The growing importance of reading

I never thought I would be one of those parents who had to keep nudging their kids to read. I was an introvert who devoured books. When I was encouraged to play sports, in part because of my large build, I mostly stood idly on the sidelines fantasizing about stories. Then later, writing my own.

Of course, the children partially under my care are not my biological offspring. So maybe there really is a genetic component to characteristics like literary fervor. But I really don’t think that’s it. I think the ease and access of so many other forms of entertainment are just too alluring.

Kids these days (lord I hate hearing that phrase coming from me) spend more time reading captions on memes and as labels on YouTube videos than reading books. It worries me not because of some nostalgic longing for the days of paper books, but for what it means in our development, our ability to think critically, to communicate our needs and plans clearly, and to understand what is communicated to us.

Language is what allows us to cooperate and make progress. The better we get at it, the better our outcomes. When we understand less and cannot express ourselves well, we are gullible, vulnerable, easy to take advantage of. This was central to the idea of “newspeak” — the state-sponsored initiative to simplify language in the book 1984.

The powers-that-be — if you are the sort that believes in such a concept — benefit mightily from the average citizen’s ignorance. The closer we are to grunting animals, screaming at each other, lacking an empathetic connection, the less capable we are of solving the bigger, more complex problems that plague the collective.

The main difference between 1984 and the real world is that we didn’t need a government mandate to dial back our reading and language skills. We chose it, and continue to choose it.

We don’t seem to like or care about reading as much as we used to. Probably because it takes more work than other, more modern forms of consumption. With reading there is often a mulling over, an analysis, an interpretation. Such processing is more involved than an Instagram clip that was carefully crafted to get and keep your attention. Or a Netflix series with infinite auto-plays of subsequent episodes. Or Facebook feeds that can be scrolled infinitely, never requiring the action of clicking to a new page.

I don’t want to seem crotchety towards newer media. I do believe it all has its place. Digital media, information sharing, organizing opportunities — these have enabled incredible and swift responses to racial issues (Black Lives Matter) and misogyny/sexual harassment (#MeToo). These changes could not have galvanized so powerfully if not for modern methods. But the internet has its own flaws, such as the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and the manipulation of elections — to say nothing of the various echo chambers created by online communities meant to keep out dissenting voices.

We cannot keep putting so much faith into the rarely-vetted digital world to construct our intellectual scaffolding. We need better context, followed by a continued practice of how to most effectively and independently think within that context. We need to personalize our lives, get to know ourselves by learning more things and communicating more effectively.

This, I think, can be done by reading more and better. It is an act that starts with a distinct choice. While digital media is jockeying for position via phone notifications and the like, picking up a book takes a little more initiative. It waits there for you to choose it. One is reflexive, while the other is intentional. 

The entirety of what follows grows from how it starts. If we are careless or passive in our consumption, the engine of our minds remains cold and disengaged. If we start by thinking about what to consume and how to consume it, we are more fully engaged before even encountering the information itself.

I do not have a good solution for how to convince more people to read often and well. It’s just something I cannot stop thinking about as I watch so many people I love struggle to find ways to express what they’re feeling, while also hardening to the similarly uncertain expressions of suffering from others.

But I’d like to figure it out. Maybe we could start by developing a practice of higher expectations for what we consume. It’s pretty safe to assume that a piece of text that’s riddled with vague suggestions and insults instead of facts is less likely to offer useful information than one that’s making at least a moderate effort at clarity, structure, and empathy.

While we do need fact checkers and researchers, recognizing the value of an article based on the quality of the writing and the evidence presented is a great first step to figuring out if it’s worth your time. If you don’t even know what good information looks like because you’ve not read a lot of it, you will accept almost anything. Especially if it conforms to your already rigid worldview. You will be fooled and manipulated, often — a soldier to someone else’s cause.

The falsehoods plaguing social media and shouting-match news shows aren’t even that good. They are rife with spelling and grammatical errors, full of logical fallacies and little to no evidence. It’s not that the people believing these things are stupid — it’s that the cumulative context that we are carrying onboard, in our own brains, is incredibly weak.

When we consume a diet of shallow information, we ourselves become shallow thinkers.

I understand the urge. The world is changing fast, and to those who take comfort in tradition and familiarity, it can be scary. But I don’t think the answer involves forwarding more memes or watching intense, opinionated videos. We need to have more time with information presented thoughtfully and well. Information that gives us room to form our own opinions and thoughts.

We need to learn to ask better questions and understand our own personalized role in the process of modern life. While I think the internet and technology more broadly can offer us much to complement this process, it most of all starts with a choice by the individual. That choice is to be present and participate from a place of humility, not just react and regurgitate.

And there’s just no better way to start a journey towards self-betterment than to read the experiences of others. Explore new worlds and ideas. Feel lost and confused and hopeful and scared.

Fixing the problems of this world is bigger than this little off-the-cuff essay, bigger than me. But given all the conflict out there it’s clear that a lot of us could stand to learn how to listen better and speak more clearly, without malice or ego. There’s simply no better way to improve one’s ability to communicate than reading more.

Let’s read more, together.