On not finishing books
During his sermon Sunday, Bill quoted a long passage from the novel Gilead. As a side note, he mentioned that a couple of years ago he had been unable to finish the novel. He’s thoroughly enjoying it now, but, back in 2005, he just couldn’t get through it. He’s not alone.
Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, recently admitted that he has never been able to finish Augustine’s Confessions…
“Sometimes I get 30 pages into the book before I allow myself to get distracted. Months later I pick the book up again, and decide I should start over. I have never gotten past page 30. It’s good to go public about this failing. I’m glad others have blazed the trail by admitting to their faults in this category. This is moral progress.”
Of course, Mouw acknowledges that not reading the Confessions never kept him from quoting it.*
Pierre Bayard wrote the 2007 book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t
Read. Bayard told the New York Times he wrote the book to help French
students (he’s a professor there) “conquer their fear of culture”:
“We are taught one way of reading. Students are told to read the book,
then to fill out a form detailing everything they have read. It’s a
linear approach that serves to enshrine books. People now come up to me
to describe the cultural wounds they suffered at school. ‘You have to
read all of Proust.’ They were traumatized.
They see culture as a huge wall, as a terrifying specter of
‘knowledge,’ But we intellectuals, who are avid readers, know there are
many ways of reading a book. You can skim it, you can start and not
finish it, you can look at the index. You learn to live with a book.
I want people to learn to live with books. I want to help people
organize their own paths through culture. Also those outside the
written word, those who are so attached to the image that it’s
difficult to bring them back.”
Reading is hard. And, it’s getting harder. The Atlantic Monthly has
published an article entitled Is Google Making us Stupid? asserting
that the internet – digital communication – is causing a fundamental
shift in how we obtain and assimilate knowledge. Our capacity for
contemplation and meditation is being diminished while we instantly fill our
heads with something called content.
*Disclosure: A couple of weeks ago I posted Ron Hansen’s book Exiles on this blog. I haven’t read it.
I can certainly relate to not finishing books, by last count there were 11 on my nightstand that I’d started and stopped. And I definitely think there’s a link between that behavior and how I browse the internet at work for hours everyday – clicking on link after link, skimming for the relevant information, but never actually finishing an entire page. Although, it could just be that I’m naturally impatient, and that my internet navigation has been affected by how I read books.
Man, this is helpful. I’ve been so frustrated at my inability to complete books lately, or retain relevant content about the books I’ve read. I think it is due to the surfing mentality. The timing in this seems to fit. I also see this tendency creeping into my relationships. I’m ashamed to say I’ve started tuning out of too many conversations with people who are important to me. I am not paying attention properly and it bothers me, but I haven’t figured out how to reverse it. Any suggestions? Maybe I need an internet fast?
Interesting that in our fast-paced society we end up going nowhere . . . but I straight plum disagree with the idea that not finishing a book is OK. That is, if it’s a good book. Most academic literature should be skimmed or indexed because there isn’t much worth reading; if you skim Flannery O’Connor or any other good author, at least don’t tell me about or I’ll have to stop taking Communion for a bit.
Good post, Gate. There’s certainly a sense of freedom in what you posted. 2 books that i’ve started more than once and been unable to complete in recent years are Augustine’s Confessions and Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. Now that i think about it, there is a hint of good in my not finishing those books. I think sometimes i start reading books like that because i like the idea of reading books like that more than i like the actual books. Point of pride I guess. I’m sure i want to be able to say in conversation, “I was reading in the Confessions the other day…” Seems that being well-read can make us more Christ-like and help us to humbly see God’s world more accurately. Or, it can just make us well-read. May God lead us in the former way.