Siji Loto

Mind & Pen on Fire

The Virtues of Reading: Expanded

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.That is my belief — Frank Kafka

Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy — E.B. White

Bestselling novelist, George R. R. Martin, says, ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one’. Reading is a wonderful and transforming experience. It challenges the mind and enlightens the soul. It takes you uncharted realms and territories.

However, reading has been reported to be on a slow decline over the last 15 years. Different reasons have been given to explain this phenomenon. The top two culprits are television and the internet.

Once TV airtime increased, many people switched their reading time for TV time. And that has grown even more with the rise of TV show sites i.e. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon TV etc. The Washington Post reported that, in 2017, the average American spent more than 2 hours 45 minutes per day watching TV, every day of the year. It is easier relax and be entertained than to sit down and dig through a good book.

The internet is more insidious to the art of reading. We skim through news articles and research papers. We succumb to click-bait ads and stories on the side bar of those sites which lead us to other sites and the cycle continues. Nicholas Carr, author of ‘The Shallows’, laments about how the internet changed his brain and reading habits, making it difficult for him to fully immense himself in book like he did in the past. Social media, email, YouTube etc. give us dopamine rushes when we continue to use them which train our brain to be more unfocused and skip from one activity to another constantly. I’ve noticed this too in my own life. When I was a kid, I would get consumed with a book for hours without getting distracted even though I was a hyper-energetic kid. But I feel like I’ve lost that edge though I still read a lot. Its more difficult to get lost in books nowadays.

Despite these obstacles to reading in the 21st century, reading is still an achievable and important skill to possess. Reading makes you see life from different perspectives. We tend to isolate ourselves in our various intellectual, political and spiritual bubbles,while ignoring other important points of view. Reading can transport you to another world, time, country or culture which greatly differs from your own. I read Native Son by Richard Wright last summer with some Jazz music playing and I felt like I was transported to the 1900’s where segregation still existed, and African Americans were struggling to find their place in the world.

Reading also makes you more compassionate towards others. A few weeks ago. I read a memoir by a preacher about the painful experiences in his life from childhood to adulthood. It made me have more compassion and less judgement towards church leaders. It reminded me that they are human with weaknesses just like me. I felt like I touched the pain & suffering of another human being.

Karen Swallow Prior, in her wonderful new book, ‘On Reading Well’, suggests that we should read promiscuously and virtuously. Reading promiscuously means reading widely on different book genres and subjects. Virtuous reading, on the other hand, entails reading and interpreting a text in its context faithfully, insightfully and accurately. The habit of reading, in and of itself, is virtuous because it requires prudence, diligence, discipline, and patience to get the most out of a good book rather than jumping from website to website or scrolling from photo to photo.

When I talk to different people about why they don’t read, the common reasons given are lack of time, interest and money. It’s interesting when people tell me that they can’t find the time to read. Yet, they have the time to scroll through Instagram and Facebook. They have the time to watch the latest episodes of The Flash, Game of Thrones, Riverdale and Stranger Things. Some of you do a lot of air travel and what do you with all that free time? Watching freaking movies!! It all about priorities. If it’s important to you, you’ll find time.

When it comes to the issue of interest, many of us were forced to read books that we didn’t like in high school which made us dislike reading. Well, now that you’re no longer in high school, you can choose the books you want to read (and, no,your textbooks don’t count). Choose books that are enjoyable and challenging.As Prior argues, “the greatest pleasures are born of labor and investment. A book that requires nothing from you might offer the same diversion as that of a television sitcom, but it is unlikely to provide intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual rewards long after the cover is closed.”

Many of us don’t like a challenge. We would rather be entertained. We live in a culture of convenience. Ready-made food & drinks, overnight shipping & delivery, iPhone and android apps, Netflix, Miss Alexa, smart house appliances etc. We are becoming too soft.We would rather read an easy book that gives us the five steps to success in 10 pages or less. We don’t like to wrestle with a text to comprehend its full meaning. Many people give up on a book just because the first chapter isn’t compelling (or entertaining) enough. But, of course, they’ll give a new TV show 4 episodes (that’s like 3 hours!!) before they quit, if they don’t like it. Give me a break!! Did I mention priorities before? Referring to the Kafka quote at the beginning of the article, when last have you read a book that has stabbed or grieved you deeply? Oh no. Reading shouldn’t be that serious. Right?

Don’t get bogged down by people’s ‘books you must read’ lists or the bestsellers lists.Read a challenging book that you like. As, writer, Rosie Leizrowice, argues, “If you only read books you don’t like that much, you’ll end up thinking you don’t like reading. So, you’ll read less and less—and your ability to focus on a book will get worse.” If you are not a habitual reader, you can start with fictional books.  You can read a physical, digital or audio book. Some people get all worked up about their preference for a physical book over a digital book. Really? How many of the physical books that are gathering dust on your shelf have you read lately? Relax. I read both physical and digital books (digital books are very helpful if you travel frequently because physical books bear so much weight which increases travelling costs). I don’t do audio books. It doesn’t really matter. Choose what’s best for you. There is no formula to becoming a good reader. Just start reading (no, speed reading doesn’t count).

If money is a hindrance, you can visit thrift stores,libraries and used bookstores that have books on sale. A few months ago, I bought six books for five dollars in a local library.  Or you can simply borrow books from the library. It is also wise to re-read books that have shaken you to your core—economist,Tyler Cowen, calls them ‘Quake books’. As Alan Jacob argues, “a first encounter with a worthwhile book is never a complete encounter, and we are usually in error to make it a final one.”Meditate and muse on a book. The ultimate aim of all reading, of course, is to become more virtuous people who love God and the people around us. 

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