On Not Reading Books
Don't worry, I'm not about to argue against reading books--just asking myself why I've hardly opened one since sometime around Thanksgiving. It began with the fact that I had a project at work that had to be finished by the end of the year, and that was going to require working a lot of extra hours. And it wasn't just the time involved: I really didn't know how to do it, as it involved a lot of Microsoft esoterica with which I'm not familiar, and that cranked up the stress level. I had hoped to have it done by a contractor, but there wasn't enough money or time for that, so I was stuck with it.
So that, combined with the onset of the holidays and the time they would involve, caused me to put aside the two books I was reading until things were back to normal. As it worked out, that wasn't until mid-January. But it's now mid-February (or late February, if you like), and I still haven't touched them.
What's wrong with me? It's not that I don't read at all. I've continued to read three magazines, of which two (The New Criterion and The Atlantic) are monthly, and the third (Touchstone) is bimonthly. And I read, or at least skim, the local daily newspaper.
In fact I'm a compulsive reader, and have been since I learned to read. I recall sitting at the breakfast table as a child and reading the back of the cereal box, which was generally not at all interesting, but was better than having nothing to read. If I open a book of paintings or photographs my eyes spend only an instant on the picture before seeking out any text on the page.
So why have I been neglecting books? I blame the web--or rather my use of it, and the way the nature of it encourages my bad habits. I am a compulsive reader, yes, but also one who has difficulty concentrating, and is lazy as well. The web is like a drug designed especially for people like me, with the aim of keeping us constantly stimulated mentally, but never focused and certainly never at rest. It's like one of those experiments where mice can give themselves doses of cocaine or some other addictive substance, and soon they don't do anything else, though they're beginning to fall apart physically. No matter what I'm reading online, there is something else already tugging at the edges of my consciousness. One of my children described the syndrome very well: even as you begin reading one thing, part of you has begun to think that there is something more interesting somewhere else. Your mind begins to wander and you skim the page you're on, or abandon it half-unread, and take no time at all to reflect upon it before the next burst of stimulation hits your twitching nerves.
It would be interesting to know how many words I've read on the Web since Thanksgiving, and how far I would have gotten in the books I was reading if, say, two-thirds of that reading had been in them. One of them is long and although not extremely demanding in a technical sort of way does require close and extended attention. But the other is brief and straightforward and could have been finished in a few hours. The problem, as they say about men and romantic involvements, is commitment. If you're going to read a book of any substance, you have to stay with it, and you generally can't make do with five-minute snippets worked in between other distractions. And I seem less and less able to do muster that level of concentration and attention.
Well, it's got to change. Lent begins this week, and I'm determined to break this habit. The best way might be to give up the internet altogether, but I don't want to stop blogging, and anyway my job requires that I make pretty frequent use of internet resources, and it would be pretty hard to stop myself from making the occasional...okay, the frequent stop at Google News or National Review Online or one of the other sites where new material appears often throughout the day. I'm going to have to fall back on something I've never been very good at: consistent self-discipline. Those frequent stops will have to become much less so--only during my lunch hour, perhaps, and for some small period of time in the evenings. I have to prevent the phenomenon which happens to me all too frequently: I sit down at the computer to check whether there are any comments here, check the headlines, check my email...and discover than an hour has passed.
I don't expect to conquer this problem once and for all, but I really must get it under control. You will know the effort by its fruits: if I succeed at all I'll be writing about those books, and others.
Speaking of magazines
The most recent (January-February) issue of Touchstone contains a piece which strikes me as one of the most important I've read on the subject of the government's intrusion into religious matters. Clearly a long piece for a bimonthly magazine was not composed with the controversy over the HHS "contraception" mandate (as it is slightly inaccurately known) in mind, but it is certainly timely. The article, by Douglas Farrow of McGill University, is called "Why Fight Same-Sex Marriage?" and here are a couple of key passages:
Institutionally, then, [same-sex marriage] is nothing more than a legal construct. Its roots run no deeper than positive law. It therefore cannot present itself to the state as the bearer of independent rights and responsibilities, as older or more basic than the state itself. Indeed, it is a creature of the state, generated by the state's assumption of the power of invention or re-definition.
Which means, obviously, that actual marriage--I share the author's resistance to qualifiying it as "traditional marriage"--is in the same situation relative to the state.
Here we have what is perhaps the most pressing reason why same-sex marriage should be fought, and fought vigorously. It is a reason that neither the proponents nor the opponents of same-sex marriage have properly debated or thought through. In attacking "heterosexual monogamy," same-sex marriage does away with the very institution--the only institution we have--that exists precisely in order to support the natural family and to affirm its independence from the state. In doing so, it effectively makes every citizen a ward of the state, by turning his or her most fundamental human connections into legal constructs at the state's gift and disposal. [my emphasis]
That the family, like every human thing, is always defective in some ways and occasionally pathological, is plain enough, a tragic fact of life. The great and prideful delusion of the contemporary liberal or progressive is the belief these problems can be mostly eliminated, and that the proper instrument for eliminating them is the state. Once you recognize that as the essential assumption and quest of liberalism (as the term is currenly used), almost everything about its programs makes sense. People, left to themselves, do stupid and destructive things. Therefore they cannot be left to themselves in matters of any consequence. And those few who understand what is needed must make and enforce very detailed rules for the others.
Farrow's argument is long and complex and I'm not doing it justice. The whole piece is online at Touchstone's web site, so you can read it for yourself. What makes it most strikingly relevant to the Obama administration's attempt to bring the Church to heel is that it ends by asserting the inevitable movement from contraception, which makes possible the severance of marriage and child-rearing, to the principle that marriage is a mere legal construct. "The fabric of marriage cannot withstand the acid of contraception." That doesn't mean that any specific marriage won't withstand it, of course. But that it's true of the insitution of marriage seems clearer all the time.
Once upon a time a marriage in which the couple intended to remain childless was considered, literally, no marriage at all. The Catholic Church still holds to that view, and is ridiculed for doing so. At the same time, even progressives who aren't hopelessly far gone in some fanaticism recognize that there is something wrong when most births to women under 30 are outside marriage, as this New York Times story tells us. Why is it surprising that if marriage is separated from children, then children are separated from marriage?
For God's Sake
At Mass this evening I was struck by a sentence from the Old Testament reading, Isaiah 43:25:
It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.
Or, as the King James has it:
I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.
The phrase "for my own sake" opened up a sort of vision to me. Perhaps I'm misconstruing the word "sake," and there is some traditional understanding of it of which I'm unaware, but: why does God even want to save us? Because he wants us for himself. And in some real if inconceivable way he can't have us as we are. It's not just that he doesn't want us as we are--he can't have us, because he wants us to be in a profound union with him, and that's impossible as we are, because our sin is part of us, but it can't be part of him. But it's also impossible for him to have that union if he simply reaches out and destroys the sin, which he could do, because that would mean destroying our freedom, which is part of what he loves in us. Poor God, faced with such a dilemma...and the whole history of the human race, collectively and individual, is a scheme for working out that dilemma in such a way that sin is conquered but free will remains. I know this is not a new idea, not even new to me, but the way it presented itself to me in that moment was new: a brief glimpse of something incomprehensibly vast and complex, a literally awesome vision.