“Nobody reads anymore”, is the long-running lament of the booklover (and publisher).
Doom and gloom about the state of world literacy has been standard for a long time – given fresh impetus by each new technology, from the printing press to that destroyer of youthful attention spans, the internet. As though, once the baby boomers die out, nobody will ever read War and Peace again.
American journalist Chris Hedges wrote recently, in his cheery book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, of the one-third of Americans who are apparently illiterate or barely literate. Even among those who can read, “A third of high-school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates”, he writes. “In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book.”
Closer to home, a 2008 survey found that almost half of Australians couldn’t read well enough to decipher from a medicine packet how many tablets they needed to take.
On the other hand, research carried out in 2014reported that 58% of Australians claimed to have read a fiction or non-fiction book in the previous three months. Either something pretty dramatic happened in those six years; people are fibbing about their reading habits; or we perhaps shouldn’t be too quick to believe everything we, well, read.
In honour of World Book Day, here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of six reasons – ranked from possibly the least to the most important – why you should seriously consider being in that supposed 58%. Why your life will probably be better if you make an effort to make a habit of reading.
6. Reading is in
Just as nerd culture is experiencing a sustained moment – see, for instance, the Marvel/DC movie release schedule, or shows like The Big Bang Theory – reading has significantly upped its cachet over the last few decades.
Iconic photographs of Marilyn Monroe or James Dean poring over serious-looking tomes lent the bookworm some social validation. Disney’s Belle from Beauty and the Beast, the redoubtable Hermione Granger, or sweet, fast-talking Rory Gilmore took the bookish heroine mainstream.
Book clubs (and here, perhaps, Oprah ought to take some credit) are a thing that people – adult people in the actual world – do, more and more, because they want to read, and they want to talk about what they read with other people. (Wine may also be involved.)
And in case you need more convincing, there’s always: Hot Dudes Reading, whose 836,000 Instagram followers share among themselves snaps of the species in the wilds of the NYC subway.
5. You’ll be more interesting
This one may be a bit controversial: the reader is, all things being equal, a better conversationalist than the non-reader. The avid reader finds themselves – whether encountering for the first time a professional billiards player, a Tudor historian, or a Finnish traveller – kick-starting intricate and mutually agreeable conversations that frequently begin, “Oh! I recently read something about …” and tap into their interlocutor’s specific interests, knowledge, or experiences without further ado.
Reading is a way of forging bonds with other people, or consolidating ones that already exist; a proxy for figuring out what people are like and how life looks to them; a means of cultivating a richer inner life.
This is partly because …
4. Books overcome some of the limitations of our lives
“The person who doesn’t read lives only one life. The reader lives 5,000. Reading is immortality backwards.” – Umberto Eco
Reading books – especially fiction – lifts us out of the time and place we happen to have been born into. Many writers have conceptualised their craft as a means of exercising the moral muscle of sympathy, of compassion. George Eliot described art as “a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”.
This is not to say that readers of literature are necessarily better people. The Nazis were pretty highbrow, on the whole. Yet if we will allow it to, story has the capacity to slip under our defences and change our minds about things where mere logic finds us obdurate, impenetrable. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or To Kill a Mockingbird have probably done at least as much to discredit and dismantle racism as any legislative victory.
Books invite us to embark on a form of time-travel we desperately need. T.S. Eliot wrote about his own time (and, presciently, ours too):
“there never was a time, I believe, when the reading public was so large, or so helplessly exposed to the influences of its own time. There never was a time, I believe, when those who read at all, read so many more books by living authors than books by dead authors; there never was a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past … Individualistic democracy has come to high tide: and it is more difficult today to be an individual than it ever was before.”
Our chronological snobbery makes us small-town, close-minded, inward-looking. It exacerbates instead of easing the natural constraints of our lives. Communion with writers of the past offers us a position from which to bring into focus the foibles, the blind spots, and also the achievements of our age. We can never completely get out of our own skin, but as C.S. Lewis said of reading, “If I can’t get out of the dungeon I shall at least look out through the bars. It is better than sinking back on the straw in the darkest corner”.
3. You should read because you can
If you’ve been taught to read and write, you are overwhelmingly in the minority of people who’ve ever walked the earth. In most places and at most times, reading has been the preserve of an empowered elite. One of the beautiful things that we owe to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the earlier movement that fed into it, is the idea that everybody should have access to the tools of learning themselves.
The Lollards or Wycliffites, the Tyndales and Luthers and Calvins who more or less forged the modern vernaculars of Europe, believed fervently that everyone should have the Bible in their own language; that the ploughboy was as worthy of all that was involved in faith and “high” culture as the priest or university professor. Marilynne Robinson reflects that:
“The movement that preceded the Reformation and continued through it was one of respect for the poor and oppressed – respect much more than compassion, since the impulse behind it was the desire to share the best treasure of their faith and learning with the masses of unregarded poor whom they knew to be ready, and very worthy, to receive it.”
As educated people today, we tend to identify with those subsets of the historical population who could also read, who were relatively affluent and wielded some level and form of political power. This is vanity. Most of us would have been illiterate peasants had we lived in 1500.
If we care for our democracy, if we accept our role as citizens and not mere economic units or private members of individual families, then ought we not to exercise the powers vested in us – ought we not to read, expand our civic imaginations, envisage smarter and more workable versions of the common good? From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde
This isn’t something we talk about much anymore; talk of the formation of character went out of public favour with talk of the soul. Nonetheless, it’s as true as it ever was that something is going to form you as a person: how you think, what you value and desire, what you aspire to or enjoy, what you think is good and bad. We do not spontaneously create these things for ourselves, as much as we’d like to flatter ourselves that it’s so.
If it’s not actively selected reading material (among other things) that influences us, it’s going to be passively received advertising, the choices and examples of friends, the mores (God forbid) of social media. Why are we so moralistic about our physical diet, and so laissez-faire about our intellectual and emotional diet?
It’s been said that “A whole moral universe is implicit in the plot of Peter Rabbit”. Reading well means examining our own worldview, figuring out what it’s made of, and being able to initiate and accept change in it. Kafka, writing to a schoolfriend in 1904, said this about what reading ought to do for us:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”
Books can do deep and mysterious works of revolution in our lives.
1. It’s fun
In spite of Kafka, though, in spite of every earnest “100 books you should read before you die” list, reading is, in fact, one of the great pleasures of human life. This is easy to forget. Alan Jacobs, in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, writes:
“It seems to me that it is not so hard to absorb, and early in life, the idea that reading is so good for you, so loaded with vitamin-rich, high-fiber information and understanding, that it can’t possibly be pleasurable – that to read for the joy of it is fundamentally inappropriate … So this is what I say: for heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout – some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C.S. Lewis once called ‘social and ethical hygiene’.”
Reading is not about guilt or duty. This means that you should know when to quit. The “100-page rule” is a useful one: it states that you should give a book 100 pages minus your age (meaning, the older you get, the more reading experience you have – and the less time remaining to you to read – the fewer pages you should read before deciding whether or not this particular tome merits the effort).
Of course, it’s also worth persevering with some books, developing new tastes. Many pleasures are learned, or earned; many foods are an acquired taste, many film genres or sports are merely bewildering to watch until you know what’s going on. It doesn’t mean they can’t become one of the enduring pleasures of your life. Reading is worth working hard at.
So this World Book Day, why not try to find something to read that you love – something you can’t put down? Perhaps reading is not for everybody. But it’s probably capable of enhancing the lives of a great many people who’ve forgotten to give it a proper go.
This article first appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.
Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, and is the author of Victorian Poetry and Modern Life: The Unpoetical Age.