“Make sure you schedule a few hours a week to devote to reading.” What heavenly advice! Yet somehow the fact this was given as advice shocked me. I suddenly realized I am more used to hearing, “Stop reading and start doing something useful.” But the idea reading should be scheduled into your life feels strange and foreign to me. Reading is “fun”–this is what they repeatedly taught us in school. You’re supposed to do it because it’s fun, not because it helps you live.
Maybe this contributes to us reading books less often.
It was fair for teachers in my schooldays to try to stop me reading books, because I did read them in class, and I did neglect more productive work (like my math homework) to read. It also makes sense that teachers insist “reading is fun!” in order to get more students to read. However, somehow I internalized these messages as: reading is good but should only be done when you have nothing better to do. Which is not a problem as a kid, since you have quite a bit of free time. But as an adult, reading suddenly becomes a less justifiable activity–when in reality this is a problematic way to view reading!
I certainly still read a lot, but I mainly read a lot of articles online, and the shortness of these articles probably deceives me into thinking I’m not actually wasting much time on them. I imagine I’m briefly and efficiently informing myself. But, of course, what I’m actually doing is feeding and fueling my addiction to information. You can never read enough interesting facts on the internet. But in order to gain a deeper understanding of reality you need more than interesting facts on the internet. You need books.
In other words, I need to get past the idea that reading is not meant to be scheduled into your productive time, but only into your leisure time.
If reading is only ever done for pure leisure, the result is you never pick up a challenging read. Reading that takes work is too much to do when your brain is already over-strained and tired. You end up reading only really light novels, or popularizations of fun topics (such as hygge or Nikola Tesla). Do you want to read about the categorical imperative after a hard day’s work?
In other words, the important works–the works that have changed our civilization–never get read. We never apply ourselves to answering the questions they raise, because we don’t know what questions they raise. We never seek to face the challenges of humanity because we never justify applying ourselves to learning about them.
It is, in fact, a nice solution to consider certain types of reading work. To consider this reading as necessary, and not just for building the practical skills that may in some way help you in your job. To consider reading as a thing that can form and shape character, and as a thing we actually should invest in in order to form and shape our own character. That this is not merely a leisure activity that is optional, but that we are justified in carving out space for this pursuit in our lives.
I almost don’t dare to schedule in directed reading in my schedule. First of all, I hardly know where I’d fit it in. Second, many great works of great writers intimidate me. However, I should be more aware of the consequences of not doing this. Of reading lightly, and assuming I am well-read.
Recently I was reading Augustine’s Confessions–a very classic work that has impacted Western civilization–and I was lying on the couch and feeling like very strange about being on that couch reading. In fact, I was even reading it in order to review it, but I still felt self-conscious. Then I realized that while I used to devour books when I was younger, I now intentionally push myself to read a physical book, and when I do sit down to read I feel like I really should be writing or cleaning my house or studying my schoolwork. Reading, as a mere input of information, feels like a sacrifice of the time you should be devoting to output. And the genius of the online world, and online reading, is that it creates the illusion you are both inputting and outputting information. You read articles in order to share them. You take in information in order to comment on it publicly. You create artistic representations of what you are doing by posting on Instagram, etc. While none of this online chatter really impacts the world greatly, your conscience doesn’t tug as much because you feel you’re using the information presented. You’re not just taking something in, but you’re offering something up to the world in return. It doesn’t matter how trivial what you offer is, you still gain the sense of accomplishment that comes by just offering it.
But this overemphasis on output–on our individual response to the information that seems to be demanded by the internet, and our culture in general–glosses over the necessity of taking the time to input good information. Our responses are expected to be instant. If something takes a long time for us to process, it has to be really, really worth it before we decide it is justifiable to set that time aside.
This year I actually took a year off to go back to school and study, and what I am learning is that to truly understand you actually need to do more than read the quick summaries of topics that float around on the internet. I thought I knew a lot about theology (my topic of study), and that some of the questions I’d fruitlessly searched for answers to probably did not have good answers, since I could not find any. However, the reality is that some of these answers were book-length, not internet-friendly listicles, and therefore I actually was justified in taking a year to study such things. In fact, I should really take a lifetime.
The job of professional scholar is not an incredibly realistic role in our current society, but we do have unimaginable access to information in our modern world. Therefore I do have the opportunity to devote a lifetime to learning, even outside of school. The hurdle that I have to get over–and perhaps you do too–is the tendency to devalue the time we spend on the couch with a book. To devalue the patience that lets the classic authors of the past speak for themselves, instead of watching YouTube summaries.
I must reorient the value I place on reading, so that the time it takes to read is not slotted into that category of “wasted time.”