The Necessary Work of Reading Well

Wait. Before you go too far with this, you might want to assess how you want to read this. Superficially? Deeply? I know. It all depends on what you are reading. Reading well takes time and attention, but we have been conditioned by the information overload to bounce from tweet to tweet, picture to picture, opinion piece to opinion piece, and blog to blog. Already this morning, I have read a number of emails and tweets, several opinion pieces—from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, an article in SI on Bill Belichick and what makes him such a great coach, etc., etc. All of these have not been read so well.

Karen Swallows Prior, in her recent book, On Reading Well, points out that we have been conditioned to “jump so quickly to interpretation and evaluation that we skip the fundamental but essential task of comprehending what the words actually mean.” (Can I remember, let alone process, what I have already read today?). It might be okay to do this with Facebook posts or tweets, but not with books, especially important books. As she notes, “Just as a fine meal should be savored, so, too, good books are to be luxuriated in, not rushed through.  Habitual skimming is for the mind what a steady diet of fast food is for the body. More harmful than good.

Superficial reading breeds shallow thinking. I see it in myself. It is why I decided that one of my resolutions for the new year was not to read fifty books in 2019, but choose twelve important books—one per month—and read deeply, slowly—as opposed to rushing through. Doing something similar with movies. Choosing carefully, getting into the story, and then discovering the aim.

Beautiful Boy comes to mind. I watched this with a few others last Friday night. It was heart-rending and upsetting. But important. This is the kind of movie that stays with you. Can there be anything more fearful than realizing you are losing your son to Crystal Meth, and there’s nothing you can do? Is there anything more painful than having to finally say—I can no longer be here to help you? I have been with such fathers.

Back to reading, Prior’s book is one of those twelve for me. She calls me out, for too often I am in the race to get through a book—just to get through it (the bane of having Achiever as your signature theme in Strengthfinder). To read well is not to check off a goal, nor scour books for lessons on what to think. Rather, it is to be formed in how to think.

I have to slow down here.  What does this mean? I am working through Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor (for the third time), but I doing it differently. I am reading s-l-o-w-l-y, and sharing the journey with a student. I do not intend to finish it this year. I am savoring (luxuriating) over words, sentences, and thoughts. Like great books, it is not merely informing–it is forming and shaping me. This is what I appreciate about Prior’s book. On Reading Well identifies those core virtues (courage, temperance, hope, patience, etc.), develops them through various pieces of literature, and then starts working on my soul. Some are particularly penetrating, like her chapter on Hope (my last post).

My fear today is that we seldom read to be shaped. My greater fear is that too many of us are not even reading any books. Like hydrofoils, we skim over the ocean of tweets or Facebook posts, picking and choosing only those pieces that agree with what we already believe, confirming what we already think. We are echo chambers simply clicking on the thumbs up button next to all too many vacuous statements. No wonder our character doesn’t change, our arguments do not convince, and culture continues to descend down its mindless path. We are in desperate need of wise thinking–not virtue-signaling.

But there’s hope. There are many great reads and many significant, thoughtful articles, calling us to read well—inviting us to be shaped into a character that is wise, one that can discern between virtue and vice.

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