I took three books with me when I went backpacking last weekend.
When you're a backpacking novice like me, every ounce in your backpack matters; after the first mile, you are ready to toss everything except maybe a water bottle and M&Ms to keep you going. My friend and I debated leaving part of the tent behind, and discussed the merits of toilet paper, but I never considered leaving my books behind. And if I had left them, I would have been reading the backs of our dried fruit packages when we stopped for breaks.
I love to read.
I read War and Peace on a dare when I was 15, read the backs of cereal boxes and shampoo containers when I eat and shower, and rarely leave the house without a book.
So I identify very much with journalist Bibi van der Zee, who decided to go "cold turkey" from books for a week, and wrote on her experience in The Guardian earlier this month:
I am usually reading three, sometimes four books, with a pile of books waiting in case I run out. I never leave the house without my book, and if I'm taking a train I'll usually have a back-up book in case I finish the first one. I'd rather read than do housework or laundry, and sometimes I'd rather read than talk to friends or husband or family.
Van der Zee went on her "book fast" because, she says, she often senses that "books are eating you up instead of the other way round." I can identify. I try to read good literature, but even so, occasionally I find myself reading so much that I don't stop to process what I've read. I read the last page of Leif Enger's So Brave, Young and Handsome (a book I highly recommend) and proceeded on to an essay on terrorism I had been reading in The New Yorker.
Now, I'm happy to praise the benefits of reading. In a recent interview with Her.meneutics, Sarah Clarkson made an excellent point about reading as a way to strengthen imagination and, thus, a grasp on spiritual reality:
In the realities of modern life it's easy to not be able to see the spiritual consequences of the choices you're making or to understand yourself as part of a great story God is writing. By strengthening your imagination through stories, you're strengthening your ability to see all of life as a story and enter into the realm of the spiritual world.
But in a world where so much of our time is structured and filled, books can be a trap, another way to add structure and busyness and doing to an already over-structured life. It seems to be a common complaint that "the Internet"—blogs, a constant news cycle, and Twitter—are destroying reading time, and we should counter the trend by reading long books printed on actual paper. But why do we assume that reading longer things, with older technologies, is better?
A student dean, in a recent Harvard Magazine article, described the university's students as "unbelievably achieving … [and] always on. They prefer to be busy all the time, and multitask in ways I could not imagine."
I'm sure many readers can relate to the feeling of busyness and multitasking, preferential or not.
The reporter goes on to say,
The paradox is that students now live in such a blur of activity that idle moments for such introspection are vanishing. The French film director Jean Renoir once declared, "The foundation of all civilization is loitering," saluting those unstructured chunks of time that give rise to creative ideas. If Renoir is right … then civilization is on the precipice: loitering is fast becoming a lost art.
The art of leisure is something I'm not sure I even understand; why would I take time to sit still when I could be studying, cooking, cleaning, or (especially) reading? But it is tied to the spiritual discipline of meditation, the art of "inward silence" and "holy leisure" that Richard Foster calls, in his classic Celebration of Discipline, "a time to become still … [and] allow the fragmentation of our minds to become centered." Meditation is not even a structured time for processing information: "This is not a time for technical studies, or analysis, or even the gathering of material to share with others." It is a time to be still and silent, to let God speak and guide, and to come to know him better. Books as a time-filler seem a poor second to the practice of holy leisure.
This isn't to say a full stop to book reading is the thing to do. My point is that reading can be escapism or real-world discipline; it can be structure or leisure. It can be creativity-inducing or creativity-killing. The question is how to distinguish between the two, so that the discipline of reading remains a useful tool rather than a spiritual blind.