Last month, I started my “year without buying books.” It was in response to one of those inner promptings – when God’s Spirit guides us to take small steps of transformation. Like pruning, this process often involves cutting things out in order to make room, or reserve energy and time, for something better.
So, for 2023, there’d be a clean break from online-impulse buying; there’d be a dam in the stream of new arrivals overflowing my shelves; there’d be a moratorium on any additions to my growing list of un-listened-to audiobooks; there’d be a commitment, before entering a used bookstore, to only browse.
So far, I have no regrets. When you notice addictive behaviour, it can be really helpful to completely cut it out – to starve your appetite for it, and force yourself to look elsewhere for something to fill the void. Something life-giving. So, rather than accumulating more, how about adopting the practice of giving away? Or simply enjoying what I have? I do have a lot of books.
Interestingly, ceasing to purchase books resulted in a sudden increase in reading – or, more specifically, listening. After cancelling my Audible membership (to stop purchasing new ones), I realized that the end of January would bring an end to my access to all of the free titles included in my account. And I had a few on the go: Eusebius’s Church History, Sun-Tau’s The Art of War, and Andrew Murray’s Abide in Christ. Knowing that this was my last chance to finish them, I frantically devoured the first two, and half of the third before my time ran out.
Yet, while I’m somewhat proud to have finished a couple more classic works of literature, this frenetic end to the month raises another issue for reflection:
Are audiobooks becoming too big in my life? Are they taking up too much time and attention, and getting in the way of other things? Has the elimination of one addictive behaviour (purchasing books) cast a spotlight on another addictive behaviour (listening to books)?
So, as I entered the month of February, it seemed to me that taking a break from audiobooks would be worth a try. For years, they had accompanied me in the silence of my driving, dishwashing, home renovations, snoozing, and tedious office work. And they had added much richness to my life – insightful perspectives from non-fiction, imaginative escapes in fiction, or simply the efficient completion of an assigned reading.
But were these additions subtracting anything from my life? At times, they divided my attention and distracted me from people and important tasks. At other times, they filled the space that could have been occupied by prayer, pondering, Bible study, or conversation. And why? What was the appeal? Why did I feel the need to press on and finish book after book?
It seems that with books, I face not only the temptation to over-accumulate, but the temptation to strive for accomplishment.
That’s the addiction. Reading books to add to my “completed” list, as a subtle source of pride (see me on Goodreads). Audiobooks have enabled me to read more (albeit less attentively) but what have they caused to become less? Perhaps cutting them for a month would reveal some insight.
So, with audiobooks out of the way, what would fill the void? What else could I listen to?
I tried radio, and heard a lot of chatter, annoying ads, and shallow songs.
I tried podcasts, which challenged by sense of accomplishment (there’s nothing to say I “completed”). While they often thoughtfully engage both sides of a culturally relevant issue (Holy Post, Munk Debates), they also take a lot of time. I’d say they sure beat radio, for someone whose mind is free while they work with their hands, but I still prefer in-person dialogue.
I tried sermons – but find them less informative than books, and more suited for their particular context – better to be there, in person! I could listen to my own sermons – probably a painful but useful discipline that could lead to growth 🙂
I tried videos – which can be informative like books, without the same publishing credentials. Good for washing dishes alone, but few other times.
I tried articles – less time consuming and quite efficient (especially though Twitter), but certainly lacking the depth of books.
And of course, I tried to finish some books in paper – an ongoing, but painfully slow practice that is really irreplaceable for the memory it instills.
Despite the limitations of those options, some new practices also helped fill the void:
Listening to people – My Doctoral research project involves interviewing new believers to hear how they came to faith. And I was blessed to hear ten stories in the space of one month – an experience that was both draining and enriching! It takes energy and focus to listen and draw out a person’s story, but the practice has been quite enlightening. I’m glad to have the time and headspace for it.
Listening to God – this one might seem obvious, but when automatic go-to time fillers are removed, there can be space for prayer: reflection on His word, journaling and conversing with Him about life, and interceding for the needs of others.
Playing soccer – I’ve never played on a soccer team in my life – but after the parents from my son’s team decided to form their own, I’ve found my hockey and football skills transfer fairly well to the role of goalkeeper. So, Sunday afternoon snoozes with audiobooks have given way to exercise and new friendships!
Playing guitar – after taking lessons in high school, my guitar playing was basically dormant for 20 years. There was always someone else who could offer their musical abilities at church, and so, over the years, I’ve taken up other ministry roles. But, as our church has begun to lack instrumentalists lately, I’ve begun to respond to that stress by picking up the guitar again. While that might sound like a stressful endeavour to rescue the music ministry, it’s actually been much more of an inward practice that has produced outward fruit. For the first time, I’ve begun to genuinely enjoy playing for it’s own sake, and to worship God through song outside of a church service. And through that personal development, I’ve gained a capacity to serve in that area.
Playing music – related to that, I’ve begun to realize that songs have certain advantages over books. While books can broaden one’s perspective by adding knowledge, songs can deepen one’s understanding, or the impact of words, by repeating them. Played to music, songs lyrics stick in our mind and can help form our thoughts and actions. In times of stress or busyness, I am thankful when a timely song enters my mind.
So, this month, I sought freedom not only from the accumulation of books, but from the need to accomplish through reading them. And, surprisingly, that freedom from accomplishment has created space for new accomplishments to emerge. While there is a time and place to disengage from the world and broaden knowledge, this month has afforded me time to engage in the world more deeply and fruitfully.
For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.Psalm 62:1