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 some 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, 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 (OK, 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.
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.
Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up. In a famous experiment, rats keep pressing a lever to get that dopamine rush, choosing it over food or sex. In humans, emails also satisfy that pleasure center, as do Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.
Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows analyzes the phenomenon, and its subtitle says it all: “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” Carr spells out that most Americans, and young people especially, are showing a precipitous decline in the amount of time spent reading. He says, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” A 2016 Nielsen report calculates that the average American devotes more than ten hours per day to consuming media—including radio, TV, and all electronic devices. That constitutes 65 percent of waking hours, leaving little time for the much harder work of focused concentration on reading.
In The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts laments the loss of “deep reading,” which requires intense concentration, a conscious lowering of the gates of perception, and a slower pace. His book hit me with the force of conviction, intensifying my sense of crisis. I keep putting off Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and look at my shelf full of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology books with a feeling of nostalgia—why am I not reading books like that now?
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:
When asked about his secret to success, Warren Buffett pointed to a stack of books and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will…” Charles Chu, who quoted Buffett on the Quartz website, acknowledges that 500 pages a day is beyond reach for all but a few people. Nevertheless, neuroscience proves what each of these busy people have found: it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.
If we can’t reach Buffett’s high reading bar, what is a realistic goal? 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 1642 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.”**
Though Chu underestimates the average book length at 50,000 words, his conclusion still applies. Now I really feel guilty. In the last two years, Chu has read more than 400 books cover to cover. Willpower alone is not enough, he says. We need to construct what he calls “a fortress of habits.” I like that image. Recently I checked author Annie Dillard’s website, in which she states, “I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.” Now that’s a fortress.
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 while also providing shelter for an environment that allows deep reading to flourish. Christians especially need that sheltering space, for quiet meditation is one of the most important spiritual disciplines.
As a writer in the age of social media, I host a Facebook page and a website and write an occasional blog. Thirty years ago I got a lot of letters from readers, and they did not expect an answer for a week or more. Now I get emails, and if they don’t hear back in two days they write again, “Did you get my email?” The tyranny of the urgent crowds in around me.
If I yield to that tyranny, my life fills with mental clutter. Boredom, say the researchers, is when creativity happens. A wandering mind wanders into new, unexpected places. When I retire to the mountains and unplug for a few days, something magical takes place. I’ll go to bed puzzling over a roadblock in my writing, and the next morning wake up with the solution crystal-clear—something that never happens when I spend my spare time cruising social media and the internet.
I find that poetry helps. You can’t zoom through poetry; it forces you to slow down, think, concentrate, relish words and phrases. I now try to begin each day with a selection from George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or R. S. Thomas.
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 put on headphones and listen to soothing music, shutting out distractions.
Deliberately, I don’t text. I used to be embarrassed when I pulled out my antiquated flip phone, which my wife says should be donated to a museum. Now I pocket it with a kind of perverse pride, feeling sorry for the teenagers who check their phones on average two thousand times a day.
We’re engaged in a war, and technology wields the heavy weapons. Rod Dreher published a bestseller called The Benedict Option, in which he urged people of faith to retreat behind monastic walls as the Benedictines did—after all, they preserved literacy and culture during one of the darkest eras of human history. I don’t completely agree with Dreher, though I’m convinced that the preservation of reading will require something akin to the Benedict option.
I’m still working on that fortress of habit, trying to resurrect the rich nourishment that reading has long provided for me. If only I can resist clicking on the link that promises 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl…