing, probably). I was terrified that was happening to me.

I made a concerted effort over the next year to get back into reading. I think it’s been successful. I read 50 books last year, almost all of which were for fun. (In 2020, I read 75 books, though that was about 50-50 for-fun and for-school.) My goal this year is to read 52 books. It’s not really a race, and I actually pick that number intentionally: it’s enough to keep me motivated to make time to read daily (or at least nearly daily—when we had a big and fast trip for a family wedding in April, my reading habit did suffer) but it doesn’t make me feel stressed out. If you are trying to get back into reading for fun, your number will probably look different, which is fine.

To get back to reading like you did when you were young, you have to un-learn a lot of reading habits you’ve picked up along the way. I won’t call those habits “unhelpful” or “bad,” necessarily; some are, to be sure. But a lot of them are probably just unnecessary. Assessing sources, identifying what type of irony is being used, figuring out the scansion in a line of poetry, trying to figure out if something is signified by the color of a room—all of these things can be useful, but, realistically, it’s probably not called for if you’re just reading for fun. If you’re confused about something, go ahead and put your school-cap back on and try thinking about it critically; you might figure out whatever is tripping you up. But it usually isn’t necessary to bring a literary pickax to everything you read. It’s sort of like bringing a hammer to the breakfast table: I guess there are scenarios in which one might need a hammer at the breakfast table, but it’s probably better off left in the toolchest, where you can get it if you need it.

But, let’s get down to brass tacks. Here is my advice for getting back into reading or reading enjoyably.

Pick something you actually want to read

Sometimes, when I fall into a reading rut, I try to force myself to read a book that I think I ought to read. It’s usually heady non-fiction that would be good for me to read. And guess what? I almost never finish it.

If you’re in the reading doldrums, the important thing is getting out. You don’t have to read the Iliad or 5,000 Prooftexts of Trigonometry or something like that. It’s okay to just read the book you impulse-bought a while ago because you thought the title and cover sounded interesting, or go to the library to grab that book that’s been sitting on your to-read list since middle school. I wouldn’t suggest reading harlequin romance just so you can read something, but there’s plenty of stuff out there that is enjoyable and actually interesting. Consider avoiding highly-technical books, books that are within your line of work or study, books that you “need to read” but have been avoiding, and anything that makes you sleepy when reading the first couple of chapters.

Pick something you actually can read

Another problem I see (and something I also struggle with) is reading a book that’s not a good fit for your current spot in life. For example: I would like to get back to reading more German and Latin, since obviously I did a lot more of that in school than I do on a regular, day-to-day basis now. However, it would probably not be a good idea to, say, sit down with some full-length text in German or Latin and try to read it all. My language skills are a little rusty, and it would quickly become a herculean academic chore rather than a fun read. This can also happen by picking up very specialized non-fiction works or fiction books that are arcane or verbose. A historical monograph that frequently uses a foreign language you can’t read in the main body of the text is probably not a good nightstand-book pick.

Again, this doesn’t mean you should avoid this books entirely; I’ve definitely got some “reach” books that I’d like to get to. But you should probably not put that at the top of your “get back into reading” list, and you should probably approach them a bit differently, not trying to chug through it in a week.

If you have a book that you’ve really been wanting to read but are concerned about getting in over your head, read it slowly and read it with a reference handy. When I was first getting into classic lit, I benefited immensely by using an e-reader. I still like doing my first read-through of an older book with either an annotated edition or on my Kindle so I can look up words quickly and seamlessly. This need usually lessens over time, especially if you read a lot in the same genre or by the same author, but it can be a huge help when you’re starting out.

Avoid picking it apart

I think one of the things that kills for-fun reading is picking it apart. We live in such a hyper-critical age, and a great deal of our education revolves around criticism and critical methods, that it can be very hard to escape this mindset. I think it is truly poisonous for reading for fun. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but let me make it clear that there are appropriate times for criticism; trying to get your “reading mojo” back isn’t one of those times.

I find that it’s easiest to be critical when reading a subject about which we have some expertise. Case in point: I have pretty doggedly avoided reading any history outside of my school reading for the better part of a decade now because I have had to spend so much time tearing apart history books. I’m finally getting interested in reading history “just ’cause” again, but it’s required a very intentional sabbatical. I read a decent amount of theological/Christian doctrine and living books in a year for fun, but again I usually have to take breaks from them, because it can get draining to be always on the look out or at the edge of frustration and annoyance with a book.

If reading is a part of your job or studies, I would highly suggest avoiding reading things related to your work for fun when you are starting back at pleasure-reading. You don’t have to avoid it forever—and if there’s something that really calls to you, go for it!—but giving your brain a rest from debating with a book will help you read more enjoyably in the future. I’m really looking forward to some of the history books I’ve got on my to-read shelf now, but I’m only able to do that after stepping away from it for a time.

Interlude: Why read?

Before continuing, I think it’s important to stop for a second and think about an important, but overlooked, question: why read? Specifically: why read books?

Reading isn’t just about entertainment, nor is it about gaining information. Those can be part of it, but that’s not the whole purpose of the pursuit. I think of reading a lot like I think about listening to music or looking at art. I am frequently moved emotionally; I frequently learn something; I always (provided the book, music, or art is worth my time) experience and understand some small corner of human life in a new way because of it. I understand my place in life better, often by better understanding the place of others, whether that’s imagined individuals in a novel, long-dead figures from history, or the variety of animals, vegetables, minerals and more among which I find myself situated on this earth. Fiction especially is suited to conveying truths about life in a way that has even greater weight by communicating it in a heightened way, like J.R.R. Tolkien expressed in his essay on fairy-stories.

There is also just something refreshing about reading (and being read to, whether by a family member or friend or by a narrator in an audiobook). It’s transporting, even if it isn’t for the purposes of entertainment or “escape.” A capacity for language is part of what makes us human, so it makes sense that it would feel right. Reading (and being read to) requires time and focus and a quiet and non-distracting environment.

There’s something, then, about reading—both the physical activity and the content, and, I believe, both simultaneously, in a way where the one cannot be extracted from the other—that is good and fitting for a person to do, because it affirms what it means to be human. It’s something that can’t be replicated with truly bad books or even other “reading” media—even blogs like this one! I really think there is something about the story, the song, and the artwork—something offered there but not necessarily accessible except through a few avenues of engagement. Which, in my mind, is why we read.

Putting it all together

So what does that mean concretely? For me, getting back into reading started with audiobooks and ebooks. I got one of those deeply-tempting marketing emails at the beginning of 2020 for some Audible deal where you get free credits if you sign up for a free trial (and then piggy-backed on some reading challenge they were running where you got free credits for finishing a certain number of audiobooks in a certain amount of time). I did Audible, which is a paid service, because I am in a weird library position: we move around a lot for school and have had a hard time establishing at a public library—we were very nearly denied a library card when we got to St. Louis, and only then were begrudgingly granted a very temporary one, and the library in the city we’ve been in during my husband’s vicarage internship has been closed this whole time, and the surrounding cities won’t let us get cards at their libraries. Additionally, Jonathan and I don’t spend very much on entertainment, so we talked it over and were okay with doing this one. This was especially true when I first started out: my eyeballs were about ready to fall out of my head at the end of every day because I was just reading so much for grad school, but I couldn’t stand not reading anything just for personal enjoyment. I was able to “read” (I am not a purist about audiobooks and these sorts of things) a lot of books I couldn’t have otherwise during a very stressful time of my life because I had them on audiobook. It was definitely a worthwhile investment for my intellectual and emotional health!

I wouldn’t necessarily suggest copying my every move, though, because I didn’t really follow my own advice. The starting point for my reading renaissance was actually Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (on audiobook). I was chomping at the bit for something, well, critical of the critical methods I was learning in grad school, but I was really struggling to find any. I believe I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here in great depth, but it was just what I needed at the time. I devoured audiobooks over the next couple of months, especially over 2020 quarantine when we returned to Alabama and I found myself back sitting in the backyard and doing chores at my family home for a while!

When the first 2020 stimulus checks hit, Jonathan and I decided that I was going to use some of mine to purchase a Kindle. I had wavered between being pro- and anti-e-reader for a long time. I had a Barnes & Noble Nook tablet, back when those were popular, which I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with, since it was pretty much a normal tablet with beefed-up e-reader software. I used it for a couple of years in high school and then never touched it again. Jonathan had a Kindle, though, that he really loved, and he thought it would be a good idea for me since it would cut back on our mountainous book collection if some were digital. He eventually prevailed, and I got the Kindle Paperwhite. I was still on my Roger Scruton kick, so I think I read a short book of his first on it, and then I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. I got Jonathan to read it, too, and we spent a couple of very happy weeks chattering over it in my parents’ backyard. Even though it’s non-fiction, it’s a really fun, weird book that reads like a great southern gothic novel.

I’ve pretty much kept on reading at a steady clip for about two years now, after a really long dry spell in high school and college. I still fall off the wagon every so often, but usually finding a novel or non-traditional non-fiction book gets me back on track again. Sometimes I re-read a book I really loved; other times I pick stuff way outside of my wheelhouse. (I’m currently listening to an audiobook about the science of mushrooms, which is crazy—and not something I would normally read!) I think a lot of getting back to reading is just about starting with something manageable to create sustainable habits.

So, from my own experiences, here are my concrete tips:

  • make a reading goal that is ambitious, but achievable: something that will keep you on track but not be a burden
  • consider non-traditional reading media, like audiobooks or ebooks, especially if you have to read a lot already for your school or work, or if you have time to be read to but not necessarily read (certain jobs, moms and dads with small children, long commutes
  • find things that are interesting and accessible to you, rather than something that you feel obliged to read
  • avoid inciting your inner critic with genres, authors, or books that will encourage “arguments” with yourself, because then reading will get tiresome again
  • read outside your areas of expertise about topics that excite you
  • read fiction or creative non-fiction especially if you can’t read non-fiction without it feeling like school
  • consider reading with a friend, family member, or book group
  • if you get stuck, try something new and atypical or return to an “old friend” book

What about you? Do you have any advice for getting back into reading? What gets you excited to read?