Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide.

Eventually one must tire of reading the debates about reading and prefer to just read, or, if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t, watch T.V., or whatever—though if you don’t like reading, I’m rather puzzled that you’re at this site. Regardless, you should read this long, worthwhile, and non-polemical look at the decline of reading from Heather Harris (hat tip Books, Inq.):

One of the great pastimes of the literati, aside from complaining about the Bush administration and attending live tapings of A Prairie Home Companion, is collective hand-wringing about the sad fact that Americans no longer read. Apparently, most of us would sooner watch Rock of Love–Bret and Ambre are so not going to make it–than pick up a novel. Enter Mikita Brottman: Maryland Institute College of Art professor, Oxford scholar, author, and patron saint of the tome-averse masses in her new book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading. Brottman is the latest in a long line of philosophers and writers to question reading’s value, and in this day of reading campaigns and self-important book clubs, the question of whether reading per se is a virtuous activity is timely.

I’ve been collecting examples of quotes and articles concerning the decline of reading, as the debate about whether reading is good or bad for you seems to have been rolling around since the origins of the English novel. Other required reading on reading is Steven Johnson’s Dawn of the Digital Natives, whose perspective is closer to Brottman’s than the unnamed literati of the article.

I fall into more of the rah-rah reading crowd, both for personal and societal reasons. The argument about writing and reading changing our culture resonates with me, as even people who never read have been affected by the innumerable writers and reformers of various kinds whose work extends perpetually backwards in time. In addition, as Foucault argues, power and knowledge are inherently bound, and the most efficient way to transmit knowledge seems to be reading.

Why have we dismantled most forms of racial discrimination or many of the barriers to women in the workforce or other kinds of discrimination based on things other than ability? Why do we let atheists maintain their beliefs openly? It’s largely because some people were willing to challenge the larger culture, chiefly through writing, and enough people were interested in reading to have absorbed those principles or ideas, which now come at us through a thousand outlets. I just read in Alain Badiou’s ‘Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Wo Es War): “When Nietzsche proposes to ‘break the history of the world in two’ by exploding Christian nihilism and generalizing the great Dionysian ‘yes’ to Life […]” I thought, really? Although I don’t necessarily buy the “exploding Christian nihilism” bit (what nihilism?), count me as a late convert to the Dionysian principle. Without books, it’s doubtful that I would’ve made it there, and it’s in part my own trajectory that leads me to believe, perhaps irrationally, in the transformative value of thinking about the world through reading.

To delve into personal territory, books helped me leave the social carapace that hardened when I was 10 or 11, not create it, as Brottman says happened to her. Books were a recovery from an unhappy move and from video games and helped me articulate more of a worldview and change my behavior, and while I don’t think of books as therapy, they do have some therapeutic aspects to them. To bring the level of seriousness back to an appropriate level, consider what Richard Feynman said in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: “And Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was Von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility!”

Without reading, I might lack this powerful sense of social irresponsibility and instead just have accepted accepted received wisdom instead of revising received wisdom. Let this be a lesson, by the way, to the natterers, including myself, on getting young people to read—instead of pushing reading ceaselessly like whole wheat bread, maybe it’s time to forbid it, and stock copies of Henry Miller and Bret Easton Ellis in the liquor store, thereby necessitating that teenagers get their older siblings or boyfriends or whatever to buy it for them. They might pass copies of Lost Girls around like furtive bongs at parties. I call this the “gateway drug” approach to reading, as opposed to the “whole wheat” approach.

Still, on a marginally more serious note, if no one reads, then who will write the challenges to cultural, legal, social, and technical problems? And who will read them? That, implicitly, is what many of hand-wringers worry about. Steven Johnson might argue, perhaps correctly, that those challenges will come from visual media, and that’s possible—but I doubt most visual media can match the depth of depth of text. I’m convinced that reading causes you to think—as Caleb Crain’s Twilight of the Books argues—differently and gives you the tools to argue against bad public policy, bureaucracies, and the like. To me, reading is linked to freedom itself, and I don’t think it’s mere correlation that the initial moves toward democracy coincided with the rise of what evidence we have for written languages, or that repressive governments fear and try to control books and knowledge. Thus, I see reading as important in the personal sphere for individual growth and in the societal sphere for correcting the excesses of organizations with power. And they’re fun—Feynman often criticized such organizations through his social irresponsibility, and has helped transmit that sense to others. Reading doesn’t have to be antisocial, and I usually find being social around people who read is more fun than being around people who don’t, simply because the readers get more and get it faster. Once again, the correlation/causation issue arises, but from my perspective, it doesn’t matter—I’ll take the reader over the non-reader, and many people not in positions of, say, government authority would probably do the same. Without falling prey to Godwin’s Law, I’ll note that many authoritarian regimes try to control knowledge and specific manifestations of knowledge, like books and professors. As a result, I see reading as both a public and private good, although one that, paradoxically, might be best inculcated in young people by trying to show it as dangerous, rather than good for you like Wheaties.

This argument might not matter, since surveys keep appearing that claim people read less and less, but like any believer, I’m still convinced of the faith’s importance. I’m not as much a proselytizer as someone who thinks others should come to it on their volition—I’m less of a Christian missionary and more of a Buddhist monk. Or maybe I’ve just got an economic interest in reading, since I spend an enormous amount of time writing. I think it’s deeper than that, although I won’t be so ridiculously grandiose as to say things like, “The future depends on it!” like a character from a bad superhero movie, I will say that reading still matters as a component of free thought and free life, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of sociability. It can be good for you but shouldn’t necessarily be pitched that way. The culture, however, will move in whatever way it does, and I suspect those in the debate will be increasingly on the margins of the culture as a whole.


EDIT: Added last paragraph on 6/11/08.

6 responses

  1. I fall into more of the rah-rah reading crowd, both for personal and societal reasons. The argument about writing and reading changing our culture resonates with me, as even people who never read have been affected by the innumerable writers and reformers of various kinds whose work extends perpetually backwards in time.

    Some would argue that television, music, gaming, and other massively popular (the phrase is chosen with care) media change our culture much more than reading and writing do. Much more potently, anyway.

    Without reading, would I have developed this strong sense of social irresponsibility? Probably not: I would’ve accepted received wisdom.

    Plenty of people accept the “received wisdom” precisely through reading. The Bible, Qur’an, Mahābhārata, or what have you.

    Let this be a lesson, by the way, to the natterers, including myself, on getting young people to read—instead of pushing reading ceaselessly like whole wheat bread, maybe it’s time to forbid it, and stock copies of Henry Miller and Bret Easton Ellis in the liquor store, thereby necessitating that teenagers get their older siblings or boyfriends or whatever to buy it for them. They might pass copies of Lost Girls around like furtive bongs at parties. I call this the “gateway drug” approach to reading, as opposed to the “whole wheat” approach.

    That’s quite a ‘modest proposal’, Jake. Of course, I notice that you’ve chosen a couple of particularly salacious examples for these ‘under the counter’ books. Would your approach work as well for Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne as for Anaïs Nin or Chuck Palahniuk.

    Still, on a marginally more serious note, if no one reads, then who will write the challenges to cultural, legal, social, and technical problems? And who will read them? That, implicitly, is what many of hand-wringers worry about. Johnson might argue, perhaps correctly, that those challenges will come from visual media, and that’s possible—but I’m not sure visual media can match the depth of depth of text.

    I think I would say that the visual media have as much to offer by way of ‘culture war’ as books do, and sometimes more. Compare Morgan Spurlock’s documentary film, Super Size Me, to Eric Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation, which largely inspired it. Schlosser’s book, though full of valuable information, is just about impossible to read; whereas, Spurlock’s film had a major impact on me. And his documentary television series, 30 Days, which has just embarked on its third season, is continuing this tradition of thought-provoking and culturally relevant visual programming. I don’t think you have to sacrifice one for the other — both books and other media can, I think, work in tandem to precipitate the evolution of culture.

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  2. While it’s true that some television can be “thought provoking,” most television provides nowhere near the informational content of a book. Let’s use the example Jason provided: while the clearly media-saturated Jason had difficult with Schosser’s book, it was a best-seller and spawned a number of other books, as well as Spurlock’s movie. Most who read the book and saw the film enjoyed the latter, but found its approach a bit sensationalistic and mostly content-free. It was a stunt, much like 30 Days is a stunt show; very little analytical material is provided by either Spurlock’s film or his series. (Spurlock himself has said he owes more to Michael Moore and his filmmaking than Schlosser’s book. One provided inspiration; the other provided style, methodology, and even content.)

    While I agree with Jason’s basic premise – that books and “new media” can work together toward a synthesis – it is however seldom the case that a great deal of crossover occurs. Book-friendly people tend to avoid the blaring, glaring, hyperkinetic style that pervades most visual media today. At best, they find it less than informative and at worst, a terrible superficial distraction. Likewise, those who get most of their input from television and the internet tend to read much less. Both groups display a tendency to disparage the media and habits of the other. It would be a perfect world if such overlap were widespread, but in reality this idea that someone reads something online, then gets a book to further investigate, is a rare thing confined to people who are already inclined to read books in the first place. At best, they read something in a blog, then go to Wikipedia for more detail, then end their quest because, in their minds, the internet has “all the answers.” (This attitude and practice growing among high school and even college students, who think citing Wikipedia is as solid and reliable as any classic reference work.)

    It’s obvious that visual and internet media can deliver some content and message effectively. Newspaper subscriptions are down, but newspaper readership via the internet is way up. The explosion of YouTube suggests the possibility that the popularity of web video could be utilized to deliver information normally relegated to books. Weblogs and podcasts both offer dynamic methods of delivering information, with interactive capabilities impossible through books.

    But it’s also clear that at this point in the technological timeline, books are capable of providing more in-depth analysis and more information than any other media. While this may not remain true always, video and internet media seem more oriented to the “now happening” rather than analysis of the “what happened.” Books also provide a form of information storage and retrieval which does not expire or become invalid because of some change in (often proprietary) data formats. In other words, a book published in 1980 is still readable today, whereas data stored on the primary method of 1980 data storage will be all but inaccessible today. Internet media is at this time as volatile as it is dynamic; the proper storage and display of information contained in your blog is dependent on software, web hosting, internet access, and a variety of other factors. To access a book, you need only acquire it and open it in a well-lighted space.

    At this time, books are far superior forms of information containment and transmission. But this will not remain true forever. Technology may someday change what we think of as a “book,” just as it has already affected our habits of reading. The idea that it must be fully this or that, one way or the other, is reductionist, binary thinking – typical of most Americans of course, but hardly worthy of serious, intelligent debate.

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  3. Pingback: Why fiction? Why reading? | The Story's Story

  4. Pingback: Links: The boring sense of the “party,” reading, pigs, college, and more! « The Story's Story

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