The importance of reading widely and deeply

The importance of reading widely and deeply

In my last blog post here, I made the point that we need to read books and extended pieces of writing. We get accustomed to skimming and staying in the shallows and not thinking deeply about anything. Over time we lose the ability to concentrate; social media and internet browsing change the way our minds work.

So what should we read? If you want to build your ability to think and reflect, you have to read widely and deeply. You cannot only read books and articles by people you agree with already. That reinforces beliefs you have and doesn’t make you challenge them.

This is a major problem with the internet. It has often been noted that the internet is like an echo chamber. You only hear yourself. The tech companies strive to give you exactly what you want to see. Over time, they refine what appears in your searches and on your social media. You think you are seeing the same search results as other people, but you are not. One of the reasons people spend a long time browsing the internet is because your personal internet experience is geared to you and your interests. You must not only read those you agree with. Stretch yourself.

There is too little reasoned debate today with those who disagree with one another. If you are inclined to agree with left-leaning commentators, read something from the other side to consider the issue from another side. If you want to be reasonable and thoughtful, you need to understand how others think.

Reading books is also a good way to understand the culture. Novelists and social commentators read cultural patterns well. I find myself considering the world through the eyes of others when I read a novel. Richard Flanagan always makes me think in new directions; Jonathan Franzen with his dim view of the world shows me the emptiness of modern life; and Michelle de Kretser brings both Australian and Sri Lankan perspectives to life. Christians should not limit themselves to Christian writers. We need to know the world we are in to think about it and be better at reaching and understanding those around us.

Don’t limit your reading to the shallows, even with books. There is a place for the airport novel and the brainless action thriller at times, but that shouldn’t be our only input. Well-written, thoughtful books will exercise your mind. I like to read historical accounts of events and eras I didn’t know much about before; in recent times I have read a detailed account of Chernobyl and a major history of the Popes.

As part of my ministry, I decided several years ago to always be reading deeper books to challenge and deepen my understanding and faith. I found I was reading commentaries and popular level Christian books, but too often found the echo chamber effect. So I have read a book on first century customs and church that helped me a lot, a major work on Theistic Evolution that sharpened my thinking on this area, and am working through a major new systematic theology right now. This keeps me thinking and processing the issues in the world around us.

Challenge yourself. Read something harder than you usually do. A more literary novel or a more detailed historical account. It doesn’t matter if initially you only read a chapter at a time and grow into it. Think of it like training for your mind. You don’t start at the gym by using the heaviest weights first; you build up to it. Build up to a healthier diet for your mind.