My wife recently read me some appalling statistics on how little people read these days.
I have no doubt that people are reading in the most basic sense–they are reading traffic signs, restaurant menus, and text messages–but this is hardly what people are referring to when they cite appalling statistics. No one glories in the most primitive skill of interpreting a combination of letters. People aren’t reading books (despite Thomas Tipp’s assurance that “people will read again”).
Books are an important reading source because writing a book has certain standards, built into the publishing process, that insure quality. Not everyone can or should write a book. And even if you do muster the time management skills and endurance needed to churn out 40,000 words (the minimum length for a novel), there’s little chance that someone will publish you.
Lengthy Thought Exchange
Beyond the quality control benefits of reading books, there is the length. Reading a book requires you to engage in a lengthy thought exchange that reading a blog, magazine, or article doesn’t require. Of course, there IS a good measure of thought exchange going on with these other mediums, but it’s just not that sustained (I think somewhat of an exception is if you regularly read a blog from the same author- this way you interact with more of their thought process). In general, the Internet has conditioned us for the ephemeral. If you do most of your reading on the Internet (excluding a commitment to a blog), chances are you’re a flighty, inattentive, and tenuous reader. You probably don’t actually read; you scan, which means you are merely looking for information rather than comprehension, and would probably be very happy with a bullet list of the pertinent points instead.
I know of one blogger who uses density and length as defense mechanisms against reactionary reading and as means to develop his desired reading audience:
Given the nature of our context, I have purposefully chosen to communicate in a manner designed to shape the discourse according to my principles. When the length of my writing alienates people with short attention spans and little self-discipline, this is as I intend. My writing is written for people who recognize that, when you read a text, you are the servant of it, rather than being written for people who see the author as someone who always has the duty to make their reading as effortless as possible as word consumers. I write as a way of selecting and producing readers who are attuned to my patterns of thought or prepared to become so, readers who approach reading as a discipline and seek to be attentive, sensitive, and responsible to the authors that they read. Readers accustomed to reading texts on their own ease of consumption driven terms are the most inclined to use texts against their authors’ intentions.
Lengthy and dense prose stifles the processes of reactivity. It temporarily removes people from reactive environments and challenges them to think and to control their impulses. It doesn’t lend itself in the same way to mere ‘like or dislike’ reactions, calling for processed response, rather than instant reaction.
If we are reading for comprehension, we should view a paragraph as an invitation to discovery. Certainly this is one thing I’ve learned from reading Proust. We should accept the author on his terms without suspicion. Often modern readers waver before a long paragraph. However, a well-developed paragraph is visual proof of an author’s commitment to sustained interaction with the reader. I imagine authors echoing Aladdin, “Do you trust me?”
In this second ‘preliminary investigation’ the co-operation of the serious reader is once again required…
–Karl Barth, Preface to the 2nd edition of The Epistle to the Romans
Making Intellectual Friends
Books expand your capacity, confront you with sustained reasoning, but best of all introduce you to intellectual friends.
Stanley Hauerwas offers these thoughts on the benefits of reading books:
For the most part, our intellectual friendships are channeled through books…. Books, moreover, are often the way in which our friendships with our fellow students and teachers begin and in which these friendships become cemented. I’m not a big fan of Francis Schaeffer, but he can be a point of contact—something to agree with or argue about. The same is true for all writers who tackle big questions. Read Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and John Stuart Mill, and not just because you might learn something. Read them because doing so will provide a sharpness and depth to your conversations. To a great extent, becoming an educated person means adding lots of layers to your relationships… Think of books as the fine threads of a spider’s web. They link and connect…
Books are touchstones, common points of reference. They are the water in which our minds swim….
The curricula of many colleges and universities may seem, and in fact may be, chaotic. Many schools have no particular expectations. You check a few general-education boxes—a writing course, perhaps, and some general distributional requirements—and then do as you please. Moreover, there is no guarantee that you will be encouraged to read. Some classes, even in the humanities, are based on textbooks that chop up classic texts into little snippets. You cannot become friends with an author by reading half a dozen pages.
This then is one of the greatest benefits to reading books- the opportunity to make new friends.
It’s only by reading an entire volume of Proust that you can get to know him. Same with Saint Augustine. Familiarizing yourself with only excerpted, famous quotes, wrenched from their original setting, is like studying St. Peter’s or Hagia Sophia in an art history book–you know it as non-spatial, selective in detail, and devoid of a constellation of complex relations. Hardly a real or impressive introduction. Studying an author in this way will also make him appear flat and colorless. You have to enter his literary world and interact with him in time and space. You have to put him down and pick him up over a course of weeks, much like you would pick up and drop off a friend. This long term commitment builds up something between the two of you and lets you in on a critical insight that others are blind to.
After saying all that, here is my very ambitious reading list for this year!
My 2014 reading list:
Other books on my horizon:
I’m not really set on reading any of these this year, although I have already bought a number of them and have started to flip through or even read a couple of chapters in them.