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The still point of a turning world

Books slow the perpetual mental locomotion

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

The story goes that there are really only two books: the Word and the world. Even the stacks of books in my office that threaten to overwhelm me (eight on my desk and five at my bedside currently considered "must-reads") attest to this: They are all, in the end, about understanding God's word or the world He made, now fallen.

The sheer volume of volumes that come my way bidden and unbidden has me longing for the simplicity of a world divided into only two books of required reading. And our annual books issue, where you will find more excellent "must-reads," has me itching with an uncomfortable question: How much of the stacks do I actually read and remember?

In truth, I increasingly fall captive to a habit of mind captured by technology and culture writer Nicholas Carr: "My concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

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This is pathetic, really, for someone whose days revolve around the pursuit of words and good communication. To work all day on the editing, layout, and proofing of pages, say, about books, then to have time to sit down and read one, only to find myself falling asleep after a page and a half or wanting to surf the net to learn if Anthony Weiner has resigned his seat from Congress-this is a double-minded mind. And judging by the number who confess to me that they rarely do more than read the headlines on their Yahoo! homepage, I know I am not alone.

Carr in his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, draws on a wide body of research to argue that while the boons of the internet-from research to email, banking, real-time news, inventorying, or plotting a war zone-are real, "they come at a price." The more time we spend on the web to get our jobs, our shopping, our bill-paying, our very lives done, the more incapable we become at concentrating. We may grow better at multitasking, but we become less creative. We can become instant experts, but that knowledge is momentary. "Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words," writes Carr. "Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Books remain a solid way to slow what Carr calls the "perpetual mental locomotion" that is the internet. Or as T.S. Eliot might say, to rediscover that still point of a turning world.

Distractions, or bashing the latest technology, isn't new. "The only book possible from today is a newspaper," lamented French poet Alphonse de Lamartine in 1831. And if it wasn't the new broadsheets, it was the phonograph, or the television, or the World Wide Web conspiring to dumb us down. At the same time there's always been someone ready to argue that literature and books are on the verge of extinction, that deep reading and concentrated study were overrated. Yet even as books no longer require paper and binding, they assuredly remain.

So read one, start to finish. Christians especially as "People of the Book" have more reasons than ever to recultivate the habit. Read to be able "to comfort those who are in any affliction," with the comfort you may receive by growing in your knowledge of an otherwise foreign topic. Read to deepen your understanding, not simply improve your velocity of thought. Read to resist temptation and avoid sin. I mean this seriously, as both thoughtful content and the act of book-length reading can forestall a lot of mischief. I wonder how many books Anthony Weiner has read lately. And finally, read as Jonathan Edwards did, as "a miser who critically appraised his treasure." There may be a place for jumping hyperlink to hyperlink, but there's also a time for reading with intent and focus. You don't have to have a stack; only two books will do.

Email Mindy Belz

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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