There are things we take for granted that we assume have always been, but in fact are relatively recent additions to human experience.

            There are obvious things that we recognize are recent innovations, such as cellphones, television, radio and electricity.  We understand that there are people, still alive, who can remember when such things did not exist. 

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            But there are other conveniences that seem so perfectly ordinary, so everlastingly obvious on the order of dirt and sky, that being reminded that they are new can shock.  For instance, last night at our small group study at church I pointed out that until the advent of the printing press most people had never even seen, let alone, read a Bible.  Today, many of us are encouraged to “read through the Bible in a year.” Others  will decry “biblical illiteracy” and moan about the “dumbing down” of the faith community. Yet, for most of its history, religious people managed to survive without ever reading a word of the sacred text on their own. They knew only what little they might have gleaned week to week from hearing a sermon.  Of course, in some sense, that may still continue to be the case, since surveys rather consistently indicate that the percentage of church goers who regularly read the Bible is rather low (about 20 percent read something from the Bible more than once a week)—and only about half of American Christians have read through the entire Bible at least once in their lives.  And if we look back further in time, for most of the people we read about in the Bible, the Bible didn’t even exist yet at all:  Abraham, Jacob and Joseph had no Bible at all—not even a single bit of it.  It hadn’t been written yet.  And the concept of going weekly to a religious service would not occur to anyone until after the Israelites returned from their seventy years of captivity in Babylon.  It was during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah that the idea of the synagogue was born.

            This is not an indictment of religious people, however.  According to recent surveys, less than half of the American public read even one book—of any sort—in all of 2013.  So the percentage of church goers reading their Bibles is consistent with the overall level of book reading in the United States. 

So perhaps it isn’t so much that people take the printing press for granted.  Instead, they live their lives as if Gutenberg had never been born.

My children are startled when they visit the homes of their friends and don’t see any books.  Book-lined walls, books stacked on tables—or even a paperback or two—is a great rarity in most homes (and not because everyone has replaced their books with eBook readers).  I’m pleased that my children believe that books are normal and that their absence is weird—despite the reality that my house is the odd one. 

A network television show with only a million weekly viewers will be quickly cancelled.  A book that has sold a million copies in a year is a run-away best seller.  The first Harry Potter book has sold about 107 million copies worldwide since its appearance in 1997.  More people will watch the Super Bowl in two hours this Sunday.  

            Nevertheless, reading books is much more widespread today than it was prior to the advent of the printing press.  Nearly every American can read books, regardless of their economic status.

Today, practically every community has a public library where books can be had for free.  But precious few take advantage of this opportunity which has only been available since public libraries have become common these past hundred years or so.  More recently, electronic books now mean that anyone who has access to the internet can instantly access thousands of books for free no matter where they happen to be: your cellphone can become a library.  Retailers such as and Barnes and Noble now offer thousands of free, public domain books. 

Those who enjoy reading currently find themselves living in a golden age. Like never before in human history, books can be had without trouble or effort—and largely without cost.  The same libraries that offer physical books for free, also offer their electronic versions thanks to their freely available computer and internet hookups, and many public libraries even offer their patrons the ability to download popular books on their Kindles and tablets from home.

Assuming our civilization endures and prospers, the ease of access to books will only become easier and cheaper as we move forward.  And yet, we all these books, and our easy access to them for granted—even more than everything else in our lives that we accept without a second thought.

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