Sentencing Ourselves to Pieces: Read a Whole Book!

theguardian.com

theguardian.com

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?

k-12news.com

k-12news.com

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

Beyond Instinct: (Not) Writing Like Weasels

In her much-anthologized essay “Living Like Weasels” Annie Dillard locks eyes and brains with a weasel, launching an essay on calling. Weasels teach us how to live, Dillard writes, embodying an instinctive mindlessness, all energies pointed toward their “one necessity.” One weasel latched onto the throat of an eagle and never let go, even in death, its skeleton attached to the eagle’s chest. The essay ends here:

“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot tear you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”  

It’s a stunning close to an inspiring essay. But the beauty of the language disguises the horror of the scene. The weasel latched onto the wrong bird. His actual death was not likely very poetic. As writers and as people of faith, we’re not as horrified as we might be: death is not our final fear, and we understand the larger metaphor of death. But we needn’t seek it out. There are so many ways to die as a writer already; I’d like to save us from an unnecessary demise or two with a few simple words:

Choose the right bird. When you discover you’ve chosen wrongly, let go.

This is a simple way of saying that as writers we labor under more than one calling, more than “one necessity.”  There is the calling to write, the sense of being appointed a wrestler with words, a storyteller, even a prophet at times. But there are callings as well to particular projects and subjects. When we don’t distinguish between the two, we’ll find trouble, maybe even death.

In the last twenty years I have let go of a number of essays-in-progress, articles, even book manuscripts. Despite seeking God’s direction—and feeling that I had found it, two book projects I felt very “called” to pursue, ended up withering. As each  atrophied, I latched on yet harder, spending costly attention and effort trying to revive them—to no avail.

I did not expect success to meet every writing endeavor, but some losses hit hard. We question our worth as writers; we question our very calling. But we often ask the wrong question. Rather than asking, “Am I really called to write this novel (this essay, this book) right now?” we often ask, “Am I really called to be a writer?”  In these moments, we’re not so much rising on the wings of eagles as we are devoured by our own insecurities and disappointments. We may even stop writing altogether. This is the second death—and the least necessary.

The weasel operates by instinct alone. We can do better. We can’t see into the future to know whether a project will ultimately succeed, but we can follow our given passions, testing them thoroughly with research, prayer, and rough drafts. If a project falters, as all seem to do at some point, we persevere until—-we cannot. Then, we pry ourselves loose and let it go.  Not easily, and never prematurely, but our bones will stay hinged, and our musky flesh will live to choose another subject, another day, one that may indeed send us soaring.