You Should Read Books
This is important
American culture, it goes without saying, is somewhat impoverished. There’s been a long-running discourse over why that is, and the various combatants all have their points. The internet is a problem, conglomerates are a problem, marketing is a problem. We don’t status signal like we used to and the moneyed mainstream refuses to challenge the masses. Big budget movies are now made, almost exclusively, for children. Old music—from the dying and the dead—is swallowing up, wholesale, new music.
But I’m here to address you on another matter, something far less airy and more straightforward. If you’re reading this, there are decent odds you have a college degree. You live in a big city, like New York, or somewhere close. You are properly encultured, leaning left. You read the news, maybe even imbibe it. You’re on social media or at least cognizant of the conversation, in all its bile and banality. You have opinions on Joe Biden, the Democratic Congress, British colonialism, or the state of the Ukrainian resistance. You mean well.
You should read more books. (Yes, audiobooks count.) I am not here to pick on you, to condescend or flagellate. Or maybe I am. Reading is not the marker of genius. Books cannot, on their own, bestow wisdom or prepare you for life’s more hellish encounters. They are not talismans. They wait, inert, for you to pick them up. If you want to belong to the educated class and you aren’t reading books—if you aren’t making time for them—you do, perhaps, deserve censure. Someone has to do it.
Many Americans, especially the working-class and poor, do not have the time to read. They work punishing jobs, they raise families, they come home and want to unwind, to relax with easy entertainment and go to bed. Reading would help, but the parent of four can’t be expected, every day, to curl up with a hardcover that cost almost $30. A precarious life makes demands. A household budget that includes cereal, diapers, and insulin may not include books. That is fine.
What is not fine is the abdication of reading among the leisure classes, the Zoom classes, the professional managers and their ilk who fancy themselves educated enough, who are sure they have mastered the intricacies of existence over the Other, whomever that Other might be. A rigorous reading diet is not two-tenths of the New York Times and Twitter. It is not half of one novel, abandoned in July. It is not a morning newsletter, or two morning newsletters. It is not a hot take on The Little Mermaid, She-Hulk, or The Rings of Power. You’re conversant enough in pop culture rehash. It’s time to do something else.
Reading can be hard, or at least it can present the sort of challenge that modern life is supposed to ease or optimize away. Reading is harder than streaming Netflix, watching a movie, listening to music, or playing video games. Hardness, on its own, is not a virtue. It does, however, matter. It matters to be a disciplined adult. It matters to sit still, to think, to escape the flotsam and be alone with yourself, with another world. It matters to grapple with language, theme, plot, and characterization. It matters that the conclusions aren’t simple, that literature—good literature—is murk. It’s the dark of the wilderness, a lighted match showing that, in fact, there is only more, a vastness you can only begin to comprehend. Reading teaches you that life is not an algorithm and that the certainty of your opinions, neatly sorted into a 2020s rubric, is very much unwarranted, with eternities stretching before and after you. Reading is meeting another consciousness that is not cable television and never will be, that exists at a complexity many lightyears beyond self-righteous pundit panels, the red versus blue, your new spin on the midterms. Reading is knowing those you would never know otherwise. It is, perhaps, the most human thing you can do.
For large stretches of the twentieth century, the educated, middle-class person was expected to read books and even stock them in their living room. The new novel or intriguing nonfiction read was a staple of adulthood, along with buying an automobile or drinking the occasional martini. Pre-internet life made demands on the imagination; somehow, time had to be filled without pocket supercomputers. There were no smartphones in the doctor’s office or in the subway car. There were none at the beach. The book, in this case, had a practical entryway into modern existence, until 2007 or so. By then, the iPhone had arrived.
Now, reading requires you to carve time, to beat back other distractions. It forces you to choose it. Many, simply, do not. Educated Americans are not expected to carry knowledge of books into conversations. They are not expected to competently discuss them. Such expectations, in the current discourse, can be dismissed as elitist. There are many other ways to learn, is one retort. Of course there are. You should partake. And have fun too. I read 40-50 books a year and still try to stay caught up on Cobra Kai and Selling Sunset. It’s plausible, I promise. I do not read books because I am smarter than you or have any particular capability; I do not absorb or retain information in a remarkable way. All I do is make reading a part of my day and week. I decide, affirmatively, to do it. And as a writer, I consider it essential to my own education and progress. If you want to be a writer or describe yourself that way, reading is non-negotiable.
For now, I will not make recommendations. Higher quality books are better than lower quality books, and you know what that means, but greatness comes in many forms. Read fiction and nonfiction. Read what’s newly produced. The dead, in many cases, have enough of an audience and income. Help fill the coffers of the living. If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your phone on a Tuesday evening, pick up a book. If you find yourself faced with a long train ride, pack a book. You deserve to do far more with your time.
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