So my twins ran around Barnes&Noble today. That was “fun”.
One of the interesting things about having 1-year-olds in a bookstore for the first time was discovering, that despite what you’d think, they did actually know what they liked and wanted. They showed us they wanted an ocean flip-up board book made clearly in the same series as a farm one they had previously (RIP). There’s a dinosaur book and there was a Sesame Street one they liked. They recognized the Dr. Seuss art style and sought more of those of their own accord.
One of the serious modern-era problems: we’re having a decline in reading.
I don’t think most people realize this. We are exposed to information on the internet constantly and too many of us are letting staring at our devices become a substitute. We listen to what people are saying online all the time but none of us ever really take the time to engage with material that’s been carefully built. The roots of this decline manifest in two (sorta three) different places.
One is failure to read. There’s a lot of people who just don’t read books anymore. Audiobooks don’t suddenly stop when something strikes you and give you time to ponder. It’s okay if you listen to podcasts and audiobooks but there’s something crucial about participating in the process of exposing yourself to other people’s stories, other people’s fiction, other people’s ideas. We are no longer being forced to use our reading and listening comprehension anymore. You can’t just catch the gist of something in the background on YouTube. Actually, reading keeps you from being locked into a certain mindset; it stops you from becoming an ideologue. If you begin to read more good books seriously, you begin to choose what it is you want to think because there’s too many opinions and ideas. You can’t be controlled by all of them, and what ends up happening is you start to have more thoughts to draw upon.
The wells of your mind will begin to run deeper and you will begin to think in new and different ways. We’re not seeing that anymore; we’re becoming stale, and culturally, we’re each becoming one of the same few things. That’s not a good development, to put it mildly.
The second problem source is the mass printing of “sludgy books”, that’s what I’m going to call them. Books are easier than ever to make. What happens is people read books that are being pushed by celebrities. If they’re writing these books at all (many are ghostwritten), they’re writing in the same way someone posts on social media – that is, they write in a way that is an outburst and not a carefully crafted expression of thought like the books of old. Often even their fiction is a projection of their personal opinions and agendas they hope to push on their audience.
Most of the books you see lining the front of bookstores are crap that nobody should waste their time reading. There’s often only 1 or 2 good books out of the couple dozen trending on Amazon or the NYT Bestseller list at any given time.
The rest are printed to make the person money or to try to manipulate other people’s worldview.
Now we live in a world where not only do people spend time on social media when they could be reading, but worse they spend what little time they have reading books that waste their minds, as if spending a dozen hours reading one person’s social media posts like a psychopath.
The third (sorta) problem exists inside the first, and I’ll call it the CliffsNotes effect. Modern institutions place such undue burdens on students, that over the past few decades students from middle school onward have collectively found a way to sum up books so they don’t have to actually take time to engage with the material. Why try to understand Shakespeare when you can just get the plot points elsewhere and pass the tests?
This crops up a lot in political activism, where people are actually quite fond of quoting books they may only know the title of, or may own but only skimmed. And they most certainly haven’t read their perceived enemies’ favorite books.
We’re not all idiots, we’re just training each other to believe it’s acceptable to cut corners because “life is busy” (A problem less than a century old!) and collectively pay invisible costs that continue to haunt us forever after.
And worse, the institutions have adapted to this and expect even more to be skimmed, crippling the ability of good students to face literature the best way.
I know how hard it is to find time to read a book. Twins running around making messes and I have plenty of hobbies consuming my time when I’m not at work. But I still recommend reading, it’s definitely something that makes a difference in the long run if you are choosing your books wisely. There are so many books we need to spend more time reading. We know the names of so many classics but haven’t read them. How many people know of Sherlock but haven’t actually read any of it? How many know about Van Helsing or Dracula but haven’t read Bram Stoker? (October’s coming up you could take the opportunity for that one.) We live in an era where it’s become easier than ever to make ourselves better and self-improve, but we are putting less time into it than ever before. These days compete for our attention more, but I still don’t think we’re doing a very good job all things considered.
What books did I get myself? Not much, I have enough I’m busy reading, but I picked up a big collection of H.P. Lovecraft that was on sale. My wife asked if she should get herself a mystery collection, when I saw it had names like G.K. Chesterton I was sold.
We should each be setting a goal to read at least one book a month. One book. That little could change your life over time. Most of the people who are successful are readers and do read books at that rate. Those who struggle won’t be reading this, but they need to find a speed reading or comprehension course and clear their admittedly difficult hurdles.
I can’t make you do it but you’ll certainly be better for it if you do. Better in ways you’ll want – more interesting, more hireable, more likable, maybe even more popular. Reading can be like a magic stat modifier.
If you haven’t read any of The Five Love Languages, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Art of War, or How To Win Friends and Influence People, what are you doing with your life? These are all old and famous. Pick one, get on it and stop living beneath the privileges we’re all afforded, or life will leave you behind.