Why read books? Aren’t other forms of entertainment and information collection equally valid. Valid, yes. Equal, no. None of them can claim to be the only necessary way of learning, exploring, or experiencing the world. So then what can we discern about the various options—and, most importantly for this blog series, where does that leave reading books? Last week, I worked through some ideas on What A Book Can Do. Now it’s time to tackle the flip side of the equation. And yes, there is a flip side.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observes that each medium of entertainment comes with a built-in set of values that lead to advantages and limitations for using it. Postman analyzes the telegraph by saying, among other things, “The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it.” He discusses photography: “It’s vocabulary of images is limited to concrete representation…the photograph presents the world as object; language, the world as idea.”
And then it was television, he argues, that brought “the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection.”
What other modes of entertainment and information do we choose? What about social media? For me, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram are fun ways to collect information. They are platforms for exchanging information. Social media, and I wish more people realized this, is not useful for engaging in deep or significant conversations.
In all of our options there are advantages and disadvantages, access and limitations. None of them can be all things to everyone at all times. Reading books included.
We watch television and movies and read books for myriad reasons. What those decisions contribute to our lives is different because of how the medium itself is shaped and used.
I do recommend starting a conversation (depending on the age range) with, “Friends or Seinfeld?” I do not recommend starting a conversation at a party with “So yesterday I was reading a book of essays examining the Christian response to violence.” Reading is a solitary event that prepares you to think broadly and deeply. Television and movies prepare you to connect easily and casually with a wide range of people. Television creates entertainment appealing to the most number of people in a concentrated area, and reading engages a select number of people across a wider geographic range.
Television and films are influenced by what people will watch. If people don’t watch a show then ad sales drop, merchandising potential diminishes, and the show is pulled. What you can see is determined by what everyone around you wants to see. Reading is not immune. Authors hear about dwindling sales, having a platform, and developing their marketing strategies. However, there are still more selections for those who would pick up a book, and the selection is not limited by whether three-fourths of the neighborhood would read the same book.
Television—and social media—brings an immediacy to information. Reading requires us to consider something slowly. Television urges a reaction. Reading invites considered response. Television and social media outlets can be useful for crisis management and immediate dissemination. They can be sources of shared entertainment for a group of people. Reading is necessary for long-term engagement and understanding. It can be discussed as a group, but the reader is responsible for engaging with it first, alone. Television is consumed. Reading must be pursued. Television is passive. Reading is active. Television brings people together. Reading leaves us alone with our thoughts.
But here’s the biggest distinction for reading, and it is critical to this discussion: access.
Reading is a skill. Whether you are reading a book or are engaging with social media, knowing how to read is necessary.
Television can open worlds to people who cannot or do not have books in libraries or on personal shelves, and where it can provide news, entertainment, and ideas to those who would not have access otherwise; reading must have literacy. (This ease of access can also make television a dangerous tool for propaganda and misinformation.) You have to know how to read in order to access its potential. And then, you have to have books and content to read. This is not an unsolvable dichotomy, but it does require a long-term, ongoing effort. Let us not forget this or take for granted our privilege of reading and our access to robust libraries (both physical and online).
Reading a book is not a war against other forms of entertainment and information dissemination. There are places that reading overlaps with other forms and there are areas where reading stands apart. You have to consider where and when and how a medium performs well and where it shrinks.
How do you think about reading in relationship to the time you spend with other activities? What have you found to be limitations or advantages of reading?