“But examine everything carefully;
hold fast to that which is good.”
– 1 Thessalonians 5:21
Last time I introduced the topic of reading and addressed the first of three important issues related to our reading: whether we read. Yet as we know, all reading is not equal. Its benefit–its value to us–varies. Thus, we need to consider what we read.
What We Read
When my children were younger, we had to teach them about food. They needed to learn the differing values of foods like fruit and vegetables, meat and potatoes, and cake and ice cream. My wife used the term “grow food” to identify foods that are good for helping their bodies develop, to grow big and strong. This helped them learn to distinguish other foods – desserts, for example – whose growth effects tend to be felt more around the waistline; it also helped them understand that such foods, even if enjoyable, needed to be controlled and consumed in moderation.
There is a striking parallel between our food and our reading. Just as we need to judge food by its value to our bodies, we need to judge reading material by its value to our minds. I suggest the term “growth reading” to identify reading material that is good for developing our minds and for building our knowledge and understanding in important areas. As with desserts, we need to learn to distinguish reading that, no matter how enjoyable, needs to be carefully watched and controlled due to its potential effects. Two examples come to mind immediately: amusing reading and superficial reading.
I have been challenged by a thought that I found here regarding the use of leisure time – the discretionary time that we have when we are not required to deal with work and other obligations of life. When leisure time is given to reading (which various reports suggest is occurring less and less), the reading is often “reading for enjoyment.” Yet I fear that this term is largely a cover for “reading for amusement.” We often think of the term amusement as indicating something that is mildly fun or funny, but the fundamental meaning is somewhat different. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains that amuse “suggests that one’s attention is engaged lightly or frivolously.” Now, I confess, I can really enjoy reading for amusement. But then I like eating desserts, too. I am not suggesting that either must be totally avoided, yet I must recognize that the failure to control them will have certain consequences for me.
For example, an excess of dessert can yield flabby bodies. Similarly, an excess of amusing reading can affect our minds, for just as muscles weaken and atrophy with a lack of use, minds weaken when they are not worked and challenged. In sum, an excess of amusing reading can dull our mental abilities.
Further, remember your mother telling you to eat your vegetables or your other “main food” first. She did not want you starting with dessert lest you run out of room before you got to the “grow food.” In similar fashion, amusing reading is dangerous when it crowds out better, more important reading: our growth reading.
Finally, an excess of dessert can train our desires and thus affect our appetites. As our desire for dessert increases, our consumption will tend to increase if we do not carefully control it, and this can intensify the overall effect. The same can happen with our reading, resulting in yet greater attraction for the amusing and less for the sober-minded.
Superficial reading has two aspects. The first relates to the author’s treatment of the topic and occurs when we choose reading material that treats its subject superficially. It is often said that “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Important areas like theology, philosophy, culture, law, and education do not tolerate superficial treatment well. “Cliff notes” summaries do not provide an adequate foundation for a worthy handling of issues in these areas. Superficial understandings and superficial analyses often miss important details or nuances that can be critical.
Applying this to our reading, we need to evaluate potential reading material before we start it and to continue evaluating our chosen reading material as we read through it, for it is a dangerous thing to treat the superficial as if it were substantial. Thus, we need to be discerning – keeping in mind the authors and their expertise and considering the depth with which they treat the material – so that we identify reading material that is worthy of our time and conducive to our growth and distinguish it from that which is not.
In this analysis should we not also consider the medium in which the writing occurs? Online fora and blogs are grabbing a great deal of attention, and they provide some good opportunities. Yet we would be foolish to ignore the risks that tag along. Just as with other reading material, we need to consider who the authors are and how they treat their subject. In this regard I am greatly concerned that the spontaneity with which many persons participate in online discussions can work against in-depth thought and analysis and create a greater risk of superficial discussion. Again, we need to be discerning and self-disciplined.
The second aspect of superficial reading relates to the reader’s treatment of the material and occurs when we choose to read in a superficial manner. The effective value of even the most excellent reading material can be diminished if we read this way. Whether we are in a hurry because we have many things to do or otherwise distracted, we often fail to engage in the thoughtful analysis and reflection that the subject matter warrants.
Superficial reading is dangerous in at least two ways. First, similar to amusing reading, it can dull our abilities. For example, I find that constant cursory reading can get me into the habit of skimming whenever I begin to read, and thus I catch myself starting to skim serious reading material. I then must force myself to go back, slow down, and read it again. Second, superficial reading can deceive us into thinking we are accomplishing more than we actually are.
In sum, we need to evaluate carefully what we read. We need to consider the topics being addressed, the authors who are writing, the depth of their treatment, and the media they are using so that we choose reading material that is conducive to our growth. We then need to actually read it well, and I will turn to that next.
In the mean time how do you deal with these issues?