A Lot of People Don’t Read Books
31 May 2009
With the long-term existence of the printed book in jeopardy, and as I find my own time and brain increasingly torn between books and electronic media (blogs, news, email, video, etc.), I am thinking a lot these days about what it means to read books. More specifically, what it means to be a person who reads books.
A commenter on this blog made the very good point a few weeks ago that a physical book is not connected. Meaning, when you are holding a book in your hands and reading it, you are not receiving message pop-ups, or seeing links to buy this or click over to that, or tempted to “open new tab” to check in on Facebook, or work email, or news headlines. Even if, say, you are reading on your Kindle, and you click away to download a book that came to mind as you were in mid-read, you are interrupting your reading, you are not fully engaged.
Reading a book — a literary book, let’s say, fiction or nonfiction — is a kind of commitment, and is about singular attention; it is decidedly not multitasking; it is an experience both particular and unsimulatable. And, if the book you are reading is worth anything, something happens to you, the quality of your humanness changes, as a result.
Reading a book engages intellect, emotion, imagination. No other kind of reading engages all these, firing on all cylinders, in that same sustained way. Reading a book is a descending into a place of complex thought and feeling, a kind of departure from the world of surfaces as a way of seeing and understanding more deeply what those surfaces reflect.
A person who reads books is different from a person who does not read books. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that a person who reads books is morally or intellectually superior to a person who doesn’t; but qualitatively, these are different kinds of people. There is a part of me that might venture to say that this difference is just as, if not more, significant than any race, class, gender, or geographical signifiers.
Although, to be sure, the baseline assumption here is that we are talking about literate people, i.e. people who can read books but choose one way or the other. What is clear to me, and somewhat surprising, is how many people who can read books do not read books.
It’s a half-baked thought, which I hope to come back to. All I know is that, these days, when I meet a new person, or I’m trying to get a feel for a person, or I’m having a conflict of world view with a person, one of the first things I’ll wonder is: does this person read books? Because I have this inarticulate feeling that somehow it’s all there, in the answer to that question.