Saturday, January 17, 2015

Prevent Reading Indigestion

I've been reading a book by Eugene Peterson, whose name many of us may recognise as the author of 'The Message' Bible translation. He believes that writing is intended to change our lives, rather than simply stuffing information into our brain cells. Reading should be a ruminative and leisurely experience, as if we're actually eating.

On a few occasions in the Bible, people were told to physically eat books. In Revelation 10:9-10, the Angel of the Lord tells Saint John to eat a small scroll, which turns out to be as sweet as honey in his mouth but bitter in his stomach. I used to think that was a weird, symbolic occurrence which I couldn't understand, but can't help remembering that both Jeremiah and Ezekiel before John, were also told to eat books on earlier occasions. I've been told that the Bible never wastes words, so when something unusual happens more than once, it's evidently quite important.

Okay, when we eat food, we take it into our bodies where it gets digested and makes its way to our bloodstream and our cells to be assimilated as part of our bodies. We all know that this is why we're counseled to eat healthy, rather than junk food. And we're probably all familiar with the slogan, 'You are what you eat.'

Peterson suggests that the same is true of what we read. We're meant to chew and ponder, to mull over healthy books until the words strike a chord and become absolutely true for us. He's speaking especially of holy scriptures. The truth gets into our imagination and spirit, and becomes part of us. It's a similar sort of process to actual, physical eating. It's surely more than just a good analogy, as we know there's a strong link between the mental, spiritual and physical parts of us. I believe that something grasped strongly in the mental and spiritual planes, does become manifest in our physical bodies.

At the same time, I've been dipping into another book. Coincidentally, they complement each other. The author, Ruth Haley Barton, describes the serious scripture study she did as a young adult at Bible College. She discovered that it helped improve her grades when she got really good at memorising verses, filling in blanks, ticking chapters off a 'To Read' list, and coming up with clever, gimicky, creative ways to impress the staff and fellow students in class. One day, it dawned on her that she was tired and what she was reading seemed lifeless to her. She realised that she was approaching scriptures as a tool people were using to rein her in or coerce her to their way of thinking. And it was a very subtle shift. Those purposes totally squashed the greater purpose of reading them, which she believes is similar to what Peterson said, to allow it to sink into her heart and soul, becoming part of her make-up.

She had to re-train herself to chew slowly and savour each word, letting its meaning sink into the deeper part of her, instead of rushing on to the next chapter to complete whatever assignment she was working on. She learned to allow change to take part at deeper levels of her being as she slowed down and meditated on those words.

I found myself nodding, "Yes, yes, yes" time and again. That's the way many of us are taught to function. We are even given recommendations of books which help us to speed read. I remember facing a thick pile of old British classics on the English syllabus back when I was a student. There was no way we could have read them all with the attention they deserved, and I'm sure the lecturers secretly wouldn't have expected us to. They were just trying to cram as much into a semester as possible.

I see the same habits in my 19-year-old son's approach to his studies. We aim to develop techniques which enable us to read as little as possible for the best grade possible. Barton says we get pretty good at cramming information into our heads to keep there just long enough to regurgitate onto exam papers. I thought it was an interesting choice, that word 'regurgitate'. Getting back to the physical analogy, it's like eating so much and so fast, we can't contain it and throw up.

So that's how I was when I was a student, and I had to ask myself if I'm still like that. I've got to admit the answer is often yes, even though I can try to convince myself it's for the best intentions. I like to read several blogs, along with interesting articles I stumble across through Facebook or Twitter links. I instantly see many of them will take some time to read. It's evident that it would take all day if I was to read them all carefully, so I find myself skimming hurriedly to get the highlights, gulping down the points that seem most important. Sometimes I don't even finish them. With books also, I want to find out what will happen next or what life-changing advice may be contained within the pages, so I gallop ahead. And it does give me something similar to physical indigestion when I eat too fast. I'm bloated in the head instead of the belly.

I'm taking these books as a wake-up call and training myself to chew more slowly, when it comes to both food and whatever I'm reading. It'll be worth the effort, I'm sure. Although these authors were focusing mostly on Bible reading, I think that what I've spoken about in this blog will apply to a broader range of good books.

*If you're interested in reading those books I quoted, here they are.
1) 'Eat this Book' by Eugene Peterson (It's a great name)
2) 'Sacred Rhythms - Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation' by Ruth Haley Barton
3) 'Choking on a Camel' by Michal Ann McArthur (This is a good novel about a heroine who finds herself grappling with just this sort of thing. It'll stay in my memory.)


  1. This is a real wake up call for me, Paula. Thank you!

  2. Hi Rhonda,
    I was surprised to figure out how much of a challenge this can be. Living as we do, the speed-reading catches up with us.

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