In our modern age where everything is disposable, is there any value or benefit to be had in print? We take for granted that our phones, which cost more than a car would have been two generations ago, will be thrown out within two years. Letters have been replaced by text message and time face to face has been replaced by Face Time. Yes the content of a book can be "consumed" on any electronic device but is that all there is to reading? To art? To culture? Is it meant to be quickly consumed and then cast aside for the next stimulus that comes our way?
We must move away from the concept that we "consume content." This concept, as with a heresy, takes some aspect of what is true and perverts it to an end it is not meant. When we consume food, it nourishes our body (provided of course that we have chosen to eat good food) and becomes part of us. Much work may have gone into the creation of the meal and we may savor the flavors while we are eating. Is this not what we do with literature, art, music? They seem to be the same in many ways. When we read, we take in the information, created by an external source and allow it to become a part of us. It may nourish our intellect and soul or it may cause harm depending on the merit of the material. Where is the problem with the metaphor? There are two main issues with seeing culture as something to be consumed. First, the nourishment received is temporary. Second, the source of the nourishment is used up.
When we eat it is true that our body is nourished (or harmed) and that the material we have consumed becomes part of us. This is a valid comparison with intellectual materials we take in. Where it breaks down is that the physical nourishment is temporary where as the intellectual, spiritual and emotional nourishment is lasting. A meal can only be enjoyed as it is being eaten. We may look back fondly on meals of the past but we cannot relive them. No matter how much I may have loved last night's dinner, I cannot "retaste it." The memory does not bring the flavor back nor can I be renourished through contemplating my dinner. I am not filled by the thought of steak not drunk with the mere thought of bourbon.
A work of art (in any medium) is quite the opposite. A work of art consummates. It is married to our intellect and to our soul and is completed once it has become ours. If I find joy in reading a poem, I can contemplate it days, weeks, months, years later and continue it the joy of the poem without having to reread it. Even more, upon contemplation, the spiritual and intellectual nourishment from the poem can grow within me.
This is, unfortunately, also true with harmful art. If I read, listen to or watch something that does harm to my soul, something that leads me away from truth or into temptation, it can continue to cause harm and even to have the harm grow with the passage of time. If I contemplate error rather than truth I can lose my soul.
The second major error in considering the arts as consumable is that once something is consumed, it has been used up. Food, once consumed, cannot be eaten again. The meal is finished. The resource has been exhausted. It cannot be returned to. A similar meal can be created if we truly enjoyed it but I cannot eat the same meal twice. In addition to this, food cannot be shared. Portions of food can be doled out but two people cannot both eat the same piece of food. It is not a common good.
Intellectual and spiritual goods are the opposite. First, the intellectual and artistic works are not used up by our using them. When I read a book, it does not cease to be. The ideas contained within its pages are not churned and destroyed as they enter my mind as food is upon entering my mouth. In fact, I have shelves full of books that have been read multiple times. Ideas can be returned to, revisited, built upon, contemplated in different ways. They become more fruitful the more they are visited.
"Content" is a common good; it can be shared without being broken down or depleted. My reading of a poem does not erase it from existence the same way that eating a sandwich does. If I share an idea, anyone who will listen can receive it in it's fullness. The idea will not diminish with the number of people who accept it (provided its transmission is clear). If I share a ag of candy, even a gigantic one, I will eventually run out of candy. With thoughts, ideas, art and culture what is an even more profound distinction is that if I share an idea with you, you may actually take and improve upon it before sharing with another. You can also take the improved idea and share it with me and I may benefit from its improvement. This is not the same with a consumed good. Once I receive and consume, it is finished and used up.
Information and inspiration consummate with our intellect and soul. They become married to the mind and to the soul; they are completed there. Ideas become more fruitful and grow. We receive ideas into our minds as soil receives a seed. The seed is not the end, it is the beginning. It must be tended and cared for. It is nurtured and watched over and grows into something that will continue to nurture us. Once it has become fruitful, more seeds will be produced until we have a garden. How different this is than a meal to be consumed! In a meal we have the fruits of another's labor. It may be enjoyed and savored while we are eating but once the meal is completed and the flavor gone it is merely of memory. Consumed food will not continue to produce. It has been used up.
We do not consume content. It is not a limited resource to be chewed up and disposed. Let us instead contemplate! Let us consummate ideas to our intellect. Let us plant and tend the garden of our minds! Let us see the intellectual and spiritual works of others as common goods, to be shared with others, to be built upon. Let ideas grow. Let them mature! Spend the time to truly benefit rather than rushing through, "devouring content" and being left hungry and unfulfilled.
Read a book. View at art. Listen to a song. Contemplate what you have seen and heard. Let it flower and become consummate in your soul.
If you haven't already done so, please go check out my Kickstarter for Dominus Illuminatio Mea!