Why read books?

CLAIMING TO READ BOOKS is on the way to becoming an admission of idleness. Who can make time, with relentless pressure at work combined with a busy personal life? Why bother in the first place, when we can access information instantaneously, and already sift through ample written content in the form of reports, articles, posts, and text messages? The couple of hours we could devote daily to serious reading, we might as well use to get a life. If it’s a matter of entertainment, relaxation, or even general culture, there are fun museums, great websites, excellent documentaries and a host of leisure activities that will do the trick. Put simply, books are generally hard to write, hard to read, and hard to sell—so what the heck?

The all-encompassing answer is that hard is beautiful. A great book is an author’s lifetime accomplishment, a long but nonetheless distilled and purified version of his or her experience, intellectual depth and creativity. Conferences, interviews, summaries and other derivative products are but a shadow of the full-fledged work. Indeed, publishing forces an author to give his or her thinking the best possible shape and texture—a demanding exercise that brings out the best in them, too. Naturally, not all books are great, calling for ruthless selection. Shunning the better kind, however, amounts to depriving oneself of some the most enriching moments we can hope for in our own lifetimes.

Books are particularly tough because they demand much of the reader, also. They require patience and consistency, which themselves entail considerable determination and discipline in a world of agitation and stimuli. Pushing back on the de-structuring effects of digital media, audio soundbites and catchy visuals certainly is an argument in itself in favor of long reads: just as our heart strengthens with endurance more than sprints, our brain needs that kind of workout to perform at full capacity. But the most important effort exacted from readers is not sitting still and focusing for once: it’s about diving into a whole universe that opens in front of them.

Films are largely self-contained and self-explanatory, even if we are sometimes left to ponder a riddle the plot never solved. Articles make a point, or tell a story that induces fleeting identification. Books, whether fiction or analytic, create a space we are invited to explore. As we progress, we toy with the many facets of a character, a context or an argument, in all their lively complexity. We pause long enough to build real rapport with the content of the author’s vision or worldview. Because much in a book happens to be written between the lines, reading triggers our imagination: we fill the gaps, picture the people and situations outlined, connect novel ideas to thoughts of our own, and often drift off in a daydream. This process is what makes long reads such a uniquely creative moment, a source of profound inspiration.

In a sense a book, in how it reverberates inside us, gives us a rare opportunity to explore ourselves at greater depth. Engaging with less exacting cultural products will produce emotions and reflections that stay much closer to the surface. This may help explain the fact that, although movies, plays, paintings and photographs have prompted colossal popular infatuation, only books have ever spurred or shaped social and political movements. Significantly, many a great cinematographic success, or blockbuster TV series, is based on a publication. The ability of books to capture and unleash collective desires and imaginaries seems, to this day, unequalled.

Reading them, therefore, goes far beyond tapping into our collective wisdom to learn from others, be it knowledgeable authors or the characters they feature, whose travails teach us something we can relate to. It plugs us into, so to speak, the source code of the culture we belong to, whose oral and visual manifestations are infused with elaborate texts. Doing so equips us with extraordinary tools to understand patterns of human behavior that have long been questioned by our forebears, and spares us the embarrassment of mistaking derivative work for genuine breakthroughs. We take the trouble of reading books to save us the trouble of reinventing the wheel.

The motivation to read, however, cannot flow solely from some generic, principled aspiration to do so. To be sustainable, reading must bring vindication and tangible rewards throughout the process. This, in turn, demands that we read with expectations and a purpose. Ask for advice, peruse reviews, stroll through libraries and see what fits your needs: satisfying nagging curiosity about a topic, discovering a part of the world, mastering the works of a given author, gaining a professional edge, and so on. There is a strategy to reading that entails setting palpable goals.

A final reason to delve into a book is quite simply that reading is a habit that grows on you, slowly turning into a compulsion. Great books will speak for themselves, pulling up their own arguments tailored to you. Getting started may be a drag. But each fulfilling experience will lower the initial barriers to sitting still and letting go.

Make the most of the occasional, thoughtful boost to your productivity!

Illustration credit: Viktor Vasnetsov The flying carpet by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.  

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Nadin Mai says:

    Great article, thank you so much. I agree fully with what you say here. I grew up being an avid reader and I have never lost it. It is so rewarding to read a good book, or even a bad one, because in the end you still learn from it. You still get to know new characters, new cultures, new ways of storytelling. You simply grow with every book you read. What you write here also reminds me of my interest in cinematic slowness. It takes me back to What Lav Diaz once said: “A book can be 1,000 pages and it’s fine. But if a film is longer than 90 minutes, people complain.” The idea of slow films is, to me, closely related to reading a book: it is about taking the time to explore, to discover, and to grow.

    1. Synaps says:

      Thanks indeed! Incidentally, we are also pushing the notion of “slow-read” through this platform: http://www.synaps.network.

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