Adding, Subtracting, Replacing, or Integrating?

Earlier today, I finished Malcolm Gladwell’s, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know; the book my book club will discuss on Thursday.  Our next book club selection is Brene’ Brown’s most recent publication, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience.  If you would like to join us, our next meeting (on Zoom) will be Thursday, April 14th (sign up here).  All are welcome!

I’m also reading Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation and The Weaver’s Pathway: A Clarification of the ‘Spirit Trail’ in Navajo Weaving, by Noel Bennett.  I also tend to read fiction every night before bed.  Currently, at bedtime, I’m reading Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which is technically a memoir (but reads more like fiction, to me). 

This is fairly common for me.  I am almost always reading at least four books at the same time.  Sometimes, more.  Sometimes, many more. 

I’m often asked “why?” I read several books together, instead of one at a time.  I’m also asked “how?” I keep the different books straight in my mind, and don’t confuse them.

I suppose I began juggling multiple books when I was in college and seminary – especially seminary!  In seminary, I was often assigned multiple books for the same course, and I usually took four or five classes in a semester.  Then there was additional reading for projects and essays.  In my doctoral studies, I was advised to read 100 pages/daily, just to keep up.  So, I suppose, it became a habit.

I also tend to read different books, from different genres, on different topics.  I might be reading fiction before bed, and something devotional when I wake up, and something topical for my book club, and then other topics of import or interest.  Sometimes my staff or leaders read books together.  And, then, of course, I also read Scripture, and I’m always reading articles and excerpts related to sermons, classes, or projects I’m preparing.

And, I suppose the bottom-line is I enjoy having my nose in multiple books.  I just enjoy it.  I love to read.  But, sometimes, even the authors I love lose my attention.  While I might get tired or bored with one topic, I can move on to something else, and come back to the first book later.  That way, reading holds my attention and interest longer.

To me, the most interesting thing about reading multiple books is the way the topics and information interact in my mind.  No matter what I’m reading, rather than the diversity of unrelated ideas and disconnected information confusing me, I find the varied bits and pieces of knowledge and story often seem to be in dialogue – like a chorus of diverse voices – pushing me to think about each author and book differently than if they were read independently. 

Just last week, I read a story about an incident of rape that occurred at Stanford University in one book, only to read about the same incident later the same day in a different book about Japanese pottery repair (kintsugi).  One told about the cause of the crime.  The other told of the victim’s healing and the good work that has resulted from her recovery.  Unrelated books told two halves of the same story!  And, I read both on the same day!  How remarkable!

That kind of specific coincidence doesn’t happen to me often.  But, nearly daily, something I read in one book ends up enhancing what I read in another.  I love that!

So, what’s the point of this, beyond simply sharing my personal, strange reading obsession and habits?  I suppose the idea is integration.  As I read diverse topics, ideas merge and form something.  And, by ingesting multiple sources of varied concepts and perspectives, I’m integrating what I’m learning into what I already know (or think I know), and even possibly into previously-established ways of thinking, being, and living.

For instance, reading instructional information about topics – such as combatting racism, for instance – is different than reading stories about the lives and experiences of African Americans.  One enhances the other.  Reading about a tradition in Najavo weaving, as I am doing now, speaks in surprising ways to the more spiritual, theological, intellectual writings of Thomas Merton, which I’m also reading.  Though not specifically religious, Brene’ Brown’s work always speaks to my understanding of spiritual growth and maturation.  And, in a way, all of these examples are part of who I am seeking to be and become.

Learning – via reading, watching instructional videos, taking a class, attending a lecture, by trial and error – is more than simply adding information to what you already know.  Ideally, what you already know is improved, deepened, corrected, or enhanced by new, nuanced information or inspiration.  We aren’t merely data bases, storing and compartmentalizing old and new information.  New info doesn’t delete the old, but it can transform it into something far more complex and meaningful.  We’re humans – living, learning, growing, becoming humans – and every new piece of data incorporated into our thinking and being slightly shifts who we are.  I love that!

Whether you’re a reader or not (I assume you must be, since you’re reading a preacher’s blog), we’re all exposed to multiple sources of information and opinion every day.  From work memos, to the daily headlines, to chatter at the water cooler, to the myriad comments posted on social media, we are all receiving a mix of info all the time.  Does the data we consume merely confirm what we already know or believe?  Do we reject info we dislike or disagree with?  Or, do we integrate the diversity of views expressed to us into our own deepening and broadening perspectives?

I’ve heard the average human only uses about 10% of our brain’s capacity in a lifetime.  If true, that’s astonishing, and seems to affirm our ability to learn continuously, to grow and wizen intellectually, to process diverse perspectives, and to think more expansively. 

“How?” and “why?” read so much, and different books simultaneously?  There’s so much I want and need to know!  My mind craves both entertainment and education!  And, let’s be honest, I have a lot to learn! 

How about you?

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