Alister McGrath’s, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale House Publishers, 2103), is a comprehensive look at one the 20th centuries most influential apologists for the Christian faith.
McGrath’s biography is comprehensive, readable, and surprising in some of its details. If you appreciate the writings of C.S. Lewis, this biography will not disappoint.
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While there are many parts of the story that fascinated me, this short excerpt has me thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of digital texts. In chapter 13, covering Lewis’s move from Oxford to a teaching post at Magdalene College (Cambridge), McGrath quotes British historian Keith Thomas with reference to “extended periods of direct textual engagement” – that is, how individuals read and annotated texts in the period known as the Renaissance.
It was common for Renaissance readers to mark key passages by underlining them or drawing lines and pointing fingers in the margin – the early modern equivalent of the yellow highlighter. According to the Jacobean educational writer John Brinsley, ‘the choicest books of most great learned men, and the notables students’ were marked through, ‘with little lines under or above’ or ‘by some prickes, or whatsoever letter or mark may best help to call the knowledge of the thing to remembrance’.
McGrath follows up this quote by observing that both Keith Thomas and C.S. Lewis shared a commitment to “extended, active reading of primary sources.” I suspect that all competent scholars would share this priority.
However, the advent of digital texts is dramatically transforming the reading habits of researchers. Continuing to reference Keith Thomas, McGrath notes:
Researchers no longer read books from cover to cover; they use search engines to find words or passages. But this approach has made researchers less sensitive to the deeper structures and inner logic of the texts they are discussing, and much less likely to make the ‘unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity.’ As Thomas ruefully remarked, the sad truth was that what once took a lifetime to learn by slow and painful accumulation can now ‘be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning.’
McGrath tells us that Lewis’s “heavily annotated personal library” demonstrates an intense engagement with primary text. It is this kind of “detailed textual engagement and conceptual mastery” that McGrath says Thomas believes to be in “terminal decline through the rise of technology.”
I have been thinking about these comments for the past couple of days, setting them alongside my own move from studying mainly from print-based texts to digital.
For example, there is no question that Logos Bible Software has transformed my approach to sermon preparation, saving me much time in researching texts and commentaries. The ability to have numerous resources open simultaneously and synced together is a fabulous experience. Searching for words, phrases and themes is so easy. I love using Logos 6 for sermon preparation.
But I have also noticed that sustained reading in digital texts is quite different from print-based reading. I confess to missing the ability to easily flip back and forth between sections of a book. Digital texts do not allow the visual sense of progress through a book. And in most cases, I am not able to let my eyes drop down to a footnote while staying connected to the text of the page itself.
I do believe there is something to be said for the loss of “detailed textual engagement and conceptual mastery.” Researching text electronically allows one to zero in on specific words and phrases, but it also tempts one to neglect the wider reading of a text. No question but that researching an electronic text is faster and more efficient in terms of finding information. But are we in danger of trading conceptual wisdom and mastery of a text for bits and bytes of bare facts?
The answer is not, I believe, ditching the use of technology, but of wisely using it while recognizing the temptation to engage in a sort of hit and run scholarship – of digging into a text for a few words and phrases, while neglecting to master the full argument of the scholar or text in question.
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