Read Any Good Books Lately?
August 4, 2017
This is an excerpt from a blog published by Philip Yancey July 20, 2017
The internet and social media have trained our brains to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from The Atlantic or The New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest Tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.
Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, “If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…” Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.
Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up. In a famous experiment, rats keep pressing a lever to get that dopamine rush, choosing it over food or sex. In humans, emails also satisfy that pleasure center, as do Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.
Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows analyzes the phenomenon, and its subtitle says it all: “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” Carr spells out that most Americans, and young people especially, are showing a precipitous decline in the amount of time spent reading. He says, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” A 2016 Nielsen report calculates that the average American devotes more than ten hours per day to consuming media—including radio, TV, and all electronic devices. That constitutes 65 percent of waking hours, leaving little time for the much harder work of focused concentration on reading.
In The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts laments the loss of “deep reading,” which requires intense concentration, a conscious lowering of the gates of perception, and a slower pace. His book hit me with the force of conviction, intensifying my sense of crisis. I keep putting off Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and look at my shelf full of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology books with a feeling of nostalgia—why am I not reading books like that now?
An article in Business Insider* studied such pioneers as Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg. Most of them have in common a practice the author calls the “5-hour rule”: they set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) for deliberate learning. For example:
- Bill Gates reads 50 books a year.
- Mark Zuckerberg reads at least one book every two weeks.
- Elon Musk grew up reading two books a day.
- Mark Cuban reads for more than three hours every day.
- Arthur Blank, a cofounder of Home Depot, reads two hours a day.
When asked about his secret to success, Warren Buffett pointed to a stack of books and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will…” Charles Chu, who quoted Buffett on the Quartz website, acknowledges that 500 pages a day is beyond reach for all but a few people. Nevertheless, neuroscience proves what each of these busy people have found: it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.
If we can’t reach Buffett’s high reading bar, what is a realistic goal? Charles Chu calculates that at an average reading speed of 400 words per minute, it would take 417 hours in a year to read 200 books—less than the 608 hours the average American spends on social media, or the 1642 hours watching TV. “Here’s the simple truth behind reading a lot of books,” says Quartz: “It’s not that hard. We have all the time we need. The scary part—the part we all ignore—is that we are too addicted, too weak, and too distracted to do what we all know is important.”**
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Something to think about....
So HAVE you read any good books lately?
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