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The Ever-Growing Mountain of Words

A few days ago I reflected on the human brain, God’s masterpiece. Those reflections came as I read the popular book Moonwalking With Einstein, a book that deals with the art and science of remembering everything (or anything, for that).

The first lesson is the one I shared in “God’s Masterpiece”—that the human brain is a remarkable creation that screams the existence of God. The second lesson is a very simple one: there are no foolproof shortcuts to memorizing. There are techniques that can be employed, but for most people most of the time, memorizing will be long and intense labor. The third lesson has to do with the way we treat books today in comparison to the way people treated books in ages past. While we cannot necessarily assume that the old way is the best way, it is worth considering how different our reading is today from days past.

For those early writers, a trained memory wasn’t just about gaining easy access to information; it was about strengthening one’s personal ethics and becoming a more complete person. A trained memory was the key to cultivating “judgment, citizenship, and piety.” What one memorized helped shape one’s character. Just as the secret to becoming a chess grand master was to learn old games, the secret to becoming a grand master of life was to learn old texts. In a tight spot, where could one look for guidance about how to act, if not the depths of memory? Mere reading is not necessarily learning—a fact that I am personally confronted with every time I try to remember the contents of a book I’ve just put down. To really learn a text, one had to memorize it. As the early-eighteenth-centry Dutch poet Jan Luyken put it, “One book, printed in the Heart’s own wax / Is worth a thousand in the stacks.”

In ancient days, books were a means to mastery and mastery came through memory. There were relatively few books and those books were mastered rather than skimmed. “The ancient and medieval way of reading was totally different from how we read today. One didn’t just memorize texts; one ruminated on them—chewed them up and regurgitated them like cud—and in the process, became intimate with them in a way that made them one’s own.” That sounds very much like what David did when he meditated on God’s Word both day and night.

Those who read did so in order to remember. This has important implications.

When the point of reading is … remembering, you approach a text very differently than most of us do today. Now we put a premium on reading quickly and widely, and that breeds a kind of superficiality in our reading, and in what we seek to get out of books. You can’t read a page a minute, the rate at which you’re probably reading this book, and expect to remember what you’ve read for any considerable length of time. If something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon, repeated.

In his essay “The First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton describes a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as books began to proliferate. Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” says Darnton. “They had only a few books—the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two—and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.” But after the printing press appeared around 1440, things began gradually to change. In the first century after Gutenberg, the number of books in existence increased fourteenfold. It became possible, for the first time, for people without great wealth to have a small library in their own homes, and a trove of easily consulted external memories close at hand.

Today, we read books “extensively,” without much in the way of sustained focus and, with rare exceptions, we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture. Even in the most highly specialized fields, it can be a Sisyphean task to try to stay on top of the ever-growing mountain of words loosed upon the world each day.

Few of us make any serious effort to remember what we read. When I read a book, what do I hope will stay with me a year later? If it’s a work of nonfiction, the thesis, maybe, if the book has one. A few savory details, perhaps. If it’s fiction, the broadest outline of the plot, something about the main characters (at least their names), and an overall critical judgment about the book. Even these are likely to fade. Looking up at my shelves, at the books that have drained so many of my waking hours, is always a dispiriting experience.

That distinction between intensive and extensive is a good one to keep in mind. I’m convinced there is a time and place for both kinds of reading. There are many books that merit extensive reading and a select few, God’s Word among them, of course, that demand intensive. By all means read widely, but be sure to read deeply as well.