I’m trying to acclimate myself to Twitter a bit, though at this stage I’m about as savvy in the microblogging Internets as my grandfather. Besides being awesome for self-indulgence and self-promotion (see: hashtag trends like #whyimsingle and #ThingsIDidOverTheSummer), it’s a great tool for discovering random articles around the web. I have an unquenchable thirst for life-inapplicable knowledge, so this makes me happy.
Today, through a variety of random clicks, I found this article about the new trend of budding writers who refuse to read(!). Apparently, this group is growing. I would assume that they have magical, inherent powers of writing which require absolutely no outside involvement. They do not need to read the classics, because doing so would influence their writing and inevitably ruin it. They must avoid books at all costs, so as to preserve the pristine nature of their creative genius.
But enough sarcasm. The article itself is quite good in discussing the general motivation to read, set against the potential roots of this non-readership. Reading, Buzz Poole writes, is the opposite of writing. (My two cents: Because while reading is relaxing and pleasurable, writing, in all its grueling, brain-bending, cathartic frenzy, is not.) Reading is what young writers do when they need a hero to emulate. Reading is also, as Steve Himmer of The Millions writes and Buzz Poole quotes, a private, almost lonely endeavor — while writing is a method of communication. Reading is a way to escape the world around us, separate ourselves, hopefully learn something new. (My two cents here: So is writing.)
Technology, meanwhile, teaches us more quickly than reading can. Simultaneously, it erodes our ability to be alone. Think of Twitter — byte-sized bits of fact and knowledge, no pun intended, chewed through and pre-digested. One wonders if the reason it’s even called Twitter and shown as a cartoon bird is because of the way birds eat — picking through the barfed-up remnants of their parents’ meal (I kid you not). Why pick up a book when you can scroll through your iPhone at the train station instead? It simply isn’t logical.
On my end, however, reading has always been something of a given. “Read me” was one of the first phrases I learned to say to strangers visiting our apartment when I was a baby. Reading was the activity which concluded most of my childhood days, and if my parents told me it was too late for a bedtime book, I got mad and played them off against each other. When I was in high school, my parents actively deprived me of access to books so that I’d focus on my homework — books were leisure (the true mark of an intellectual family). And my first attempts at writing certainly stemmed from reading something that floored me to such an extent that I wanted desperately to recreate that feeling for someone, through words of my own. In attempting to do so, I inevitably turned to books and studied the craft of other authors.
I’m not sure if we can survive as a society of writers if we don’t read. To me, that sounds like the product of an overly-busy day (which, as I’ve been lobbying for a long time, should be extended to 36 hours instead of 24). Wouldn’t we always be reinventing the wheel if we’re perpetually crafting in a vacuum? And, aside from being critical for writers, reading is one of those activities that we really could not, should not live without as people. If one never opens a book, one’s perspective is fundamentally limited to one’s own experience — and that eliminates opportunities for empathy.
For supporting evidence: A study recently found that reading fiction increases one’s ability to empathize. Unfortunately, this study used Twilight and Harry Potter as its test books, and was covered in an article direly lacking proper punctuation. Still, the findings confirm something I’ve thought might be true for a while.
As a vegan, apparently I’m supposed to have oversized empathy areas of the brain anyways. Still, I believe reading had something to do with the whole walk-in-another-person’s-shoes thing. (As did living overseas and seeing myself through other people’s eyes — repeatedly and unflatteringly; more on this later.)
As I’ve grown older and left the fuzzy intellectual catacomb of my alma mater, I’ve met more and more people who tell me proudly that they “don’t read fiction.” Yes, I judge them. I also wonder how they get by, placing the literary value of some billionaire’s biography above that of, say, The Brothers Karamazov. And I hope, quietly to myself — won’t the overload of technology and chaos around us actually drive us back to books eventually?
Isn’t there a day in most people’s lives when they wake up and realize that reading a fantastic book with a strong cup of tea is infinitely better than any other plans they might have had?