Books Are Not Vitamins

Dear Blog,

Writing last week’s blog post got me thinking about reading, and books, and how there is much despair over the decline of reading  and much touting of books as “good for you.” Claire Fallon, writing about her New Year’s resolution to read more, declared in the Huffington Post recently: “In a society where around a quarter of adults haven’t read a full book in the past year, maybe we should all determine to read more in the new year.”

Obviously, I have a dog in this race. I’m a writer, so I want people to read more, because the more people read, the likelier I am to have good conversations at parties, and the better the odds that some people will read my book, and then I will feel good about myself and the time I put into my writing, and I will get a bit of money. But besides my self-interest, I can’t actually think of a reason why non-readers* ought to read instead of doing whatever else it is they like doing in their downtime.

I see this JK Rowling quotation all over the place: “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.” I adore JK Rowling beyond all measure, but this always reminds me of the old line about “You just haven’t met the right man yet.” Sure, as far as reading goes, probably any non-reader could find a book out there that would engage them, but is there some moral imperative to go out and find that book? Isn’t there something weird and annoying about those of us who love books insisting that everybody ought to love books? Aren’t we all missing out on something great that we just haven’t made a priority in our own lives?

Of course, if reading were more popular as a pastime, more people would be better readers (and thus writers), which might indeed have widespread benefits (social? economic? I have no idea) and would certainly lead to less annoying bad spelling on the internet – but if I am annoyed by bad spelling on the internet, maybe I just need to chill out a bit. Or get out of the comments section and go read a book.

And then there is the whole declining attention span / people getting stupider thing, and oh look, declining test scores! OK, forget the test scores, I just can’t even start on that. I’m skeptical that it’s possible to accurately measure the attention span or intelligence of huge populations, so all the “decline” stuff might just be the same alarm that has been sounding about the Younger Generation forever, ever since there was a Younger Generation to sound alarms about. Is reading “good for us”? Doesn’t it depend on what we’re reading? I can’t believe that the act of reading words, no matter the subject / quality of the writing, is necessarily A Good Thing (apart from our enjoyment of whatever we are reading). So do we want kids / adults to read particular things? Is there a standard for what constitutes “good-for-you” reading? Some movies require a greater focus and more thought than some books, and probably crossword puzzles or sudoku are better exercise for the brain. Is it “better” for you to read a stupid, trashy book than it is to watch a brilliant film? Where exactly does the benefit to reading lie? I mean, I think there is real value in pleasure, so I wouldn’t argue against the idea that enjoying a book is good for you, but by that standard so is eating cookies or watching a movie or doing any number of things you like.

There is a part of me that is confused by people who don’t read, but I tell myself it is like me and ice-cream. I don’t dislike it. If we go out for ice-cream, sure I’ll have some. I just don’t care about it. I would never choose ice-cream as a treat for myself. I would rather have a cookie. So basically I can understand that no pleasure is universal, and some people just have other stuff they would rather do. Books are not vitamins. They don’t offer freaking health benefits (apparently, neither do vitamins, I suppose). They offer other worlds and other selves to explore. I love them, I want them to exist, I want them to thrive, and so yes, I am saddened that they are not more popular. I am happy to promote reading as, in my opinion, awesome and fun and potentially life-changing, but I don’t think there’s a way to convincingly argue that it is “better” than any other form of entertainment, and there is something kind of obnoxious about telling other people what they ought to be doing with their precious free time.

I would love to hear thoughts on this, by the way, particularly from writers and teachers… well, from anyone, really. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am!

Yours, always-wrong-about-something-or-other,

Catherine

*When talking about non-readers, maybe I should add that I am talking about literate adults / teens who don’t read for pleasure. Kids should absolutely be exposed to books, good books of their own choosing, and they should be encouraged to read them for fun, at their own pace, without pleasure-sucking assignments attached to them. The world of literature is a varied and magical place and entry to that world should be widely available for all. I am not talking here in this post about literacy or reading proficiency (salutes Proliteracy.org for amazing work, in case anybody wants to give them money or time – volunteering as a tutor is really interesting and need not be very time-consuming). I’m talking about people who can read just fine not choosing to read for pleasure, and why does anybody care? Other than those making their living in the book world, I mean.

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