Our 12-year-old is the only one of our five offspring who is not an avid reader. She reads the books she is assigned for school, with mixed reactions. Every now and again, she’s assigned a book she really enjoys, but most of the time, she grits her way through it. It is a source of angst to me at times, but I’ve learned to accept that there are people born into the world, even possibly born of me, who don’t enjoy reading.
This week, however, she has been more engrossed and talkative about a book than I have witnessed since she read Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, which she truly loves. This extraordinary book -in the sense that my kids is captivated by it- is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Young Readers Edition, which her sister picked up for her as a spontaneous gift.
I’m not sure how she knew 12-year-old would like the book, or if she even knew the book would be such a hit with her, but it has really piqued her interest in myriad ways.
Sitting next to me as I try to recapture my inner student (I recently started taking online classes via Local University.) was this child informing me that we are all basically composed of corn. The first section of the book assess the expansion of the corn industry and how affects nearly every food we put into our bodies. Unless of course, we avoid processed foods and make as much as we can from scratch.
Before encountering the book, this child was the least likely of all our children to show much interest in what was in her food so long as it tastes good. This has always had trouble dealing with our propensity to have cabinets and a fridge with nothing but healthy fare. Now, she takes the phrase “USDA Organic” with a heaping grain of salt, and is infinitely more curious about where and what kinds of meats I buy when I shop.
More inspiration from the excellent classical educators at Circe Institute.
John Ehrett describes a recent phenomena of high school education that wasn’t common back during the dark ages when I was a high school student. Namely, that literature and language arts teachers are increasingly refraining from assigning classic works of literature as part of their curriculum.
Why you ask? Because of a growing belief that in the absence of the necessary time required to read the books, students are SparkNoting their way through the related assignments. Using the magic of the Internet, it is entirely possible to produce papers and test results which seem to indicate a thorough understanding of the literature even when they haven’t read it:
In my experience and that of many others, this precise problem is virtually ubiquitous across modern education. When it’s scheduling crunch time, “doing the assigned readings” is usually the first thing to go. And why wouldn’t it be? The savvy student motivated predominantly by grades has a whole range of resources at his disposal: Armed with readily available summaries and model answers, he can muddle through papers and exams with half-baked “analysis” that engages the work at the level of its most overt plot points. Viewed through this lens, a book like Anna Karenina becomes a story of infidelity interrupted by annoying digressions about farming rather than the comprehensive meditation on “the good life” that Tolstoy actually penned. Nobody learns anything in this scenario, but A-grades are awarded in due course and everyone moves on.
When grades are the holy grail on which everything of importance rests, the means becomes irrelevant. The ends are all that matter, and the deeper understanding of humanity, life, and nature that one acquires through reading great books is lost. It is not unlike those who are excellent at proof-texting their way through sacred texts to achieve whatever moral or psychological end they brought to the book before they ever picked it up. Winning the argument, the grade, or whatever we need to succeed becomes the goal. Whether that be a good job or peace with ourselves, we’ve learned how to get there. And clearly, we’ve taught our young people how to get there as well. This is not without cost, however:
Of course, eventually this habit catches up to a culture. Whenever I read about top-flight university departments jettisoning the classical canon in favor of more “relevant” offerings, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that most students at elite colleges have already read the Western core: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the rest. If my teacher friend’s experience is representative, though, the situation is graver than that: We now have an educational culture producing students—ostensibly trained in the “liberal arts”—who have no connection whatsoever to the great works of the past, or even the reading habits necessary to engage those works.
This is one of the reasons we have chosen a classical approach to homeschooling our children, although we do so with a veritable mountain of educational support. I could never do it on my own. There are things of far more value than ticking off of the appropriate boxes required to be an efficient cog in the economic wheel:
That is the paradigm that classical education affirms—and by juxtaposing a commitment to moral formation alongside the conveyance of information and data, classical education strikes at the root causes of academic acedia. Surely in the end what matters isn’t an admission letter to a prestigious college—a letter that appears, all too often, to denote compliance with certain procedural norms rather than real intellectual curiosity—but the capacity to live a contented and virtuous life. Speaking as the product of a classically inspired home education, I can attest that such an approach is far more likely to produce students willing to tune out the frenetic clamor of the college-prep-industrial complex and love learning for its own sake.
Click over and read the whole thing. It’s worth the 5 minutes, particularly if you are still educating children. As a slow reader with a very full schedule, I appreciate the pressures of life than encroach on one’s ability to find time to read, savor, and integrate the ideas of deeper works of literature. This pressure is even more pronounced among young people who are facing deadlines in various subjects to numerous teachers. But somehow, we have to find a way to strike a balance for the sake of the lives they have to live when schooling is done.
Digital respites are almost always excellent opportunities for more reading. Of course, that’s not the only thing a digital respite frees up time for. The list is endless. There’s increased cleaning time, increased exercise time, and increased home improvement time. The latter also includes increased spending, but more about that later.
One of the most notable changes that come with reduced mental noise is the ability to think unfettered. When reading great ideas and grand classic fiction, the abiity to step away in quietness and analyze what was read helped me to better flesh out the nuances in the books I was reading. I wanted to chat with others about what I was reading, and having deliberately closed the door to being able to do that here, those conversations took on a larger role during times with friends.
At the end of March, after weeks of sharing different ideas from Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, I handed my copy to a friend who was interested in reading it. When she gave it back to me last week, I immediately took it from her and handed it to another friend of ours who’d been wanting to read it as well. It was such a satisfying moment, the ability to bond and share ideas which emerged from the things we read.
This is, without question, the best part about increased reading time: the opportunity to talk about books with friends. Even better than that is when we have the opportunity to share not only what we have read with friends, but share the books themselves.
As I have handed friends -and taken from the hands of friends- books of every era and genre, my commitment has steadily increased to physical books over digital. I thoroughly appreciate the ease and convenience of both digital and audio books. I have a loaded Kindle and am currently listening -albeit very slowly- to The Brothers Karamazov. The wealth of digital book option is a boon to the bibliophile.
However, they can’t compare with the joy of passing tomes between friends and dissecting the ideas over cups of coffee. I’m considering the idea of a summer book club because spending time chatting with girlfriends and fellow mothers about books is infinitely more edifying than complaining or gossip. I am blessed to be in community with women who don’t engage in the latter anyway.
In addition to more time with books over the past several weeks has been more time celebrating with family and friends, entertaining, spring cleaning, and probably my most favorite thing, helping my husband re-do our master bedroom closet. Remember that increased spending? Here is the before (well actually after he took out the boring original white wire hanging apparatus):
After spending a small fortune on good wood (birch I believe it is), lots of measuring, cutting, and sanding, the wood was handed to me and the kids for staining and ironing veneer on the edges. This was the midway point:
Several drawers need to be finished, as we had to return some of the drawer hardware that arrived damaged to the manufacturer for replacements, which we are still waiting for, and currently my husband is working on some molding near the floor. He’s still not quite done, but we’re about 75% of the way there:
We went ahead and started hanging some of the garments because nearly 3 months of clothes stacked across the desk in our bedroom was more than long enough. Public service announcement: Never start a major home project at nearly the exact same time as you’re beginnng a new, relatively demanding job.
Respite, feasts, worship, family, (and extra closet space!) are the stuff of life. But what is any of it without great books?
We’ve discussed before the advantages, limitations and broader implications of Marie Kondo’s best-selling book on de-cluttering and home organization. Quite recently, I even posted pictures of my kids’ attempts to organize their dresser drawers KonMari style for the purposes of fitting everything in such a way that each item is easily visible and easy to access.
While I was impressed with the patience and skill my kids demonstrated by turning their t-shirts and underwear into an origami project, I couldn’t quite bring myself to go that far. There’s no possible way I could ever, washing two loads of laundry per day, find the motivation let alone the time, to sit and fold everything into neat little triangular shapes then line them up in the drawers.
Guess what? My kids haven’t stuck to it either. They made a valiant effort worth commending, especially knowing them as I do. The method simply isn’t realistic long term, but I digress. The merits folding one’s clothing origami style isn’t what prompted this post.
This is a blog about books, and despite the overwhelmingly positive response to Kondo’s admonition that we get rid of most of our junk, one thing which has drawn consistent howls of protest is her suggestion that those following her method scale their libraries down to no more than 30 books. Being a homeschool parent as well as a voracious reader, I dismissed that nonsense out of hand. Others however, have taken the time to dissect and contemplate the underlying implications of suggesting that we purge ourselves right out having any substantial home library at all. The delightfully poetic Rachel at Bay Boxwood put it thus:
It strikes me as odd that one of the first edicts handed down by the pop-minimalist scolds is The Culling of the Books.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re hanging on to a houseful of junky or unread books and paper ephemera, then cull away, you’ll probably be glad you did – but – considering the amount of unworn clothing, abandoned craft projects, ancient canned goods, and broken everything in peoples living spaces, it just seems like there are better places to start de-cluttering and un-owning, and that perhaps once the rest of the mess is resolved the books are a collection worth keeping.
Given that beautifying living spaces is what she does, I’ll defer to her authority on that issue, and agree with it wholeheartedly. Being given to conspiratorial imaginations complete with visions of elitist machinations in smoke-filled rooms, I am immediately wary of attempts to encourage the masses to do away with hard copies of books.
Do you know what brings me joy? BOOKS! Adventures to times and places I’ll never visit in the “real” world, deep journeys into hope and heartbreak, thrilling escapades where someone won’t get out alive but I probably will, somewhat-confusing classics I had to read for school that made me a better person even if I didn’t appreciate them at the time…I love them all.
I mean, it’s great to have a few travel mementos that bring a smile every time you look at them, don’t get me wrong, but books contain whole worlds—the lives and journeys of beloved friends we’ve admired and empathized and learned from. The joy quotient is just through the roof. Libraries and bookstores spark so much joy that they might as well be actual infernos of happiness. (Is that a little Fahrenheit 451? Maybe. But you get the idea.) And if your house just happens to resemble a library or bookstore…all the better!
Writing for The Guardian, Anakana Scholfield reminds us that not every book we read is going to spark joy, and sometimes this is a very good thing:
The metric of objects only “sparking joy” is deeply problematic when applied to books. The definition of joy (for the many people yelling at me on Twitter, who appear to have Konmari’d their dictionaries) is: “A feeling of great pleasure and happiness, a thing that causes joy, success or satisfaction.” This is a ludicrous suggestion for books. Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.
We live in a frantic, goal-obsessed, myopic time. Everything undertaken has to have a purpose, outcome or a destination, or it’s invalid. But art doesn’t care a noodle about your Apple watch, your fitness goals, active lifestyle, right swipes, career and surrender on black pudding. Art will be around far longer than Kondo’s books remain in print. Art exists on its own terms and untidy timeline.
As for culling one’s unread books – while that may be essential for reducing fire and tripping hazards, it is certainly not a satisfying engagement with the possibilities of literature. (Unless it’s self-help or golf, in which case, toss it.) Success is, eventually, actually reading your unread books, or at least holding on to them long enough that they have the chance to satisfy, dissatisfy or dement you. Unread books are imagined reading futures, not an indication of failure.
Some of the most rewarding books I own, beginning with my Bible, have grieved, challenged, and stretched me in the most painful yet rewarding ways. Several are worth re-reading again and again, sharing with friends, and passing along to my children and their children.
Despite my predilection for book collection, I am a fervent supporter of local libraries and encourage their patronage for books that we enjoy exploring which are, for whatever reasons, not worth retaining in our personal libraries.
The bigger takeaway from all of this is that each of us, rather than being carried away by the cultural wave of the moment, needs to use wisdom and discretion when it comes to what we own, how we spend our money, and how we decide which experts of the moment are worth listening to.The way I feel about my books is the way my husband feels about his tools. Some of the more obscure specialty tools might only be used yearly, but when needed, they are worth every penny and whatever bit of space they occupy.
Materialism and collection of worthless clutter is expensive and causes unnecessary stress. That’s something most all agree on. How we approach Marie Kondo’s needed invitation to examine our relationship with our stuff will be as varied as each of our homes and families.
How many books in your library are you willing to part with?
Today, Amazon* delivered my pre-ordered copy of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism to our front door. I was so excited I started reading it right away. Life being what it is, I only got as far as the introduction before I had to put it aside, but I’m enjoying what I’m reading so far.
Stay tuned for a review in the near future!
*Yeah, I ordered it from Amazon. I’m making a concerted effort to reduce the number of dollars I send the way of Mr. Bezos, but sometimes my American addiction to convenience gets the best of me.
I am preparing to pre-order Cal Newport’s soon to be released Digital Minimalism. I don’t know for sure that there will be a whole lot inside that I haven’t considered at one point or another, but I like what he has to offer, and I like the idea of all of these considerations packaged into one book.
I’ve run the gamut as it relates to managing technology as a part of my life, going from way too much of it, to fasts of varying lengths, and everything in between. Even having reached what I think is a fairly balanced way of doing things (I’ll get to that in a minute), I still want to read his book.
Reading books which encourage me in the areas where I need or want to maintain improvement is vital for me. I can easily find myself getting overwhelmed or distracted by the stuff of life in ways that tempt me to resort to unhealthy or less productive ways of getting things done. By that I mean running in circles, feeling stressed, and demanding that everyone else join me in my madness so that “we get this stuff done already!” It’s a strategy, and I use that word loosely, which produces the exact opposite of what I want to accomplish.
Inspired in part by Hearth’s recent review of the book Boundaries, I thought a discussion of how books impact any changes we make might be interesting. I’ll get the ball rolling by recounting a few of the ways books I’ve read have helped me make changes.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: I still struggle with this one occasionally, for reasons I explored in my original review. I do purge quite regularly however, and the post-Christmas purge is underway right now. Usually, our -younger- children balk when I start discarding their things. However, inspired by their older sisters, who have been rather captivated my Marie Kondo’s broadcast version of her books, they’ve caught the purging bug as well. They did this without me standing over them to supervise like a drill sergeant:
Deep Work: I just realized that I never reviewed this book. Obviously, I’ve been influenced by the work of Cal Newport, and one of the biggest takeaways from his writing is the damaging effects of social media, particularly via use of smartphones:
“Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”
The biggest change I made to help improve my attention (scientists suspect humans are down to a highly debatable8 seconds) and ability to be distracted is removing certain apps and notifications from my phone. After deleting Instagram and WordPress, relegating them to laptop use only (unless I am uploading content), I dramatically reduced my use of technology without having to do anything else. There is still -as always in life- some room for improvement, but I’m satisfied with the changes and the resulting uptick in productive use of my time both in work and at leisure.
Keto Clarity: I have never been able -for various reasons- to jump into the ketogenic lifestyle with both feet and never look back, mainly because I love fruit and baking, in that order. In fact if it wasn’t for the horror I felt at the idea of never eating apples in the fall or peaches, pears, or mangoes in the summer, I might have stuck in out. Alas, I am a tropical gal and I love my tropical fruits. I have however, once and for all accepted the reality of ditching grains from my diet. I dropped the ball over the holidays of course. In the two weeks since the new year began, the difference in my skin, eyes, sleep and appetite since cutting grains and processed sugar is -as usual- remarkable. I suppose It Starts With Food should be included here as well.
The Power of a Praying Wife: I used this is two ways. The first was referring it to a dear wife who could use some targeted direction in praying for a husband at a difficult time. Doing that was a good refresher for me of topics I could use to pray for my own husband. Given that he is in a transitory period right now, it was a great reminder for me.
Life Together and The Benedict Option: These are both books which, in different ways, highlight the importance of engaged, intimate, Christian community and how it enhances our lives. In our individualistic, increasing atomized and dysfunctional culture, these are important principles for Christians to remember.
How does your reading translate into life action or change? Does you reading translate into life action or change?
Friedan’s seminal work is one of those books that I’ve read a lot about, and read a lot of excerpts from, while never actually reading the book to take in the entirety of Friedan’s arguments and the conclusions she drew. I don’t expect the reading to soften my disdain for the havoc she unleashed along with Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex.
However, I have learned over the years that many of the most notoriously damaging social thinkers and commentators in recent history had their fingers on the pulse of a real problem. It was their prescriptions which were toxic and culturally destructive. So I am reading The Feminine Mystique, but not until I finish with Thomas Sowell. Priorities!
I am also in the final stages of reading through Hippies of the Religious Right by Preston Shires. This is, so far a highly enlightening book and one that I look forward to exploring here. In other words, there is some heavy reading going on here at present, but not all of the reading is heavy.
I also just finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with my kids, who had to read it for school. Whimsical, funny, and astute, it was a fun read and the perfect counter balance to all the weightier philosophical, cultural, and religious writings that have occupied my reading time. Because Tom Sawyer is such a well known and widely read work, I have decided not to review it here, but I will offer one of my favorite quotes from it:
“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
Lastly, Advent is upon us, beginning on Sunday December 2, and after much research and exploration, we have rested on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s God is in a Manger as the devotional for this year. Reflecting as we commemorate the Advent of the Savior is important to us, and I am really looking forward to this devotional.
That’s what’s in my queue. Do tell:
What is in YOUR reading queue as the end of 2018 rushes upon us?