I remember as a teenager, it used to really bum me out when people around me would begin shaking their heads and bemoaning the failing state of reading in the world. Generally it was all of the old people who hang about churches, who had suspicious opinions about race, politics, education and Kids These Days. I was a few years away from being a cranky enough bastard to write them all off sadly, and so when they would begin complaining about reading, it would kill me.
I wanted to be a writer so badly, but here were these people shaking their heads and going well kids these days…rather see a movie than read a good book…so busy with their MTV probably can’t even follow a plot…bet they haven’t even read Charles Dickens…
And so on. Look, you’re a reader if you’re on this site, so all I’m doing is humming a few bars to a song you already know by heart. I would really believe it, though, and look at my books and my own clumsy stories and think “are there going to be no readers left when I’m better and published? Am I gonna ARRIVE and find the theater completely empty?”
Yeah, well, anyway, fast forward a few years (okay, more than a few) (oh god help) and you’ll be stunned to learn that reading is still doing okay. Weird! People are spending approximately eleventy bajillion dollars on copies of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Fault in our Stars, Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight and on and on…well beyond those books, even. Again, you don’t need me to tell you this. You can see books all over the place, they’re a huge deal. Look at your Hollywood blockbuster list and look at all the books.
Yet the old refrain still pops up in articles, from people who should know better, and who would do if they actually gave it thirty seconds of thought and perspective. It doesn’t even turn up as the main focus of articles sometimes. It’s just a weird knee-jerk thing that you have to mention.
Here’s an article I read this morning. Why Readers Scientifically Are The Best People To Fall In Love With. A perfectly fine little piece, I guess, the topic of which is pretty plain right there in the title. But then as you go down, you learn that “Readers, like voicemail leavers and card writers, are now a dying breed, their numbers decreasing with every GIF list and online tabloid.”
And then the article carries on. That line isn’t the point of the article. It’s knee-jerk, like I said. Reading is great, and we can talk about it in a million different contexts, but we must always pause for a moment to offer a people now don’t read like people used to read, like there’s some sort of crusty Reading God to whom we must occasionally say these holy grumbles and offer a bow, lest the god be offended. And then we carry on.
I object to those lines, although they don’t bum me out anymore, because now I’m an old cranky bastard and am unlikely to listen to slightly-older cranky bastards. I object instead because of the weird box these people want to put my reading in.
What is it with this idea, that reading must be a pure and unsullied endeavor? Does anyone truly believe that if you’re A READER you must not do anything else ever, or somehow the reading goes away? Because that’s what that line up there and all of its brood are implying. I’m imagining sitting on the couch reading Charles Dickens or Marcel Proust when suddenly, someone sends me a THX Lemur, and I laugh at it, but then I turn back to the book and oh no the words don’t make sense now. By looking at that funny video online, I lost Reading XP and have dropped down a level! I am gonna have to grind some reading for a few weeks to level back up.
It’s absurd and is thus funny when really spelled out. I’m not saying anything daring here. Come on, you all know this deep down, even if you’ve grumbled about reading these days at some point. I’m not judging you for that.
But there’s a deeper worry that I have when people talk about reading like that, and it’s the underlying notion that reading is this Sanctified, Holy Endeavor. It is pure, unlike tabloid lists, animated GIFs, a terrible movie, or an afternoon completely lost watching stupid YouTube videos. Reading, we are told, builds us up. It ennobles us.
Franz Kafka said one of my favorite things ever, which is that “a book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside of us”. I will tattoo that down my arm someday, I agree with it entirely. But he doesn’t say all books, because not every book has to be that.
The problem with reading is that we are never talking about reading to learn, we are almost always talking about reading for pleasure, while at the same time nervously worrying about and sneering about the idea that reading is a fun and pleasurable activity instead of a higher calling. We’re very neurotic about this. We aren’t talking about reading a shelf of history books or psychology manuals, we’re talking novels…but what if they’re the wrong novels? Or what if they’re the right novels, but you don’t read them in the right way? Or what if you read Dickens, but you keep wandering off to watch goofy shit on the internet (That’s me).
What winds up happening is, we worry and grumble about people not reading, then turn around and worry and grumble about the sanctity and power of reading, and the way we must approach it with reverence or it might not count or something. And essentially what this does is suck all the pleasure out of reading.
It’s like if you grumble about how much junk food people eat, and then someone decides maybe they’ll eat healthy and you begin badgering them to only eat kale, nothing but kale, kale all day every day, let me shove this kale up your nose and so on. You’re gonna kill the desire, and it should die, because approaching something like that sounds awful.
So what I’m saying is, watch the grumbles. Don’t simultaneously put reading up onto an untouchable pedestal and also complain that people for some reason aren’t interacting with it as much as you’d hope. Allow reading to be as fun, as scrappy, as messy, as sprawling and weird an activity as YouTube, watching movies, eating chips, and climbing a tree. None of these things lessen the deeper capacities of reading, and you won’t smother reading to death while trying to get rid of it all.