Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Struggling to Read

Philip Yancey, a writer of many very fine books, offers a lament in the Washington Post about his inability to read like he used to. I empathize with him when he writes:
I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. I am writing this blog in my office, surrounded by 27 tall bookcases laden with 5,000 books. Over the years I have read them, marked them up, and recorded the annotations in a computer database for potential references in my writing. To a large degree, they have formed my professional and spiritual life.

Books help define who I am. They have ushered me on a journey of faith, have introduced me to the wonders of science and the natural world, have informed me about issues such as justice and race. More importantly, they have been a source of delight and adventure and beauty, opening windows to a reality I would not otherwise know.

My crisis consists in the fact that I am describing my past, not my present. I used to read three books a week. One year I devoted an evening each week to read all of Shakespeare’s plays (Okay, due to interruptions it actually took me two years). Another year I read the major works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work.
So, what's the reason Yancey has degenerated from obsessive reader to literary slacker?
The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.

Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, “If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…” Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.
I'll bet Yancey's not alone in this. In fact, a friend to whom I sent Yancey's article told me that after the first couple of paragraphs he found himself fighting the temptation to check out the stuff on the sidebar.

A sage once observed that leaders are readers and readers are leaders. Yancey quotes from an article that certainly bears that out:
An article in Business Insider studied such pioneers as Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg. Most of them have in common a practice the author calls the “5-hour rule”: they set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) for deliberate learning. For example:
  • Bill Gates reads 50 books a year.
  • Mark Zuckerberg reads at least one book every two weeks.
  • Elon Musk grew up reading two books a day.
  • Mark Cuban reads for more than three hours every day.
  • Arthur Blank, a co-founder of Home Depot, reads two hours a day.
This is extremely impressive, yet Yancey's primary concern is nourishing his soul, and I suspect that most of what these gentlemen read does more to nourish their wallets than nourish their souls. Plowing through two books a day sounds more like reading for the sake of reading and that seems rather pointless except as an occasional entertaining diversion.
Charles Chu calculates that at an average reading speed of 400 words per minute, it would take 417 hours in a year to read 200 books—less than the 608 hours the average American spends on social media, or the 1,642 hours watching TV. “Here’s the simple truth behind reading a lot of books,” says Quartz: “It’s not that hard. We have all the time we need. The scary part—the part we all ignore—is that we are too addicted, too weak, and too distracted to do what we all know is important.”
This may all be true but there's more to it. Reading, especially reading worthwhile stuff, books from which we can learn, is hard work. It requires concentration and thinking, and to remember what one has read requires having someone else to talk with about what one has read. Unlike so much else to which we devote time to perusing, reading good books requires commitment and discipline and that's not something many people are willing to invest in.

Yancey concludes with this:
I’ve concluded that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle, somewhat like the battle against the seduction of Internet pornography. We have to build a fortress with walls strong enough to withstand the temptations of that powerful dopamine rush [that social media affords] while also providing shelter for an environment that allows deep reading to flourish. For deep reading, I’m searching for an hour a day when mental energy is at a peak, not a scrap of time salvaged from other tasks.

I’m still ... trying to resurrect the rich nourishment that reading has long provided for me. If only I can resist clicking on the link 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl.
I'm reminded of the words of P.J. O'Rourke who advised that we should "always read stuff that makes you look good if you die in the middle of it."