Saturday, March 12, 2016


As someone who adopted reading relatively late, I have always been intrigued by how people think about it and what types of writing they prefer. For as long as I can remember there has been a "reading is good" mantra, and it contains an ambiguity that still puzzles me today. There is nothing natural about reading, which is evidenced by the fact that almost none of our ancestors were literate. Books were not widely available until the nineteenth century, and the oldest systems of writing are only about five thousand years old, making it understandable that learning to read may come with difficulty to many who have no impairments in a biological sense. On the other hand, our facility with language is comparatively old; something resembling modern language was probably present seventy thousand years ago, and simpler linguistic communications were probably extant in our hominid ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Like many things, I tend to view reading through an evolutionary lens. In its greatest impact, literacy led to a sudden, unanticipated acceleration in technological development that started by the Middle Ages and has continuously changed civilization up to the present. Without written language and reading, the dissemination of knowledge would have been stunted, perpetuating the isolated and redundant reinvention of similar tools and methods. Without written records and communications, life today might resemble life in the fifteenth century; perhaps Europeans would never have colonized the Americas, the automobile would not have been invented, etc. For what it's worth, on the positive side, the world's population would be far lower than it is today and there would be no anthropogenic global warming or nuclear weapons.

While these unanticipated consequences are certainly something to think about in a historical context, to most of us reading is a personal matter that relates to three specific areas: our vocation, our social life and our private entertainment. I recall hearing that by attending a liberal arts college I would "learn how to learn" and be set for life. In hindsight that sounds like promotional material for a product. When I look at my college peers, the main impact of college seems to have been that they became literate enough to get jobs, and after that they pretty much stopped learning, at least insofar as reading is concerned. The impression I have is that the human mind has little desire to learn for its own sake, and my college acquaintances don't seem in their subsequent lives to have become vast repositories of learning; though they do know more than they used to, most of that additional knowledge was derived from practical experience, not books. Of course, some college students do end up becoming academics, but even there, with a life of books and reading, there is the narrowing effect of academic specialization. One of the reasons why I was never cut out to be an academic was that I developed a sense early on that many academics tended to be playing a career game that ultimately had nothing to do with understanding.

For most people, particularly younger ones, an important aspect of reading has to do with how it integrates their social lives, or, more precisely, their perceptions of their social lives, since actual engagement seems in some sense to be a thing of the past. I can't comment on this with much authority, because I am profoundly indifferent to social media, but Sherry Turkle and others have shown how smartphones and social media have altered how young people perceive reality. From my vantage point, that environment, though superficial to the extreme, allows its participants to communicate rapidly and precisely according to the social standards that currently prevail, but the texting world has no appeal to me. Here I think the social setting that has arisen in conjunction with commercial interests is unstable and is unlikely to be sustainable without further development, because it doesn't meet the psychological needs of those who inhabit that culture. However, that evolution is ongoing, and it is still possible that social media will one day become effective at meeting psychological needs at a deeper level than they currently do.

A third domain of reading is private entertainment, which I suppose applies to aesthetic works such as poetry and fiction as well as nonfiction. There is an aspect of literary fiction that overlaps with vocational choices, as in academic careers, which I think has a tendency to degrade the purely aesthetic aspects of writing in those instances where the actual motivator is a paycheck. I've already made several posts on the pitfalls of the literary establishment, so I won't harangue you any more about that. What prompted me to write this post in the first place was my awareness of how writing, in the form of prose, fiction and poetry, including that found on the Internet, fills needs beyond work and socialization. Private entertainment interests a segment of the population in which bibliophiles and web surfers converge to form a population whose lives hinge vicariously on the written words of others. This is a group that I have often complained about, because on the Internet they usually show no interest in reciprocal communication, and ostensibly they don't seem to think beyond their personal gratification. For some, reading may become a private experience that makes up for the absence of a social life. That category includes socially inept people who can't be bothered with or don't know how to develop actual relationships, for whom reading becomes a substitute life, and perhaps also a small number of people who simply love the written word for its own sake regardless of its vocational or social benefits. The most private may be the hardest to engage, because they may have no desire to communicate with others, thus contributing to some of my Internet chagrin.

Because reading did not come naturally to me I grew to expect a lot from it if I were to make the effort, and thus I arrived at my current status as a picky reader who finds much writing unsatisfactory. I have gradually retreated to this blog, where I can at least make an attempt to write things the way I would like to read them, and where perhaps I can strike a chord with a reader, known or unknown, who may or may not be communicative. In fully engaged writing there is a certain intimacy that one may never experience elsewhere in life; the written word may allow you to come as close as you ever will to inhabiting someone else's brain. Even so, there is still an element in me that rebels against reading, because I recognize, as did the mad poet Laura Riding, that there is a "silent half of language" that precedes words. There is knowledge that exists independently from words and language, and we can access it through the parts of ourselves that predate language.

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