Sentencing Ourselves to Pieces: Read a Whole Book!

I wrote an essay in my sleep last night–about books. Everyone in my dream was holding a book open, some paper books, some e-books, but all tilting their heads, reading thoughtfully. Books were not dead, the page would live on as a vital and treasured source of knowledge and experience. It was a good world. It was a good essay. It was a good dream. I kept pondering whether I should wake myself up to write it down. I did not, concluding that my slumbering self would surely remember an essay of this import.

I know what happened. I made the mistake of watching a 2010 documentary on the future of education just before bed, and paid particular attention to one interviewee’s prognostications about the book. Marc Prensky, the author of Digital Game-Based Learning, who describes himself on his website as an “internationally acclaimed speaker, writer, consultant and designer in the critical areas of education and learning,” says this about books and kids:

You don’t have to read them (books) to take in what’s in a book. . . If I said to kids, “You know, you don’t have to read all that much. But what I’d really like you to read are these few things and these excerpts, and these parts, and then I’ll tell you why you should read them. . . And no, you don’t have to pore through Silas Marner as I did in high school. There are very few books you have to have read.”

(I confess I would have been more willing to grant his pain in high school had he named The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace. Silas Marner clocks in at a mere 200 pages.)

Let me understand this. If a writer’s work is truly important and excellent, it earns the exalted status of being pieced and excerpted. And then I wonder about the writers whose work rises to this esteem. How did they arrive at their insights, brilliance, and genius? Through an education built on carefully selected snippets?

We have forgotten why we read, I fear. We need information, yes. We need knowledge and discernment more. We need imagination far more. We need beauty and possibility even more. Without these, we are sentenced to a single spirit, a single mind, a single life.

This is what I used to say when books lay on every shelf and people at least aspired to read. We need to read whole books for far more important reasons now. College students can no longer attend to an entire lecture without Facebooking. We text through our meals, we interrupt our visits for every vibration in our shirt pocket. We finish very little single-minded or single-handed. We are sentencing ourselves to pieces, dividing our language, our hours, our very selves among multiple media, shrinking our thoughts into bits and tweets, excerpts and texts. We cannot attend. We no longer seek silence. We have lost our ground of being, and cannot remember what holds us together.

Last week I walked into a first grade classroom. The kids were sprawled on the floor, cross-legged on the carpet, leaning over their desks, all with a book in hand, faces inches from the page, intent. SSR time, Silent Sustained Reading. For twenty minutes every day. Were these the faces in my dream?

Maybe college classes can do the same. Maybe we can, as well. Silent. Sustained. Reading. Maybe we will remember back to first and second grade, why we read books then, from beginning to end. Why we write them. That slow immersion, that aching marinating in a world of such light, drama, and color, whose ending would bring delight, even wonder, and always an appetite for more. We always longed for more of the book, never less.

“Why are we reading if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?” asks Annie Dillard in her excellent book, The Writing Life. Why indeed? Why are we writing if not to do the same? But don’t stop reading with this quote. Read the whole book. Read as many whole books as you can. Sentence yourself again to beauty and whole-hearted delight.

Woman hugging page

15 Replies to “Sentencing Ourselves to Pieces: Read a Whole Book!”

  1. As always, Leslie, you write a compelling and intuitive piece and I greatly enjoyed reading it. But OH MY GOODNESS! That graphic at the end of the man coming to life from the pages of the book and enveloping the reader in his arms – I can’t tell you why but that touched me immensely. My heart began thudding and my eyes suddenly lstung with tears. I surmise it’s because I know that feeling so intimately from the many times that very thing has happened to me. I absolutely love it and would love to borrow it. May I ask where you found it?

    -Debora Coty:

    1. Debora—yes, I love that graphic as well. I would have posted the source, except I found it all over the Internet and coulnd’t track the original source. Just google it and you’ll find it! Maybe your detective skills are better than mine!!

  2. Thanks for sharing this! I think Mr. Prensky has forgotten about (or perhaps never experienced) the joy that comes from reading – from experiencing a book. That’s what I hope my children learn, not just the bits and pieces they can take away from it.

  3. Thanks for your insights, Leslie. It’s a dangerous thing to take books in by piecemeal. Then, the reader (and teacher) can make it say anything they want, instead of what the author intended. I appreciate your stand for the importance of reading the entire work of art!

    1. Thanks Jarm! Yes, it’s hard enough that books are shrinking–but then when yo have educators saying–You only need to read a paragraph here and there—we’re in trouble! (As writers, readers and human beings!)

  4. I really didn’t start reading late into my adult life…having learning issues I really “hated” reading…so I am late in coming to see and experience the great…great value in reading… Authors have become my mentors…I know understand when I hear people say they don’t want the book to end…I love the last picture …I now have experienced what this picture portrays …reading snippets from authors should wet our appetites …not quench them.

  5. Nothing should be taken out of context, let alone story! Thanks for the reminder. I too often glance over my Twitter feed without reading further. Even too many essays keeps my brain in too many places. My problem is time, but I am recognizing that I want to read books. Therefore I need to take the nooks and crannies of life and fill them with however many paragraphs I can manage. Reading doesn’t have to take up eight solid hours.

    As for all those snippets, I like the books that take me days to write reviews of because there is too much in them snippets simply don’t do justice. The review could just say “READ IT!” But alas I must give the interested party something to nibble on. I have to trust that those I share it with are moving beyond the quotes and insights to consume the book in its entirety. (Or I’ll just buy it for everyone I think should read it…I’m going to be doing that in January….)

    I am guilty of being distracted by my phone far too much. I desire to make room in our home for a set time each day that includes no cell phones or tablets for kids, mom, dad, or visitors. It may be a dream, but it’s one I love.

    The Writing Life is being added to my TBR list. Thanks, as always, for a marvelous suggestion.

    1. Carey—Yes, as reviewers we have to give snippets, that’s just part of our job! But we can do that with integrity, and find the excerpts that are most representative of the author’s ideas. I don’t k now of any way to get the word out about good books than that . . . YES! DO create an unplugged zone for your family. We try to never answer the phone during dinner, and I don’t allow the boys to watch any screens except for homework on the weekdays. It’s hard work and it takes vigilence to discipline ourselves to be totally WITH each other when we’re WITH each other . … I’m not a pro at this, but still trying . . .. (Thanks for reading! And you’ll love “The Writing Life”!

  6. Lovely reflection, Leslie, on the value of settling into a book and enjoying the process. I, too, fear for all the students who ‘get by’ by skimming material or reading excerpts only. Like life, in reading it is the engagement of the whole that gives meaning.

  7. As a writer, an English teacher, and a mom, I say a resounding “Amen!” There is nothing quite like the feeling of wading into and through a long, involved text … be it Dickens, Morrison, Bronte, Shakespeare, you name it. It is hard to do in a culture that encourages us to think in snippets (you described that so perfectly!), but it is a skill that we can’t allow ourselves to lose. I love this article — thank you.

  8. My grandchildren go to bed every night with a book in their hands. What a wonderful legacy to leave the next generation! But many of us go to bed checking our social networks, instead of a reading a good book. Maybe we need to take a few lessons from our children or grandchildren! Thanks for the reminder, Leslie!

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