I have something to admit, dear readers. I am one of those people who Don’t Read. You know these people. These are the people who, on Facebook (and on MySpace in the past), fill up their favorite books sections with simple words like “Don’t read LOL”.
I like to think that I’m a little bit better than those people. After all, reading takes up most of my day. In fact, if you were to look at my actual Facebook information, you would find that my TV shows section is barren, and my movies section has one lonely only (Inception) that I’m not quite sure I would say is my “favorite”.
My Books section, on the other hand, actually has a few books (Invisible Man, The Good Earth) that I 1) actually read during middle or high school (any actual reading done during this time period is a triumph) and 2) wasn’t totally disengaged from, other books (Brave New World, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Hyperion Cantos), that I read “on my own” and liked well enough to read “on my own,” other books still (The Unvarnished New Testament, Freakonomics, The World is Flat) that probably don’t count because they aren’t (or at least, their authors didn’t plan them to be) fiction, and finally, my favorite in the entire world (The Lifecycle of Software Objects) that doesn’t count because it is maybe not a full-sized novel.
OK, so maybe I have a very precarious definition of reading. I think that would be fair. It seems that others do too. As Nicholas Carr quotes in his “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, when studies study online research habits, they are clear to note the difference between reading “in the traditional sense” and reading in the modern Google Age stupid way:
It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.
Comparable non-events appear when you look at prose literacy levels in the adult population: in 1992, 43% of Americans read at an intermediate level; by 2003 the number was slightly higher at 44%. “Proficient” readers dropped slightly, from 15% to 13%. In other words, the distribution is basically unchanged – despite the vast influx of non-native English speakers into the US population during this period.
All of which raises an interesting question: if people are reading less, why haven’t scores dropped more dramatically? The answer gets to the most significant sleight of hand of the NEA study: its studies are heavily biased towards words on a printed page.
Odds are that you are reading these words on a computer monitor. Are you not exercising the same cognitive muscles because these words are made out of pixels and not little splotches of ink? According to the NEA you’re not, because in almost every study it cites, screen-based reading is excluded from the data. This is a preposterous omission, because of course the single most dramatic change in media habits over the past decade is the huge spike in internet activity.
Yes, we are reading in smaller bites on the screen, often switching back and forth between applications as we do it. A recent study by the British Library of onscreen research activities found that “new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ … ”
And of course we are writing more, and writing in public for strangers: novel readers may have declined by 10%, but the number of bloggers has gone from zero to 25 million. Simply excising screen-based reading from the study altogether is like doing a literacy survey circa 1500 and only counting the amount of time people spent reading scrolls.
Anyway, I’m not even sure if this is my soapbox for today. That soapbox, of course, would be the argument that we are simply moving from linear to networked thought, as Scott Karp suggested.
Instead, let’s simply concede that “reading,” for the purposes of this article, refers to reading in long-form…and in particular: novels. So reading non-fiction doesn’t count, and reading articles like this one here doesn’t count either.
So, I return to my premise:
I am one of those people who Don’t Read.
Now, to be sure, this still isn’t quite accurate. I do read…I’m going through A Song of Ice and Fire again (instead of watching the new HBO series). And this time, maybe I’ll get to reading A Feast for Crows?
But I still recognize a deep dark secret that I don’t really feel much pressure to keep to myself. I just don’t like reading all that much. I read in spite of the fact that the action is a filter between me and content.
Of all the essays I read in AP English back in high school, in the many practice tests we took, the one that truly resonated with me was a selection from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:
The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good…this writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing; it will take half an hour to pick up a writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and louds and softs.
Reading that in my senior year of high school — two months before graduation — felt like a cruel, yet strangely satisfying inside joke. That everyone (including CollegeBoard) knew this huge flaw of reading that I had known all along but didn’t want to admit it while they were trying to get us to read the “classics” and become informed readers and whatnot.
I am still skeptical of those who “read for fun.” Who are “absorbed” into books. I sometimes feel far more like Mark OConnell:
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room.
Of course, I only discovered that article from a MetaFilter Discussion (gotta loved the networked internet thinking that is dumbing us down.) And here, I found those mythical people all over again: people who read because they like reading. Moreover, these people were appalled by those who treated reading as a crucible.
One interesting thought that came at several points in the discussion was that perhaps, even if the actual reading may not be enjoyable (for some people), people should do it anyway. As a kind of growing experience. Because even if one doesn’t like the story on page 1 (or page 601), maybe there is something gained from the experiencing of it.
So, I’m Andrew S., and I don’t like to read. How about you?