One of the things that I love to do is read. Ever since I was a kid, I looked at books as magical doors into amazing adventures. One of my favorite places in East New York, where I grew up, was the local library on Arlington Avenue. It was a big old mansion surrounded by greenery. In it was a whole world of knowledge and possibility. I can still remember the smell of the books as you walked into the entrance. There was a hush and a real respectful silence there. I could wander through the stacks of books, take some out, sit in comfortable leather chairs, and read to my hearts content. And if I found a book that was really worthwhile, I could take it home by the power granted to me by my library card.
When it rained, playing with my friends was not possible. Since I was an only child of elderly parents and therefore had a lot of time alone on my hands, there was always the library to go to, and the books, my companions, ready to share their knowledge with me. In those pages, there were stories about my faith, scientific books about minerals and rocks, adventure stories filled with dangers and narrow escapes—all kinds of subjects ready to open doors of enjoyment for me! Rain also kept people away from the library so that I often was quite alone in that mansion with only the quiet librarians! In more than one way, I felt like a rich kid with lots of great and interesting time to play and to learn, surrounded by these friends of mine—the books.
When I think of the riches of reading that, even today, fills my leisure times, and then hear that people have stopped reading except in the spurts that the computer allows, I feel that this is a tragic loss!
Sitting in front of a computer is a very different kind of experience. But all this is done in small bursts. There is so much to do there: emails, texts, Amazon, browsing, etc. Scientists have proven that this ‘small burst learning’ and the constant motion that the computer requires has changed the way our minds work. We have difficulty now staying with something for an extended period of time; we are always restlessly moving. Our attention span is very short. Staying with one thing becomes boring and we fear that it is preventing us from things that are happening online that we should be aware of and involved in. And so we keep moving.
Contrast that with settling into a comfortable chair and opening Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ (well over a thousand pages!) and getting lost in a complex, entertaining, and richly described plot that mirrors life in a far-off land and in a distant time, yet seems amazingly familiar and intimate to our lives! This is the power of a great story. It does not reveal itself in little gulps of time. It is immersive and enriching. It is well worth the time and effort. It can only be achieved by doing it, and that requires time and discipline. There is no other way!
Any educator will tell you that few are the students in their class, on whatever level, elementary, high school or college, who regularly give themselves into the experience of extended reading.
This is nothing short of tragic!
This lack of discipline in reading extends to other things. Great Art requires discipline, learning and patience. Whenever I have tried to introduce someone to a great opera, film, painting or play, I have found them sometimes not willing to meet the work of art on its own terms. They rush to judgment with that most terrible pronouncement: it’s boring!
If one encounters, say, a symphony by Beethoven, and half way through it gives it a thumbs down, is that the fault of Beethoven? Did the person try to learn about the symphony? Were they patient with it? Would they be willing to hear it again? Usually, not.
Great art needs open and humble hearts, as does great reading. Just as discipline is needed in learning to play a sport or mastering a trade, so discipline is necessary to enjoy a great book and a wonderful, but difficult, piece of music.
But it is never too late.