Fifty shades of reading (or more)
UPDATE: The New York Times ran this piece that is pretty much along the same lines of what I’m talking about. Interesting reading.
I’ve been seeing something a lot lately.
So many bloggers, especially these I’m-an-omnivore-who’s-up-on-the-latest-trends types, stress how many books they read.
Usually it’s per week. Either on their own sites, or in interviews about how Enlightenment they are: “Blogger so-and-so reads twelve/fifteen/twenty books a week, and talks about it on Twitter/Facebook/Her website. Join the conversation!”
A few times I have. I find sadly that the discussions skim the surface, like a junior high book report. Yeah, you read The Long Tail, but you didn’t do anything but sum it up and offer a few words of praise.
What’s my point? I don’t know exactly. I’m happy to see people proud that they’re reading instead of sitting in front of the TV or game console. We all know that reading is better for the mind. …Or is it? I still have a memory in eighth grade of a teacher praising reading, and a student joking with her that while he reads, it’s Mad magazine. And he held up a Don Martin book.
“At least it’s a book,” she said, quite seriously.
But I have my doubts. Really, is the medium the deciding factor,? Should it be any sort of factor at all? Or, to put it another way, I have to wonder if anyone who can read twelve (another blog said fifteen, another twenty) books a week is reading worthwhile books. Currently I’m reading an excerpt of Gibbon’s Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire—not the whole thing by a long shot, just a short excerpt—and it’s taken me three weeks. It’s dense stuff. Often I have to stop and do some side-reading about the early Christians or the backgrounds of the emperors to be able to follow the narrative.
Before that I re-read Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s biography of Mozart—which went quickly—and Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which didn’t. I can’t imagine reading a book like the latter fast enough to read eleven or fourteen or nineteen other books that week. Even if I just sat there all day and made my eyeballs make contact with every word, and I managed to “finish” the Bailyn, I still wouldn’t have absorbed it. (If you don’t believe me, just check out the book. The footnotes themselves—and yes, you really do have to read them to get the depth of the argument—could be their own book.)
But more to the point, I’m starting to think that the claim “I read xx books a week/month” is like saying, “I read a book this thick” [three inches between fingers]. So what? John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is only this thick [quarter inch between fingers] but it’s a very important book, one you should read slowly, and think about as you do.
In short, I’m skeptical of the value of gobbling up information without chewing on it. Are we reading critically? Are we parsing what the author says, examining it carefully, or are we just nodding our heads in agreement because he’s a published author and it’s a New York Times Bestseller? (Ever notice, by the way, how so many New York Times Bestsellers are written by New York Times writers?) What do we get out of this kind of reading, other than the bragging rights of having read a lot, and what’s trendy. (Anyone read The Secret Life of Plants lately? …Didn’t think so.)
I’m also skeptical about all these bloggers who read about ten books a week and then write little digests on all of them. They rarely say anything original. Rather, they just rehash the content, something you can do by reading the flap or the Amazon product description, which is what I suspect some of these people do. That same great (though my classmates thought her annoying) eighth grade teacher (History) made us write papers, lots of papers (bless her!), and she was fond of standing in front of the class with our efforts and saying, “Where’s the original thinking?” before handing the report back, often with a not-good grade. I learned a lot from that lady.
And let’s stop acting like all books are equal. While it’s good for publishers’ bottom lines that Fifty Shades of Grey is doing so well (or for one publisher in particular, Vintage), it’s a stretch to say this marks some sort of reading renaissance or victory over “dumb Hollywood entertainments.” You can read Fifty Shades with your brain turned off (even though something else may be turned on). Which is fine, but don’t pretend it’s literature. “It’s a matter of opinion” someone opined in the comments section of a recent article. I wonder if it occurred to her that her statement was then, by definition, itself an opinion. But also, it’s instructive to look at the past. A hundred fifty years ago people weren’t toting Moby-Dick to the beach. They were reading dime novels. Sometimes you can still find these tiny books in old “antique” (sometimes just junk) shops in small towns. Look at them some time, if you do, with their gaudy covers and titles like Molly’s Rosie Romance. Read a page or two and you’ll cringe in embarrassment at the naivete. You won’t cringe at Moby-Dick. I wonder what the young woman who thinks the quality of whatever you read is all a matter of opinion would think of that. I wonder how eager she’d be to embrace Molly.
The late Carl Sagan once said, “The key is to read the right books.” He might have added you don’t have to read billions and billions.