Reading is nutrition – Part 1
One cannot help but sympathize with so-called millennials: every minute of their day their attention is pulled and tugged in all directions and there is never enough time to devote to the rewarding exercise of reading books.
They have to cope with what David Ulin calls the encroachment of the buzz; the sense that there is always something out there that merits their attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age.
Reading, especially in this age of distraction, takes some effort. The term “the love of reading” is not an empty phrase. You must love it to do it. It’s a discovery you make. You must see it as nutrition in the same way you accept that the physical body needs protein, carbohydrates and minerals to grow and to stay healthy.
Not every book is a page-turner: sometimes you have to persist and plod along. To this end I recommend Mortimer Adler’s 1940 classic How to Read a Book.
“How to read a book?” you might sneer, “as long as I can read, I can read any book.” Not true. Reading is a complex activity, just as writing is.
I suspect that the book – which itself was a new technology at its introduction centuries ago – is going to hang around for a little longer. In its 2,000-year history, from its birthplace in China, paper has revolutionized civilization from the Islamic golden age to the European Renaissance and the history of human flight.
What reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to sit still for long periods and confront time head-on. We are becoming a culture unable to concentrate, to pursue a line of thought or tolerate a conflicting point of view.
Our attention is chopped into shorter and shorter intervals and that can’t be good for thinking deeper thoughts. After all, Twitter allows you only 140 characters – not 140 words – to express your thought! Is that why Donald Trump is so incoherent; having to go back and clarify something, or blaming the media for misinterpreting him?
So we tell our children that they can learn to play the piano “in 10 easy lessons”. Never mind that the outstanding artists of the piano practise six hours or more every day.
The only thing you can learn to play in 10 easy lessons is “Mary had a little lamb”!
The British philosopher A.C. Grayling says: “To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.”
A few months ago I attended yet another book launch. I say “yet another” because it continues to amaze me that in this arid intellectual desert people continue to publish books. It clearly cannot be in pursuit of financial reward.
I complimented the author for her temerity in joining a steadily growing number of Barbadian writers brave enough to throw several thousand dollars towards the printing and distribution of books in a society with so few readers.
These days, all types of inducements have to be thought up to introduce our young people to collide with the joys
of reading. It is not easy; there are so many dazzling things vying for their attention. Pokemon Go, perhaps, one of the latest.
Reading has become a bore to most Barbadians born since 1964 – the year television came to Barbados. They do or did it at school and university because it was on the curriculum, but few have tasted the joys of reading. Few have read a book from cover to cover since graduation.
I was lucky to meet one of the few a few months ago near the entrance of the nearby supermarket.
We had a most interesting half-hour conversation and I was glad I had decided while in the supermarket to leave the ice cream until my next visit. I took the opportunity to quiz the young man about his view on the state of reading among his contemporaries and he confirmed my suspicion: too much distraction. He said: “Too much time is wasted on Facebook and Twitter.”
Serious reading is going out of style, partly because it is not necessary to read anything beyond the literature of one’s occupation in order to make a decent living. The increasing specialization of the workplace has decreased the demand for the general knowledge that arises from regular reading of books.
Even reading purely for instruction, as opposed to doing so to make oneself a well-rounded person, is no longer as important as it used to be. The computer has reduced people’s dependence on reference books by making it possible to access information previously available only in printed form.
(Read Part 2 in Friday’s E-paper.)