I love books.
But lately—with lately meaning, oh, the last decade or so—a truer statement might be this: I like the idea of books. I like the idea of those big, bound collections of ideas that might stimulate my thinking and change my life in profound ways.
But the reality—a reality shaped and molded by our ever-more-information-everywhere-all-the-time internet age—is that I’ve actually become quite accustomed to looking for big ideas … in very small packages.
My brain, you see, has become acclimated to the internet’s mode of existence: high-speed skimming. And as a result, even though I still love the idea of books and I still buy books, I rarely read them all the way through anymore.
That’s something I’d like to change in 2017.
The photo above is of a stack of books that’s been sitting on my desk for the last couple of months. I assembled them because I was pulling together a new talk that I give to church groups on the influence of technology on our lives.
I’ve read chunks and chapters of all of these books, several of which focus specifically on technology (such as Nicolas Carr’s well-received The Shallows and Sherry Turkle’s similarly seminal tome Alone Together). Others focus more on cultural issues (Diane West’s The Death of the Grown-Up, David Brooks’ On Paradise Drive, Leonard Sax’s The Collapse of Parenting) and spiritual growth (Dallas Willard and Don Simpson’s Revolution of Character).
But the sad truth is this: I don’t think I’ve read any of these books cover to cover. You know, the way we used to do. The way I used to do.
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicolas Carr writes of this exact phenomenon:
Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Amen, brother. It’s a great observation. And I’ll bet there’s more where they came from. But, well, I’ll actually have to finish the book to know for sure.
So as the new year comes into view, I’d like to strengthen those atrophied reading muscles. It’s going to require some retraining of my brain, some undoing of the skimming grooves that the infinite internet and my omnipresent smartphone have conspired to carve into my cerebral cortex. I don’t pretend that this resolution will be automatic or easy; in fact, I know it won’t be.
But I’d like to keep trying.
And that idea, boiled down, is also my representative stance when it comes to media and entertainment in general. We know we need to change. We know we have some bad habits. We even know that those habits may very well be influencing our children. I may not make as much progress in 2017 as I’d like, but I want to give it another shot nonetheless.
And whatever your own media weaknesses and bad habits might be, I hope that 2017 can be a year of growth and change for you, too. (But we’re probably both going to have to log off now to accomplish that goal.)