Saturday, November 14, 2015

Read a Full Meal

I do a lot of reading on a given day. In my armchair at home (like Bilbo Baggins), at work, on a bike ride in front of the laundry mat in Key West. You know, whenever I can. Sometimes I worry whether I am also simultaneously doing a lot of learning. Or perhaps I am reading at the expense of thinking, and therefore not learning. This would be very bad. It occurred to me that one way for me to process my thinking and therefore evidence my learning is to share about my readings. Consider this an introduction to that.

One of my philosophies about reading is that it needs to be done in healthy-sized chunks. The internet and social media can be terrible for the mind as it applies to reading. Popcorn style reading is disastrous. This existing philosophy about reading a lot at a time, say, at least a chapter of a book in one sitting, or a chapter of Scripture instead of a couple verses, or a whole article or even page in a newspaper instead of only the first paragraph, revealed itself specifically this last weekend as I was reading a book about my favorite topic. I want to use my experience reading this book to make a point. That is, I want to help you read a full meal. How do I do that wait what does that even mean? When you read, you need to do so fully by practicing the same basic things you would do when eating a full meal: chew, swallow, and digest.


This does not mean put the pages of a book into your mouth and bite down repeatedly. Don't be silly. What I mean is actually take in words and sentences so that they can get into your system. Just like you shouldn't just look at your food, play around with it on the plate, or smell it only, don't just look at the pictures, play with the pages, or take in the smell (old books can be distracting in this way). This sounds painfully obvious but I mention it because I need this reminder. I am a book lover, and a collector, and I do sometimes sit and admire my shelves, "tinker" through a book I want to someday read, or literally open and smell a 19th century volume of The Treasury of David by Charles Spurgeon (just picked up for $8 at Half-Price Books #FistBump). I digress.

The book I mentioned before is called The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a "theology" book that was quite a page turner. Sometimes, even with topics that particularly interest me, I find myself struggling to get through the pages. In some cases too much thinking is required and comprehension is difficult, so I have to go slow, which can be frustrating. Some books are so dense that to actually read them intelligibly its like you're eating your peas one a time. This is not chewing (and extremely annoying). With this book I found myself breezing through the pages because the "argument" or "thesis" that was being presented needed a lot of words to fully explain. By truly chewing the content I tasted it more keenly and enjoyed it more thoroughly.


As I read through the paragraphs, I was on the edge of my seat for the point that was being built, through page after page of introductory context. It wasn't that more words were used than necessary; layers of thought had to be built before a complete point could be made, and in this case that approach worked well and was helpful for me. The length and the completeness was worth the effort, like a long meal at a nice restaurant. But I couldn't have understood or benefited from any of it without making it to a reasonable stopping point. I needed to swallow a healthy portion.

Reading is not scanning information into your brain long enough to process it and then spit it back out. It is meant to be swallowed so it can fully make it into our system. How much time do we spend reading only to stop mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, or mid-chapter? Or mid-email?? Its like the book or article is having a conversation with us and we just walk away in the middle of a story. You wouldn't do that in real life. As a society we need to improve our attention spans. Mental snacking is contributing to poor overall health. We need to swallow what we are reading, rather than swish it around in our brain for a minute or two and then spit it back out. I shudder to think of the affect on our comprehension, cognitive development, and soul growth that this has on us. For Christians, this leads to ignorance in areas where we need to be speaking life into people.

This is very convicting to me because I often falsely find my identity in what I know, and if I don't know a little about a lot I don't like where that leaves me. What I've found is the only way to know a little about a lot is to read too little about everything. Bad idea. Better to know a lot about a little by reading as much as you can about only some things. Follow? I am guilty of doing this completely wrong; scanning articles, reading parts of books only (although the table of contents can be a helpful summary). I've been reading The New York Times for a year, and I would have trouble telling you what I read yesterday. This is no good.

I admit I still go for the snacking instead of the meal. Worse, I don't even always ingest what I'm reading. Its like "eating" sunflower seeds. This is not what reading should be. We need to swallow the information and ideas that our eyes see and our brain is processing.


Finally, we need to digest what we read. We need to let our brain do its work and help us process, store, and use what we've just ingested. If we did it right, and fully chewed it, and swallowed it, there is a lot of internal work left to be done. The last thing we would want is to go on to something else without thinking about what we just read!

We can't expect to understand a complex subject or current event without reading and thinking a lot about it. If you read a Bible verse from a different chapter or book every day, your perspective on God and the gospel is going to be very scattered. If you read one article about the Syrian refugee crisis you probably aren't going to know that much about what all is really going on there. If you watch one episode of 24, you have no appreciation yet for how amazing it is. I digress again.

But is it possible to read a book as a full meal, especially considering the amount of time that is realistically available to read? What about the newspaper? Or the Bible? Now we're talking. Are we snacking on the Bible instead of taking it in as a gourmet meal? God forbid.

"Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food." - Isaiah 55:2

Diligence is required. Here is my challenge: take at least a quarter of as much time thinking as you do reading, and no less. In other words, if you read for an hour, make sure you are also just thinking for at least 15 minutes in the same sitting. Start with the Bible (I am talking to myself here).

If meditation, prayer, and journaling (as a way to document what you are learning or how you are changing) results, you are in a good place. If a wandering mind, aimless searching on your phone or the internet, or the temptation to multi-task is the result, go back to reading until it causes you to think (undistracted) for at least a quarter of the time. And repeat. I think this will prove whether your reading is helping you learn and change or is just a leisure activity. Leisure reading is not bad, but there is so much more to experience. Don't move on just yet to other things. Digest it. If you didn't digest the food you ate, you would feel ill. It is the same with what we feed into our brain, only this digestion is not involuntary, so you have to consciously do it, and the negative result if often less obvious, so we don't address it.

A possible future post: "what if I don't like to read?" Ahh! I pity the fool. Not that you're a fool if you don't like to read. I'm just sayin'. You need to start reading more and I promise you will love it.