Highlighter in hand, one eye on the clock, I flipped through a book, skimming paragraphs and marking sentences.
Class was in an hour, and meetings, travel and housework had kept me from reading the assignments for an evening course in which I’d enrolled. I prayed I could absorb enough information to contribute at least a few comments to the small seminar discussion.
“I wish there were CliffsNotes for this text,” I muttered.
I’d never actually used a study guide (the prospect would have horrified my father, a teacher), but I had a number of friends who’d successfully avoided direct contact with most of the classics of English literature, thanks to such brisk summaries. In fact, some of them didn’t even bother to read the whole study guide, priding themselves on how far they could stretch a few points into a complete essay.
Years after we’ve marched in our mortarboards, many of us still struggle with the same tendency to get by on the bare minimum of information.
Too much text? Put it in bullet-point format. A complicated concept? Create an infographic. A difficult, multifaceted issue? Let the experts give us the “takeaway” on cable news or social media; we don’t have time to sort through it ourselves.
“We live in the age of skimming,” observes Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist for the New York Times.
Manjoo cites data showing that online readers “very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway.”
In fact, a media analytics firm that Manjoo consulted found that most viewers only scrolled through 60 percent of the articles they accessed.
Manjoo suspects that partial perusing may extend beyond the internet. “With ebooks and streaming movies and TV shows, it’s easier than ever now to switch to something else.”
All right, so we’re lousy online readers and TV viewers. Does that make us bad Catholics?
For starters, we may be further clouding the murky currents of social media. Manjoo’s data suggests that “lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read.”
Imagine if you’d only scanned through the Gospels up until the crucifixion, then tweeted “#RIPJesus” and moved on to something else.
More Americans are getting their news online (43 percent, according to the Pew Research Center), and the rise of “fake news” demonstrates that our critical skills need some sharpening. If we’re to be witnesses to truth in this world, we need to make sure we’re not reposting rubbish.
But being good netizens isn’t the only reason why we need to slow down and read more thoroughly.
“My people are ruined for lack of knowledge!” the prophet Hosea laments (Hosea 4:6), and how often we miss out on all that God longs to give us, simply because we haven’t spent time studying the treasured texts through which he speaks.
Scripture, the Catechism, the writings of the great saints and the doctors of the church, the documents of the Vatican councils, the statements of our bishops — all are available in print and online, and many are available in audio format as well.
Yet many times we find ourselves skipping across the online sea of information like a wayward pebble, bouncing from one item to the next, never really diving deeply into the words that could change our lives, here and in eternity. We rely on meager substitutes — an inspirational quote on Facebook, a comment in a random blog post, our own silent speculations about God.
What keeps us from doing our spiritual homework?
Lack of time, we say. And while work, family and social commitments have their rightful place, we’re still finding plenty of free moments.
Five years’ worth, in fact, according to a study cited by Adweek, a leading marketing industry publication. That’s how much time the average person will likely spend on social media — 40 minutes per day on YouTube, 35 on Facebook, 25 on Snapchat and 15 on Instagram (beleaguered Twitter only snags one minute of our waking hours).
Only television will command more of our attention — almost eight years.
In the end, we cheat ourselves by neglecting to claim the riches found in the word of God and in the spiritual writings that enhance our understanding of it. None of us can face our final exam, so to speak, using another’s study notes. We have to put in the time and the work ourselves if we are to experience an authentic relationship with the Lord.
“When you use a study guide in place of the original book…[you] have knowledge that is not just superficial, but wrong,” notes Cary Nelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois. “Nothing can substitute for the original text.”
So if you’ve actually read this far, thank you — and may you journey well, and deeply, through the life-giving words that will draw you closer to God.