Thursday, July 5, 2012

Does It Matter What You Read?


OK, before moving on to my argument, a bookseller's caveat. I give every individual purchase by every individual the benefit of the doubt. Since I can't know the motivation for a particular book purchase I will never judge any particular book purchase. For all I know, that copy of Ulysses is going to be set alight and thrown down open manhole into a chunky, stinking, sluice of human refuse. That said, the Number 1, 2, and 3 bestselling paperbacks in independent bookstores are the first, second, and third volume in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. So, though I will never judge a particular purchase of Fifty Shades of Grey, there does seem to be an alarming pattern here.

At least last time I scanned the book-o-sphere, most people disagree with me, arguing that the action of reading in and of itself is so freaking awesome that it doesn't particularly matter what one is reading. (And many if not most might go a second step and accuse anyone who might argue otherwise of “snobbery,” but I'm beginning to think an exploration of the “snob” idea deserves its own post.) The whole “as long as I/he/she/it/they are reading” idea is really only half of a statement, because it contains an implied, “instead of.” When someone says “as long as they're reading,” they usually imply “instead of watching TV,” the assumption being that reading is neurologically better for your than watching TV. To me, this idea is kind of like saying something is safer than shooting yourself in the face. It's true, but not meaningful. Are we really making an argument for reading by saying it's better than the most narcotizing experience people can have without taking actual narcotics?

But even then I'm not entirely sure. Is reading Twilight (which I'm just going to use as a symbol for “substance-less entertainment containing an accepted low-quality of craft,” which doesn't mean I think you shouldn't read Twilight if you want to, which might seem like a contradiction of the point I'm making, but stick with me, nuance and reasonableness approacheth.) better than watching No Reservations, Louis, or The Wire? How about playing Knights of the Old Republic or Minecraft? And what about watching Casablanca or Citizen Kane or an Akira Kurosawa movie? How about taking a long hike? Of course, it all comes down to your definition of “better,” which itself asks the question, “Why do we read?”

Education, literacy campaigns, and everybody in the book-o-sphere argue that reading is important, that it is entertaining AND helps us grow as people, by developing our imagination and strengthening our empathy. We all accept that reading is both fun and productive, and I think we all accept that some books are really only entertainment and some books provide the substance we need to improve as human beings. Just like on TV, there's the trash that many people enjoy (Congratulations, Jersey Shore, winner of the Twilight Memorial Symbol for Substance-less Entertainment Award for Television) and then there's more substantive shows many people also enjoy; Mad Men being a big one at the moment, but there's also the aforementioned The Wire, No Reservations, and Louis, as well as Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and, if I'm to trust the number of scholarly papers written on the subject, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And just like on TV, I don't think it matters what you read for entertainment. Just like how no one can tell you what to find sexy, no one can tell you what to find entertaining. (For me, with books, I simply cannot be entertained if the sentences suck, but that's just me.)

The problem is the exclusivity of entertainment in our society. There is nothing wrong with entertainment reading, but there is a problem when most people read exclusively for entertainment. That pattern of behavior is what leads to the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy being light years more popular than any other book at the moment.

The thing is, entertainment, though an important part of human life, doesn't really help us solve any of our problems. To put this another way, entertainment (which I have nothing against) doesn't contribute to our ability to be citizens in a democracy. A quick example. By any tangible measure Barack Obama's 2008 campaign platform was the most popular platform in decades. He won 54% of the popular vote, and Democrats took both chambers of Congress. The Republicans responded by doing absolutely everything in their power to obstruct and prevent any aspect of that platform being turned into policy, essentially taking a big runny dump on the very idea of representative democracy. And the punishment they received; the biggest power shift in Congressional history. This point isn't even partisan because interpreting it cuts both ways; either an alarming percentage of the population fell for Republican bullshit or an equally alarming percentage of the population had no idea what they were voting for in 2008. Of course, terrifyingly, both are probably true.

Though a lot of factors go into how we make political decisions, I think a population truly capable of the critical thinking engendered and strengthened by consistently reading literature would be a lot better at voting for what they actually believe in and supporting policies that meet the challenges we face. We could “read” the messages of politicians and pundits in a critical light that exposes underlying assumptions, explores the implications of applied policy, and sorts the statement from the bluster. We could vote for ideas, rather than through vague emotions cultivated by ad campaigns.

But this whole argument rests on how we answer the question “Why do we read?” And not just why we read, but why we do anything, play video games, watch TV, movies, sports, take long hikes, exercise in general, travel, etc. Sure we all deserve leisure, relaxation, mindless fun, entertainment some of the time (frankly, I'm totally cool with 65/35 entertainment/personal growth, I'd even take 70/30, but I'm looking at the NYT bestseller list and pretty sure we're around 98/2, maybe 95/5) but the point of entertainment is personal stasis. One of the primary pleasures of entertainment is that it asks nothing of us. But it doesn't help us make a better world. And if a better world isn't a goal, well, what's the point of anything?

One final caveat, before wrapping this up. For reluctant readers and readers who are still developing basic reading skills, it doesn't matter what they read as long as they read. For them, whoever they are, that whole neurological point applies, with the goal that eventually, they develop the skills needed to productively read literature every now and again. But for the rest of you...

So if you want to grow as a human being, yes, it does matter what you read. You should read books with ideas new to you. Books with images that extend their meaning into your life. Sentences that make you work at their interpretation. Words you have to look up in the dictionary. Scenarios that challenge your understanding of morals and ethics. Descriptions of people you could never meet in your life, places you could never visit, obstacles you could never surmount. It is not elitist to argue that if we want the empathy and intellect needed to solve the world's problems we should read books that stretch our empathy and challenge our intellect. And it is not snobbish to suggest that in our society of constant entertainment it would be beneficial and enjoyable to occasionally read for a different experience.

So if you've only read entertainment recently, go into your locally owned independent bookstore and ask for a challenge. Put effort into reading it. Look stuff up. Underline. Annotate. Break a sweat. Work your brain. You don't get a chiseled physique if you only lift 5lbs weights and the same goes for your brain. And when you're done, the new Sookie Stackhouse or Robet Ludlum spin off will be waiting for you.

(Pictures from Awesome People Reading)


  1. I think you really underscore your point with your last paragraph. Yes, what you read matters and I really like the argument you make. But what really REALLY matters is what you DO with what you read. Plenty of people pick up great literature and trudge through it out of some vague intellectual obligation (I know, I've been guilty of it many times), and, though there may still be some positive residual effects, it's not nearly the kind of engagement you're talking about. Would that time be better spent reading Twilight or watching Jersey Shore? No, But I think the culture of entertainment sets most people up to expect reading to be something you can just sit back, relax, and do. There are a select few books that allow you do that while still seriously challenging you, but most require more active work. I know I felt tremendous guilt when I turned the last page of I Hotel that I didn't have a notebook filled after reading it, and a year later I'm ashamed to say most of it has escaped my mind...

    1. I think that kind of readerly guilt is one of the great failings of how we teach reading and literature in schools. You feel a sense of failure or shame in the face of a book you didn't understand, rather than a sense of challenge and future accomplishment. You turn away from the book, often with frustration, rather than turning to a potential re-reading.

      You're definitely right that the key is what the reader does, but some works motivate readers to be active and some don't and, to me, that's the real point. To often we avoid books that motivate activity. And, well, you can see the result. Thanks for reading and commenting Shannon. Next time we'll get a chance to actually discuss I, Hotel for real.