“From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.” – Frederick Douglass
One of the most influential books in my life is roughly 100 pages in length. Frederick Douglass published the first of his autobiographies in 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. I first read this book in my late teen years with wide eyes, gasps, winces, and tears. Douglass relives horrific scenes from his time as a slave and as a free man, giving me an opportunity to see the world through his eyes.
But Douglass also wrote about hope, freedom, Christianity, and education in ways I had not read about before. The lack of education among slaves and the reasons behind it left awful pits in my stomach – the horrid desire slaveholders had to dehumanize human beings.
Douglass’ view on the value of education to attain and maintain freedom, however, convicted me as a young Christian who worked hard to keep good grades but hardly understood the value of my own ability to read and gain knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and the ability to think critically and make informed decisions.
Yet, the value of reading, writing, and critical thinking seems to be lessening and weakening in our entertainment-crazed culture where we have knowledge and information literally at our fingertips.
The technical revolution confounds communication in many ways. The rapidity at which communication takes place online tends to allow little room for listening and critical thinking, and it strips many of us of credible and intentional engagement.
We devalue the purpose and meaning of words strung together to form not just a sentence but an idea when we rely on few words to keep us informed. I compare glimpsing the corner of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to reading 280 characters — hardly enough to contain the whole piece of art. That is what reading books, short stories, and lengthy essays is – the whole piece of art, not a sliver.
Douglass’ book forced me to see the whole picture he was creating and caused me to wrestle with my own feelings; it forced tension in areas of my thinking in which I had been complacent. But tension and wrestling – who wants to deal with that?
Neil Postman published a book in 1985 titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. Of course, this came before the online era, but his criticisms are poignant and currently relevant. On conversation and different mediums he says this:
“While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content” (7).
Think of 280 characters like a smoke signal and you have the depth of meaningful conversation we’re dealing with today. Now, I am not saying that brevity is the enemy to writing or reading. But, brevity for the sake of brevity is.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to lead our culture in discourse and be good thinkers. We believe the Bible is the most profound piece of literature available to man, yet we often settle for a few quick verses to satisfy our daily reading requirement instead of sitting under the counsel of the Scriptures.
Many people believe they don’t have the time or they simply don’t have the desire to read books or long-form journalism, but I believe they only feel that way because they don’t realize the benefits of reading more, not less.
So, here are the benefits. Reading 100 pages as opposed to 280 characters will help you do these three things:
Listen before Responding
When reading another’s words, you have to follow the author where he or she leads you. This requires the patient skill of listening. If you close a book halfway through, you can hardly expect yourself to give an accurate account of the author’s message or purpose. You have to read and listen before you can adequately respond. Online, 280 characters is not enough to provide a comprehensive statement of one’s views on much of anything.
Critical thinking is a necessary component in society. Reading essays or books at length helps us understand other perspectives, consider our own opinions or feelings on subjects, and learn to compare them to other points of view. This sharpens our ability to make informed decisions and approach them more holistically, especially when there are nuances. This is how we engage in public discourse on issues such as morality, good and evil, ethics, religion, and politics.
Engage with Credibility and Intentionality
You’ve done the reading. You’ve considered the many vantage points, including your own, and perhaps you’ve honed your own more precisely, or changed it altogether. You now have more credibility to engage the information presented with purpose and intention. You can object or affirm what you’ve read with temperate confidence rather than with an impatient need just to be heard. Your opinion has been more finely tuned, so your thoughts will be better accepted.
Frederick Douglass could have written Narrative at much greater length, sharing even more stories, or expending more words on his ideas, but he wrote carefully and concisely enough that he could convey his thoughts in the number of pages he did. However, the 74-word quote I have at the beginning of this article could hardly do justice to the profound depth and meaning of Douglass’ book. 280 characters – that’s just the surface. We have to go deeper and welcome the tension.