According to this report, reading is on the rise in America for the first time in a quarter century. It’s difficult for me to express how pleased this makes me.
Civilization and its discontents have been in the back of my mind since I became aware of how little reading most people do. To go into a house—a nice house,well-furnished, a place of some affluence—and see no books at all has always given me a chill, especially if there are children in the house. Over the last 30 years, since I’ve been paying attention to the issue, I’ve found a bewildering array of excuses among people across all walks of life as to why they never read. I can understand fatigue, certainly—it is easier to just flip on the tube and veg out to canned dramas—but in many of these instances, reading has simply never been important. To someone for whom reading has been the great salvation, this is simply baffling.
Reading, I believe, is the best way we have to gain access to the world short of physically immersing ourselves in different places and cultures. Even for those who have the opportunity and resource to travel that extensively, reading provides a necessary background for the many places that will be otherwise inaccessibly alien to our sensibilities.
A book is a significant encoding of someone’s mind. A life, if you will, which is why I tend to see book-burning as a form of homicide (euphemistically, mind you, but that’s about how strongly I feel about it). When you read a book—and in this instance I mean a book of fiction or memoir or essay, something written in response to a desire or need to communicate something of the self (as opposed to instruction manuals or the like)—and comprehend what is there, you are sharing something profound with another human being whom you may never—can never, sometimes—meet. The characters live when you let them, they walk around in the imagination, they show you things and take you places and teach.
Oh, yes, they teach. They give us the opportunity to know different kinds of human being, in different ways, and while we might not embrace those ways or people or wish to emulate them, we can know them. Deep reading opens the world for us.
Movies and television do not do this. Not that they can’t, mind you, but because we are passive receptors to what passes pre-digested before us, our participation—our active interrogation of the text, if you will—is barely brought into play. Where in reading we must participate by “decoding” what is on the page and partner with the author is bringing the images to life in our own imaginations, film does all that for us.
For those who are deeply read or deeply sensitive, what can be derived from film and theater can certainly be rich in its own way, but I have found over time that those who read as much as they watch have richer reactions to what passes on the screen, have better conversations about what they have just seen, have more to bring to the piece than those who do not read.
Reading builds intellectual muscle in ways that cannot be done by other media.
This is, perhaps, mere personal prejudice, but I think not. I think the broad, multifaceted internal lives developed by the habit of reading over time makes us better able to understand more of the world around us.
Granted, one could spend one’s life reading nothing but one kind of thing, being stuck in a rut with a single strand of literature, and thus trapping the very process which reading ought to enable…
But to not read at all seems to me a self impoverishment. A tragedy.
So for me this NEA report is nothing but excellent news. For the first time as a reader and writer and an advocate of reading, I am hopeful that I will not be continually in a shrinking minority.
It’s a good day.
About the Author (Author Profile)Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.
Sites That Link to this Post
- The Book Pilgrim | Reading Rainbow | August 4, 2009