This is the first of four questions related to reading that I feel so strongly about and take so much effort to answer every time I’m asked that I’ve decided to write down what I think. You can see the introductory post here.
“What’s the big deal about reading anyway?”
I feel like this will be the easiest and hardest question to answer. I admit that there are so many right answers that I couldn’t begin to cover them all. I’ve decided to list four that I find particularly important. Also, I should clarify: My intention is to persuade you that reading BOOKS is important, not just having the ability to read, because I think (hope?) that basic skill speaks for itself as far as importance goes.
1. Reading helps with your vocabulary, spelling and writing. Therefore, you are better and communicating and expressing yourself. Communication and self-expression are vital components of relationships, personal well-being and usually success in whatever work you do. You can argue that there are other ways to improve these skills – a test prep book, for example – but reading really internalizes word meanings and sentence structure by giving them context.
2. You learn when you read things. Okay, I know, you also learn things in school, but let’s pretend for a moment you’ve already finished school. For most people, reading is the most accessible way to continue gaining knowledge. It’s nice to be able to talk about a subject you care about but never had time to cover in school in an intelligent way (ie: beyond what’s included in the wikipedia page), and it’s nice to listen to people who know what they’re talking about, too. Also, knowledge is often the basis of action. If you read about a place you hadn’t heard of before, you might consider traveling there. If you read in detail about injustice rather than just hearing two-minute clips on the news, you might be more encouraged to do something about it. If you read about a subject and find you’re passionate about it, you might consider a career change, etc.
3. Remember all those stories in history class about a slave that decided to learn how to read despite it being illegal? Historically, oppressors have tried keeping the masses uneducated so they don’t consider rebelling or fighting for a better life they feel they deserve. The ideas found in books are strong, irreversible and feared. They open your mind and expose you to things you otherwise might have passed by.
But okay, I know, that’s paranoid, right? Our government isn’t trying to do that. They, in fact, MAKE us go to school. So we’re educated. What’s the problem?
The thing is, you aren’t just /educated/ or not – you’re either _thinking_ or not. That’s the key. That’s probably why students are more likely to be activists, why they feel more empowered than the average joe to change things. They are tuned in! People lose their student mindset after college, and I don’t know why.
And if even that seems too far removed from your life to be relevant and therefore make reading seem important, consider how much better you could handle stressful situations if you were exposed to opinions and insights beyond what your friends can provide (let’s face it: your friends are probably your friends because they support you in everything you do and have similar values, meaning you’re just hearing someone else validate what you already know instead of a truly different perspective. Books aren’t afraid to insult, but they won’t judge you either…They just give your brain something new to explore. They make you think! And as I once heard a very wise t-shirt say, “Think! It’s not illegal yet.”
4. The final reason is the one that I find the most important and relevant to you, yes you, on the computer. Reading forces you to concentrate and have sustained thought. For those of you that have forgotten, sustained thought means thinking outside the 140-character box, beyond the self-censorship you unconsciously provide yourself so all of Facebook doesn’t think you are weird in the wrong way, trying to solve problems without asking google or waiting for someone to reply on the note you posted, and actually considering multiple sides of an issue instead of adopting whatever quick-fire opinion the internet is shooting at you and moving on. Remember when people used to sleep on things?
I find it worrying that people are so distracted these days. That somehow, people justify expressing themselves in one sentence or paragraph as Straightforward rather than calling it what it is: lazy. Okay, you, I know what you’re going to say. You may update Twitter and Facebook, but you /also/ think about these things on your own time, and you discuss things with your friends at length outside the realm of comments. That’s fantastic. Great. I’m happy. You give me hope. But sorry, if that’s true, I’m not really talking to or about you. The person I am talking to or about is the person that is ONLY on facebook or twitter and just because they sometimes post thought-provoking quotes or their opinions about the latest news story, they think they are reflecting enough. The person that reads BBC news every morning and considers themselves “informed.” The internet is here to enhance, not to replace, how you learn. It’s just not a good environment for your brain to grow, with everything that’s going on.
You cannot chat and read a book at the same time. You cannot watch a YouTube video and read a book. You can’t do anything while you’re reading a book except…read. And so, your brain goes beyond those intellectual barriers that are so prevalent on the internet. And it does this for hours! Days! For however long it takes you to finish.
I guess this is so important to me because I live to solve problems. Even if you do not live TO solve problems, though, you cannot live without doing so. And in order to solve problems efficiently, you NEED to be able to concentrate and think. These are not skills that will come naturally when it’s necessary – you need practice and strength, both which can be gained from reading (among other things, such as solving math problems for example, but I think reading is more accessible).
One last thing. This is part of a comment I received in my last entry:
“I love reading, especially when it challenges me…But I can see where there’d be people who satisfy those desires through other mediums like music, movies, or art galleries. or not at all.”
This is an interesting idea. I actually believe other forms of art are fair trades for literature. I think movies are the best source for this, because they’re easy to watch since they’re short, and people are very rarely opposed to giving a movie a chance (a book, on the other hand…). The problem is that almost no one gains anything from these different medias anymore. The vast majority of people are interested in movies that don’t encourage much thought. This isn’t entirely their fault, with the intense marketing and surefire and instant thrills. But the fact stands, that people very rarely watch quality movies. And sure, everyone listens to music, but mostly as a form of entertainment. For those that do appreciate it for what it is, I think it’s a more emotional experience than intellectual. And that’s okay – I think both emotional and intellectual growth is important. Which is why I think for the most part, even people that experience music (rather than just listen to it) are not gaining everything they could from reading. And as for art galleries, I personally find them so crowded and visually overwhelming that it’s difficult for me to concentrate on one piece. That’s my personal experience, but I doubt it’s a unique one. I know there are smaller and more encouraging galleries, but in general I don’t find that people seek them out, or are even very interested in going.
The question that follows, in my mind, is “if you believe other forms of art are ‘fair trades’ for literature, then why do you insist on reading in particular, and not just watching better movies or something?”
The reason that springs to mind is that books force you to sustain and organize your thoughts in a way other mediums don’t. When you listen to a song or even an album, or watch a movie, you are affected for a couple hours, maybe a little more (with the exception, of course, of particularly exceptional examples that stay with you for a long, long time). I believe there’s a lot to be said for thinking about things for the days or weeks that it takes you to read a book. It’s too easy to watch a good movie, go to sleep and forget the feelings and thoughts you had last night. This is true of books as well, actually, but most people don’t read books all in one night. I have a habit of doing so that I’m trying to break because I find that I understand everything a lot better when I’ve had a couple days to mull it over in the back of my mind. Just how retrospect makes everything clearer in real life, it clarifies and internalizes things we learn.