Reading Good Books
Reading Good Books
by Doug Reynolds, Head of School
This year I have enjoyed reading a number of classics from my favorite author, C.S. Lewis. I have basked in the enjoyment of rereading the Space Trilogy, The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce. Some books I enjoyed for the first time, including The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Problem of Pain. Lewis wrote over 50 years ago, yet his messages are still so relevant to today. I love the way that a medieval literature scholar has so much to say to today’s culture!
As I consider what to put on my summer reading list, C.S. Lewis again guides me. He once famously wrote in his introduction to St. Athanius on the Incarnation:
“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”
I believe that if C.S. Lewis were alive today, he would not only challenge us to read older texts (and I suspect his definition of “old” would be much older than most of ours!), but also to consider the medium in which the texts are read. Reading itself has changed dramatically with the advent of the internet, Kindle, iPad and other devices, and not all for the good.
Reading in past generations was a wonderful form of inexpensive entertainment, usually requiring nothing more than a book picked up at the local library, a good light, and a comfortable chair. Good writing inspires us to follow a plot, letting our imagination fill in the gaps left by the writer. This expands both our intellectual and emotional range. Reading is very much an active activity, not passive like watching TV or talking for hours on the cell phone.
What I find fascinating are the leaders in the technology industry who realize the effect that too much technology has on our brains. They understand that we are losing our potential for focused attention and meaningful discussion. The 24/7 news cycle, the constant access to our cell phone, our desire to read or post on Facebook and the concept of multi-tasking as a laudable routine can often leave us scattered, distracted, and too exhausted to read or think.
There is a secular school in Silicon Valley that eschews technology and instead trains children in the habit of attention. (See the New York Times article). Most interestingly, it is the leaders of the tech companies that are enrolling their children in the school. They see the need to unplug.
Joe Kraus, a partner at Google Ventures, recently gave an insightful speech. He describes what he calls a “crisis of attention” plaguing the 21st Century. Kraus notes that in the pre-smartphone era, we accessed the internet an average of five times per day, whether to read over e-mails, check the news and weather, or to do some quick research. Today, we check the internet via our smartphones an average of–are you ready for this–27 times a day. As he puts it, we feel compelled to check out the news or email “RIGHT NOW.”
Kraus reflects that this constant state of distractedness or multi-tasking is what addicts gamblers to slot machines in modern casinos. The rest of us become 40% less efficient at whatever we’re supposed to be focusing on at work or at home; at both places people notice that we aren’t giving them our full attention.
Kraus says we’re losing our creativity and ability to connect with other human beings in richer, more rewarding relationships as a result.
“We’re radically over-developing the parts of quick thinking, distractible brain and letting the long-form-thinking, creative, contemplative, solitude-seeking, thought-consolidating pieces of our brain atrophy by not using them,” said Kraus. “And, to me, that’s both sad and dangerous.”
If you are interested in learning more about what the leading secular researchers are finding about the impact of technology on our brain development and the social implications, see:
- The Shallows – What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, by Nicholas Carr
- Alone Together – Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from each Other, by Sherry Turkle
- Hamlet’s Blackberry – Building the Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers
Personally, I don’t believe the use of this technology is inherently bad and can be useful for a variety of reasons. However, I do think it is important to guard against some of the negative unintended consequences of overuse. Here are a few ideas that might be helpful. Many of these we have adopted in our own family:
- Establish a technology free day. We do this on Sunday in our family and use the time to read, be together as a family and worship at church. It’s often uncanny how the extended time away from being distracted can help me think more clearly. I’m more productive on Monday morning.
- As Lewis suggests, read at least one old book for every new one you read. Interestingly, you can also note how much poorer writing is, in general, in our modern age than it used to be. Instead of starting with The Hunger Games, for example, read The Lord of the Flies (by William Golding). Even though it was written in 1954, it is a similar genre – a story about a society breaking down. Most strikingly, the Hunger Games is written at about a fourth grade reading level, while the Lord of the Flies is written at a high school reading level. Modern books are often using simple language to attract younger audiences and are making disturbing plots more accessible to them at the same time.
- Read aloud to your children. At our school we require this at home for children of all ages. In addition to providing for an intimate time together as a family, the process of hearing a well written book read aloud helps make the grammar and vocabulary become our own in ways that simply reading silently alone cannot do.
- Limit the use of technology. For adults or for children, keeping email, Facebook, video games or smartphone texting to specific times during the day can help limit their influences on our distracted lives. We limit our children to 30 minutes, twice a week, on the computer. In addition, I no longer have a smart phone so that I am not checking emails too often (I didn’t have the willpower to resist the flashing light on the Blackberry that notified me of a new email!).
- Eat dinner together. Ensuring a daily time where our family has meaningful conversations that are uninterrupted has had wonderful unintended consequences. Our dinner table is the place where we laugh the most in our home. It’s a time that we all look forward to.
Feel free to share your suggestions as well. As C.S. Lewis would no doubt say as we look forward to summer, “enjoy a good book”.
(Note: for the entirety of Joe Kraus’ speech, please click here. Parental discretion is advised for his insertion of a smartphone TV ad from Microsoft)