Reading… or Sleeping?

I’m rather proud of myself for the last few days. It seems I’ve managed to actually post something every single day in a row for a while now. However, I want to make sure you know, I’m cheating a little. If something comes to me to blog about, I go ahead and post it, but I’ve been future-dating the posts to space them out a bit. So, if you see me mention something a few days late, such as the death of Abu al Zarqawi, I’m afraid it isn’t due to me cautiously mulling over the event for a few days before speaking on it. Alas.

So, for instance, the thing that’s fresh on my mind right now, by the time you read this will have happened a few days ago: Tim Challies talking about his [reading habits]( It seems that he made a commitment some time back to attempt to read about one book a week. While he was at it, he decided to go ahead and write a review for each book he read. Now, one book a week is actually a pretty easy task, provided the books are moderately well-written and are of average length (around 200 pages). Tim found this to be true, and consequently he sometimes reads 2-3 books in a week.

Everyone, I think, who keeps an eye on Tim’s blog has been utterly amazed at the kind output he’s been able to produce in this manner. The sheer number of book reviews he’s published has been staggering. Which sets me to thinking. I *thought* I was a pretty great reader. I mean, I’m reading all the time. Sometimes 5-10 hours of my day are dedicated entirely to reading. I *am* a professional student. I went to undergrad for the sole purpose of being allowed to read without any other commitments to interfere. And yet, as of this moment, Tim seems to be knocking them back faster than I can fathom. What am I doing wrong?

And then the key difference occurs to me. Tim Challies doesn’t read fiction. I am dumbfounded. Life without fiction – why, it seems absurd! And yet there are a good many people in the world who have to endure it, poor devils. I’ve always felt quite right not to be of their number. And yet, *Tim Challies* appears to be of their number. This, I think, explains so much!

Last semester, I discovered I simply didn’t have the energy to read another single word of non-fiction. The sheer lack of plot was killing me. Over the next 2 weeks I read nearly 1000 pages of fiction. I did not, however review the books. Nevertheless, those two weeks by all accounts restored my soul. However, even they were not sufficient to get me through my assigned sections of Calvin’s *Institutes* before the end of classes. But since then, I’ve been much more successful in my seminary reading because I’ve remembered to interpolate my “recreational” reading with my assignments. It has only been the time-travel paradoxes of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, and their hopeful straining toward a future free from searing thread that has buoyed me through Anthony Hoekema’s *The Bible and the Future*. (Let the reader make their own comparisons)

Unfortunately, none of these books have I reviewed.

In fact, I discovered that the best way to keep me on task was to alternate between my fiction and non-fiction reading, either by chapters or by half-hours. It’s been an odd experience for me. Tim talks about his habit of reading several books at once, something I’ve heard about from others before, but which I had always rejected out of hand. I’m the sort of reader who stays focused to the end. If I can’t manage to finish a book before picking up another, chances are I’ll never finish that book. It’s a sign that it simply couldn’t hold my attention. But with all this turgid dryness I’ve been being *required* to read lately, the ability of the author to hold my attention has really been beside the point. So I’ve alternated fiction and non for my relief.

The other night though, I discovered something. I was pounding away at Hoekema while burning the late-night oil, er—[argon](, when suddenly my eyes began to cross. My lids drooped. I could read no further. At the same time, my mind was burning to finish my story. Would Jaxom really manage to find the queen egg the Oldtimers had hidden – without being caught? So I switched books. I figured I’d get a page or two in before I simply had to stop and fall asleep. Instead I found that I was able read for another hour and a half! It wasn’t simply that it was too late. My mind had just had enough of eschatology and was shutting down to process.

I’ve had the “shutting down to process” experience before. Generally it’s whenever I read something particularly heady, especially if it has a lot of terms or phrasing that I’m not used to. The most dramatic experience of this for me was in college reading Wordsworth’s Prelude. It’s the archetypal romantic epic – instead of writing a massive adventure story, he followed the same epic form while telling a tale of self-discovery, of God using nature combined with his own conscience/sehnsucht to teach him all the basics of (semi) Christian Faith – right and wrong, justice, liberty. It’s an introspective autobiography on the level of Augustin’s confessions, in iambic pentameter. I read ten pages, and promptly fell asleep for half an hour. Another ten pages, another half hour nap. I don’t believe I even completed the text. It was during this same kind of processing-nap that I basically wrote this [love poem]( that same year, pretty much *while asleep*. (Let the reader click through and catch the irony :).)

Up to now, I would have argued that the reason Tim can read so many more nonfiction books than me was actually due to some superior quality in me (I have that tendency): The books he reads, while nonfiction, are actually written on a popular level and are therefore easier to read… Either his nature or his upbringing are such that he can read everything from a consistent worldview and evaluate the text without being seriously challenged or having any threat presented to the structure of his mind. He therefore simply doesn’t feel compelled to argue every jot and tittle and so conform every passing detail into an all-encompassing philosophy. That heavy work has already been done for *him*… Or perhaps there’s just something wrong with him entirely because (gasp!) he doesn’t read any fiction. His mind is numbed by pale reality!

But Tim has given me a better thought to play with. (Though, no doubt, his worldview is probably more stable than mine, and there can be *no questioning* the advantages of pure escapist fiction…) I can humbly admit that, even after a four-year degree in literature, which taught me to tease out every nuance of a fiction writer’s perspective hidden in their work, non-fiction (at least of a certain kind) simply places a greater demand on the mind than fiction. The mind can only handle so much before it must hold off and assimilate. When this happens, the body itself can feel physically tired. My solution: to fall into a fitful slumber “that is half way between a slumber and awake, where you both dream your dreams and think about them”, and let nature take its course. Tim Challies’ solution: switch books.

Oh, his is by far the better solution. The elegance! The efficiency! The obviousness from which my boorishness led me! Why didn’t it occur to me?! Simple pride: It is not my way to switch books mid-stream. I, to whom multi-tasking is as foreign as napping!

Yet this discussion still leaves me asking:
While I’m engaged in self-education,
As I’m switching books instead of napping,
May I cheat and switch to science fiction?

2 thoughts on “Reading… or Sleeping?”

  1. I’m not sure if you are doing anything wrong, from my point of view. But, I do wonder if Challies is doing something wrong. I wonder how much benefit we get if we read 2-3 books a week? How much reflection can be done in such a short period of time? What happened to the Christian discipline of meditation? It may be enough time to write a review, but for the book to affect us I do think it requires a much slower pace of reading.

    I also wonder if reading all these books and writing these reviews is the best use of time. As for me, I am much more inclined to read much fewer books, but books of greater quality and weight. God keep me from reading 100 average books this year!!

    To be honest, I would much rather read fewer reviews, if that meant the reviews become more considered and thoughtful. The quantity does not necessarily reflect the quality.


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