books, squids, and simplicity

books, squids, and simplicity

A few posts back I wrote that I was rereading Simplicity Parenting and my subsequent realization that there's no true “simplicity parenting” without actually being a simplified person myself, and that to become that I needed to simplify my own mind, inner life, and desires.

I immediately attacked the tall stack of books next to my bed and implemented a one book at a time policy. That’s hard for me, even though reading a couple books at once means that I’m not even reading one book well. But my concentration wanes with boredom, and boredom is something I deal with a lot when I read, so I skip around from book to book depending on how I feel.

It was a perfect coincidence that at the same time I was rereading Simplicity Parenting I picked up a copy of Proust and the Squid in a thrift store. It's about our brains and the fact that humans are not innately wired to read; it's something that we had to develop, and in doing so our brains had to acquire completely new skills for. Pretty fascinating, but the reason it created a whirlwind in my own brain is because of this quote:

““Reading is a neuronally and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by the direct message to the eye from the text. This unique aspect of reading has begun to trouble me considerably as I consider the Google universe of my children.

Will the constructive component at the heart of reading begin to change and potentially atrophy as we shift to computer-presented text, in which massive amounts of information appear instantaneously? In other words, when seemingly complete visual information is given simultaneously, as is in many digital presentations, is there either sufficient or sufficient motivation to process the information more inferentially, analytically, and critically?

Is the act of reading dramatically different in such contexts? The basic visual and linguistic process might be identical, but would the more time-demanding, probative, analytical, and creative aspects of comprehension foreshortened?....Should we begin to provide explicit instruction for reading multiple modalities of text presentation to ensure our children learn multiple ways of processing information?””

The reason this struck me so hard is multifaceted. For one, like I said, I get bored easily when I read, and this is a fairly new development. I grew up reading- really reading- George Orwell, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austin…and all before the age of fifteen. I did not have a reading attention deficit problem back then, but that was pre-smartphone.

When I read this quote, I understood what's happened to my focus: It’s out of shape. It's like my brain is physically able to hike a Colorado fourteener, but all I’ve been using it for is to walk to the end of my driveway. The amount and the form of the information I take in over the internet has atrophied my mind. Not that it can’t be undone, but still.

So this is bad news for us adults, but what about for our kids?? They're growing up in a completely digital age where the term "google it" actually means "look it up", school kids get ipads, and toddlers have their own smartphones. I'm no ludite, but geez louise this can't be good. If at 35 I'm struggling with my own attention span, what does this mean for them?

The other reason is that because of this acquired scattered focus, and because I buy books based on my varied and always growing interests, my books are a literal and physical manifestation of my mental clutter. Cutting back on the books I already own, and the ones that I will buy in the future is the the biggest form of simplification I can do because in doing so, I'm simplifying my desires, interests, energy, and even my thoughts. It only sounds dramatic...because it is.

For me, I have to admit that owning a lot of books is gluttony. I've really wrestled with this because books are just so good and there could never possibly be “too much knowledge”, and also because all it takes is one book to change your life, or even one sentence in one book, so reading and buying them turns into a never-ending chase from one to the next.

But this is just me. What about R? How could I possibly buy too many books for a blossoming human?

I’ll just let Kim John Payne, from his book Simplicity Parenting, explain this one because I can’t say it any better myself:

“It is a bit easier to imagine the “too much of a good thing” principle with books when our children have entered the “series” section of the library or bookstore. A child who is racing through “Number 23 of the Magic Tree House Series!” in a rush to pull ahead of their friend is not reading so much as consuming. When a desire for the next thing is at the heart of the experience, we’re involved in addiction, not a connection.”

Oh goodnes, here I'm reminded yet again of the value of going deeper and not wider: simplicity = fewer things = fewer books = deeper connection = taking more in = less is more.

There's just so much that intersects here: books, concentration, how we consume knowledge, the internet, reading in general, reading books versus reading screens, Simplicity Parenting, Minimalism, consumerism, authenticity, mental simplification, living slowly in a fast-paced world….holy cow. And all thanks to the simultaneous reading (ha!) of a book about parenting simply, and one about the brain and reading.

So here’s what I’m doing with all of this: I’m pairing down my book collection. In a previous post, I referenced the idea of a “capsule book collection” that I’ve been mulling over lately. It’s the same thing as the capsule wardrobe: a core group of timeless, versatile, well-made/written, books that meet my family’s current needs, and that will be added to as the seasons and phases of our life shift.

Viewing my collection like this is actually pretty liberating. I love my books dearly, but I’m understanding that the same principles that guide Minimalism, and my mantra "deeper and not wider", are the same ones that need to influence my purchasing habits with books.

So…what’s the takeaway here? It’s thatcour behavior in acquiring things, books in particular for me, but perhaps something different for you, is not only cluttering our physical space but our mental one as well. It spreads us thin, widens our scope, and atrophies our ability to concentrate on one thing well.

It’s a much better practice to narrow the focus and go deep because let’s face the fact that we’ll never know all there is to know, or even most of what there is to know. We’re limited in what we can take in, so instead of that giving us a reason to devour all the books, it can be an invitation to let go of always needing more and accept what we have in front of us right now.

And here are two questions that I'm using right now to evaluate what books to add to our collection: 1) What are our personal tastes? and 2) What are our current needs and interests? So far, I like how the parameters these questions give me, but I might have to add in a few others as R gets a little older. We’ll have to see. For now it’s perfect.

Ok, so that it’s for now. Tell me your thoughts on going deeper and not wider with books because I would love to know :)

And if you liked this post, be sure to check out…

Simplicity Parenting is an Inside Job

My Favorite Outdoor-Activity Books