Written by Writing Assistant and Fellow, Will Lake
Last semester I had the pleasure of living and learning in the beautiful state of Oregon. Through a program sponsored in part by Hope, The Oregon Extension, I was able to travel to a secluded mountain top ex-logging town where we lived in cabins, turned in our phones, and read. The goal of the program is to “get out of the mainstream” but, in doing so, you accomplish so much more. We were offered chickens, goats, wood-burning stoves for heat, and a community of professors and students for intimate learning. The program offered seclusion, to be sure; we lived about an hour from civilization, on top of a mountain, in the middle of federally protected wilderness. On account of the seclusion, we lived distraction-free. Without phones, WiFi, or electronics, we looked around and saw nothing but mountains, trees, and books. Books, books, and more books.
On average, we probably read between about 600-800 pages of text every week (when we weren’t out backpacking or on a trip). Over a 16 week period, this adds up. I was ashamed to say that, before going out to Oregon as a senior in college, I had almost never picked up, started, and finished a book, cover-to-cover, in my entire life. Why would I? I mean, with Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix, my free-time schedule is pretty booked up. My academic schedule (professors: cover your ears) is about getting things done. When it comes to reading, there comes a difference between “reading” an assigned book, and “ reading the first chapter, skimming, then looking at summaries, then reading the last chapter a month later before the test”. I must say, I am ashamed, looking back, of my poor reading history. It wasn’t till Oregon, when I had nothing else to do but read, that I discovered the joys, benefits, and realities of reading.
Reading is like working out – the more you do it, the easier it becomes. The more you read, the faster you read, the more you comprehend, the less it strains you. If this analogy holds, in Oregon, I became an Olympian, of sorts. The other thing about reading whole books, versus summaries, quick articles, etc, is that you begin to feel an intimacy with the book – a kinship. It is said that there exists a spiritual relation between human and dog; the same can be said about human and book. They become your friends, whom you understand on a deeper level. You have seen all their inner workings and mysteries. You have toiled over them, you have laughed with them, cried on their pages. And then, when you’re finished with them, they stand proudly upon your shelf, perhaps for years, waiting for that sweet, precious moment when you return to them to reminisce, and to have a chat with your long-lost friend. Other than being your friend, there is one indirect consequence of reading: your writing drastically improves. When I arrived in Oregon, I could write. By the time I left Oregon, 12,000 pages later, I thought in quotes. I wrote in terms of language, style, and ideas that I had collected from thousands of pages of text. It happened sub-consciously, but the effects were more than evident. I realized that my whole life was connecting to what was going on in the texts, and I was able to process it far better in terms of text then I ever have been before. I was writing effortlessly, with my gears lubed; I had fresh ideas constantly on my mind and thousands of examples of argumentation, proper structure, and fascinating style. I spent hundreds of hours in the intellectual gym, and it had paid off. My writing biceps were bigger than ever before.
Now I am home, and I write now and then, and I read less and less. I edit and write papers, and yet, I feel my biceps thinning. I’m realizing that there is no substitute for the real thing – for reading. As for me, it’s time to get back to the gym. Maybe I’ll start with some Hemingway for calisthenics, then perhaps move into Socrates for my power-lifting. As long as pages are turning, there are myriad ways that I am growing.