Redeeming Words

I get roughly two hours a day to myself. One hundred and twenty obligation-free minutes that must be spent well. There are times when I do opt to watch a movie or a couple of episodes of a television show, but more often than not, I spend that precious time with a book (usually with a baseball game on in the background).

Everyone knows that reading is certainly better than binge watching or losing endless hours in front of a video game console, but not all reading material is created equal. And, in this day and age, how we read matters just as much as what. I’m not against popular fiction mind you; my bookshelves and my library card will attest to the fact that I’ve consumed my fair share. However, I read it for an altogether different reason than I do a solid piece of non-fiction or a “classic” work.

When I was an English major, I read with an attention to detail that would impress a ship-in-a-bottle enthusiast. Pen, highlighter, and page flags at the ready, I attacked a work of literature or critical theory ruthlessly. I highlighted passages, wrote reference notes in the margins and on the blank pages at the back. Basically, I did what Billy Collins said all students do, I beat it “with a hose / to find out what it really means.”

I have neither the time nor the inclination to read in such a way these days. I want to experience the books I select and enjoy them for what they are, but I also don’t want to lose the ability to read critically and with attention to detail. I want to investigate language and understand how words work together.

Apparently, I’m in the minority.

According to this article by Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, “skim reading” rather than “deep reading” is the new normal. In her research, she’s discovered that, “Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ ‘cognitive impatience,’ however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth.”

I’ve noticed this cognitive decay happening with people I love. Those who once read books now spend all their free time staring at and swiping on iPads and phones, and over the years, their ability to concentrate has been whittled away. I don’t know if they’re even aware it’s happening, and, sadder still, I’m not sure they care.

Hundreds of studies have been done about the impact of technology, and most of the research isn’t good. According to doctors and researchers, we’re miserable and lonely. Our kids are pretty much wrecked and suffer from anxiety and depression because they’re always connected. We bemoan the lack of civility in our culture and the fact that thoughtful debate seems to have gone the way of the Dodo, yet we won’t put down the things that make us reactionary rather than thoughtful citizens.

When it comes to books, however, the research is all positive. Reading—especially fiction—allows us to take Atticus Finch’s advice and “climb inside [another person’s] skin and walk around in it.” Through reading, we gain empathy. Immersing ourselves in good books makes us smarter. It keeps our minds sharper and helps us be more relaxed.

For this reason, I read at least fifty books per year (both in hard copy and audiobook form when I’m driving), and ten of them must be classics. In addition to a dozen works of non-fiction, some poetry, and a couple of graphic novels, I’ve read Invisible Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, A Raisin in the Sun, Candide, A Moveable Feast, and, most recently, Crime and Punishment.

I have thoroughly enjoyed each of these books, and I’m looking forward to finishing a few more before year’s end. However, good as Dostoyevsky’s novel was, I could feel my mind wandering in parts of Crime and Punishment. I tuned out during a few long descriptive passages, and my eyes glazed over more than once when the story seemed to rewind and repeat itself. Twenty-five-year-old me wouldn’t have done that. That version of Jamie would have read it with laser precision (though with less joy, I think) and analyzed everything about the diction and syntax. She would have marked any instance of symbolism and every allegorical reference (of which there were many). Don’t take that to mean forty-year-old Jamie is a slouch though. Whenever I caught my eyeballs getting loose, I stopped. I re-read and re-focused. I kept a pen in my hand to underline sentences I enjoyed and make observations and predictions.

All the other moms at taekwondo practice (and their kids) may have spent 45 minutes on electronics, but I spent that time in St. Petersburg, Russia wrestling with some thorny moral questions. I’m not judging, believe me. I’ve spent many an hour scrolling social media, but I’ve made the decision to severely curtail my use of those platforms in order to make room for other things. Better things. More filling and rewarding things.

Reading Crime and Punishment expanded my knowledge of Russian history and geography. I even gained a little linguistical wisdom. Take the protagonist’s name for instance. Rodion comes from Rhodes, a Greek island, and Raskolnikov derives from the Russian raskolnik meaning “schismatic.” He is worthy of such a name, for he spends much of the story isolated and of broken because he is of two minds.

Spending time with characters like Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is well worth the time and effort it takes to read their stories. Being inside his head as he wrestled with an ethical dilemma allowed me to experience it up close and personal too. I had to ask myself some hard questions about the value of human life and where I stand on punishment and redemption. I was forced to re-examine my thoughts on morality and the power of God’s grace.

And beyond that, there are the soaring phrases that I will keep with me always:

  • “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
  • “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”
  • “The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
  • “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.”
  • “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”
  • “There is nothing in the world more difficult than candor, and nothing easier than flattery. If there is a hundredth of a fraction of a false note to candor, it immediately produces dissonance, and as a result, exposure. But in flattery, even if everything is false down to the last note, it is still pleasant, and people will listen not without pleasure; with coarse pleasure, perhaps, but pleasure nevertheless.”

Spending an hour on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram seems so paltry, so insufficient when there are words like that out there to feast on. And yet, many of us choose technology instead. We use it to escape reality, to numb our brains to the world around us (especially when it’s unpleasant and we “can’t even”), but what we really need to do is lean in.

In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, John the Savage (so named because he’s grown up outside of the World State’s influence) says of mosquitos and flies, “You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. [You] neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy….What you need…is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”

Like John, I want to know the world in all its beauty and savagery. I want to pay the cost required to live well, to know true pain as well as joy.

Near the end of her article, Maryanne Wolf states, “The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended ‘collateral damage’ of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

The last sentence makes it obvious why deep reading essential (and why our culture is the way it is today). I’ve studied far too many dystopian works to claim ignorance. They’ve shown me what a world without thought looks like, and it is a terrifying prospect. I don’t know if the predictions of Orwell, Huxley, Lewis, Atwood, Dick, Burgess, or Bradley will ever come true. I cannot tell if our world will one day resemble the ones they created as a warning. What I do know is that our minds cannot be spent frivolously. They are precious gifts we must defend at all costs against a world eager to consume them.

 

 

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