A Message from Big Book
February 10, 2024 2:57 AM   Subscribe

When a reading habit becomes subservient to a "need to fit in" habit, we are not setting up America's population for the type of deep, consistent thinking the country needs as the world continues to grow in complexity; we are creating a country where being seen as a part of the conversation is the goal. To be visible to our peers is more important than the value books alone provide. But perhaps this isn't a big deal, right? People are busy after all, and why should reading books take up our precious time? from Is Being Well Read Actually a Thing? Part I - Zero to One by Bram Adams posted by chavenet (35 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
posted by snofoam at 3:31 AM on February 10 [14 favorites]

In 2002 or thereabouts my friend told me about this book, Infinite Jest, that was about tennis and addiction and stuff and was absolutely amazing. She would, she said, absolutely be up for talking about it once I had finished it. It took me until 2004 to finish it because my girlfriend at the time was so annoyed with how much I was reading it that she stole it and hid it away. We broke up. Then I finished it. What I discovered, however, was that absolutely nobody wanted to discuss it, and many accused me of being a hipster bro for reading it in the first place. A thoroughly underwhelming experience from a capturing-the-zeitgeist perspective!

But it opened my mind to reading in a way that years of Stephen King and Tom Clancy had not, and soon I was a regular at City Lights (and Vesuvio's next door!). I got a subscription to McSweeney's quarterly and started going to book events. Reading! It was a gateway to a whole new world, and a way to make my synapses spark.

These days I don't read very much, but it is mostly because I lack the requisite downtime. I'm always home, which means I'm either working, eating, running or spending time with grumpybearbride. I could, of course, watch less TV.
posted by grumpybear69 at 4:21 AM on February 10 [18 favorites]

It's not that I don't read. It's that I don't often sit down to read a book anymore. I've been sitting at a desktop with an open web browser for almost 30 years now, and somewhere along the line, my phone turned into a portable version. I game a little, on my screen. I watch some TV, on my screen. But in all the interstitial moments, or if I'm otherwise sitting still, I'm probably reading, on my screen.
posted by phrits at 5:43 AM on February 10 [13 favorites]

I have read many, many articles on this topic, academic and popular, written by writers or readers or scholars, and not a few books on the topic. They fall into certain genres, and one is the article that takes as its launching point something like:

First and foremost, from this survey we can see that simply reading two books in a single calendar year puts you in the top half of the population. This is...pretty sad, honestly.

Not a bad start, but no longer for me. I have read this too many times (though thank you for posting, chavenet, got the ol' brain going this morning.)

For those who like in-depth takes on this or related areas, I recommend Joseph Epstein's Snobbery: The American Version, and maybe an in-depth book about any given field of literature written with grace and by someone old enough to know their field well. I thought P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction was quite good of this type. As an honored elder in her field, she had deep knowledge and some interesting opinions (some of them were wrong, of course, but that happens when the people having the opinions are not me).
posted by cupcakeninja at 6:11 AM on February 10 [5 favorites]

This economist/YouGov poll shows that the vast majority of respondents have not been to the opera this year. That means if you go to the opera even once, you're already more well-opera'd than 99% of your peers! That's sad, really. Think of all the benefits regular opera-going gives you:
- exposure to foreign languages
- ability to sit still for extended periods
- proximity to fancy dress
- perfected cough-suppression techniques
By contrast, nearly two thirds of the human population of Earth spends six to eight hours listening to Spotify. And that's just one app!

[a silly typographic character or three, such as you would find between thoughts within a chapter in a fancy book, here]

Look, I truly love books and I love reading, but the reflexive elevation of the printed word over other forms of communication is kind of ridiculous at this point. You can speed up and slow down video, pause and reflect whenever you like. Short videos loop by default so you can have multiple passes to take it in. It's often done socially. Somehow this is more passive than, I don't know, sequentially reading words on a page, alone? Reading is great, but it's not perfect.
posted by phooky at 6:16 AM on February 10 [14 favorites]

If people enjoy reading books, that's great, but I don't think there is any point to assigning moral weight to a hobby. Reading literary fiction is not some uniquely spiritually enobling act. There are lots of ways to learn about the world and engage with other perspectives.
posted by The Manwich Horror at 6:22 AM on February 10 [11 favorites]

Politically, I want to be relatively anti-reading. It's not a magically pure way to engage with content.

But I'm also a high-school assistant librarian. For the segment of students we are able to engage in literacy courses and competitions, they do exceedingly well in every other area of study. We have a dubious software program which assesses what they read and nominates texts which will push them further. It falls apart completely when assessed book by book but is still useful over the whole catalogue.

The theses of the later segments are particularly interesting. A student who reads 60 books is not likely to be a better student overall than a student who reads 20 books, but both of them have a real edge on any student who reads at best a handful. That does check out. Book type matters a lot. Heartstopper is the gay graphic novel I thought this was about, it's wildly popular, at younger ages Jeff Kinney is dominant right now. I read over a 100 books last year, many YA, romance and fantasy, and I don't think I gained anything over anyone who read 20 more serious books.
posted by Audreynachrome at 6:35 AM on February 10 [13 favorites]

I'm a pretty heavy reader and a writer (though I'm not well-published enough to have any financial stake in this). I will say that my favorite part of reading* is that it is one of the only things I do in which I can still sort of fall into the trance of it, forget my surroundings, see entire worlds without location shoots and special effects, and not perennially reach for my phone/laptop/etc. When I'm stressed out, reading is infinitely more calming than binge watching a show or cruising around TikTok or whatever. I feel like everything else I do I'm doing at least two things at a time. Like exercising and listening to music or making dinner and listening to a podcast or watching television and playing some dumb game on my phone where I organize colors.

Note: I am old. I still travel with a book no matter where I'm going because I fear having nothing to read.

*And to a lesser degree writing, but it's really, really easy to open a new tab when you're writing or decide to make a playlist or watch a youtube video or play wordle or whatever your procrastination strategy may be when you're writing.
posted by thivaia at 6:36 AM on February 10 [20 favorites]

Also, there are so many good books out there. Like, sometimes I get upset thinking about how few I will realistically be able to get to in my lifetime (and I read about 70 books a year, mostly literary fiction and non-fiction/history, but I'm pretty open minded) because I hate the idea of missing so many good things.
posted by thivaia at 6:39 AM on February 10 [11 favorites]

Active reading is an important skill, and its importance is because it encourages the active reader to think and evaluate what they are consuming. Video formats are not as suitable for this because of their nature - which is why, for instance, your doctors notes are in a written format. There are some things that visual formats are great for, like evidence, documentaries, and propaganda. But the combination of critically thinking and reading a text is really useful, and should be encouraged.

On a personal level, I moved away from my home country and never got fluent in my new country. English books are available here, but it’s really empty stuff - some shops would have a bookshelf with the top stuff, which means that a few years ago it might be a few game of thrones books, some shades of grey, and maybe some lit fic. Now it’s teen booktok stuff. I miss the wide swathes of reading possible from bookshops in my first language, and not the cut-down variety of the “fashionable reads” available on shelves here. Online is little better, even if reading on a screen was as enjoyable.
posted by The River Ivel at 6:44 AM on February 10 [5 favorites]

Of these two books, we can safely assume that of the majority are the "popular/coffee table" books of the year, the bestseller/airport/Oprah-recommended books, since these books are brought up the most in conversation (or are at risk of being brought up at least). This means that a significant portion of the American population only barely reads of their own volition, and when they do read, it is to not be left out of the peer pressure conversation where everyone is talking about "Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow" or "Little Fires Everywhere" or "Sapiens" or "Greenlights", etc.

That's a weird leap and a rude way of putting it. It's not enough to be reading, we have to be reading books that aren't best sellers, and the only reason anyone would read a best seller is because they're trying to fit in. Or maybe people read for pleasure, get recommendations from friends, and those books are enjoyable to read?

...signs of a well-read person within a topic:
The ability to play devil's advocate

posted by The corpse in the library at 6:57 AM on February 10 [22 favorites]

Note: I am old. I still travel with a book no matter where I'm going because I fear having nothing to read.

Are you me? I often take Charles Portis' The Dog of the South with me when traveling, because even though I have read it a hundred times every time I read it it's like it's the first time, and that book just weirdly calms me down.
posted by chavenet at 7:16 AM on February 10 [5 favorites]

Books are great. Reading is great. The author of the linked essays seems like a status obsessed jerk who I never want to be in a room with. You can learn a lot from books. You can learn a lot from talking to people. You can learn a lot from a square metre of earth. You can learn a lot from looking at paintings. You can learn a lot from a flock of sheep.
posted by Rhedyn at 7:20 AM on February 10 [16 favorites]

Reading is like Sex: do it if you like, don't if you don't, don't try to pressure other people into doing it if they don't want to, don't use it as a metric of people's worth and, this is important, don't do it because Oprah told you to.
posted by signal at 7:28 AM on February 10 [8 favorites]

You can absolutely learn literary criticism from podcasts, key texts by audiobook, harry potter as a series has hooked in so many kids into reading as a habit.

Overall, though, reading a lot of books past 13-14 is a real hump of dedication, some come out of it reading everything they can find, but most give up and only read the odd STEM textbook.
posted by Audreynachrome at 7:29 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]

One thing I despise is when Amazon sends me bullshit metrics on my reading, about supposed "streaks" and "challenges". If you're only reading because you feel compelled to by a late stage capitalist algorithm, I hearby give you permission to put down the book and turn on the TV or YouTube or whatever.
posted by signal at 7:49 AM on February 10 [11 favorites]

I can put a couple of hours into a good book but the same time and attention to a movie is hard for me. I have a friend who does professional film criticism and reading her essays on movies we have both seen has been fascinating because she had an aesthetic vocabulary and understand of film structure, technicalities and history that turns her experience into a rich layered immersion while I just sort of enjoyed it without entirely understanding why.

Novels are a comparatively new art medium and in the span of humanity not much newer than movies. In a lot of ways movies as plays in a different format are older than the idea of a novel which is a structured length with its own conventions.

I’d argue that people read a lot these days - subtitles, websites, a constant barrage of text in our built and online environments. My dyslexic kids choose to read web comics and subtitled videos and games with big chunks of written dialogue - they’re reading a lot, just not in the format of a paperback novel.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:51 AM on February 10 [9 favorites]

I read constantly, but it's almost exclusively online now. Lots of articles, things recommended by Metafilter, etc. I don't watch TikTok at all. Hours a day spent reading.

I can't remember the last time I read an actual book. Especially one on paper. I agree with phooky above - why is the physical, printed book so elevated? When the car was invented, all the buggy manufacturers went out of business. With words being online, why still read on paper?

Lots of things used to be very popular, current tech and mainstream - opera, jazz, painting, riding horses, DVDs, using an outhouse, etc. Chopping down trees and printing on them feels like the same kind of thing, a backwards looking technology.

It won't go away entirely, but bemoaning that people don't read physical books is like bemoaning that we don't take a crap into a hole in the ground. Or how the ancient Greeks bemoaned how reading in the first place would screw up people's memorization. Things change.

What has replaced physical, printed media? Are people reading articles online? Are they engaging with thoughtful ideas through other media? How is humanity changing and how can we help that change be for the better? Those are the more relevant questions.
posted by MythMaker at 8:04 AM on February 10 [8 favorites]

Are you me? I often take Charles Portis' The Dog of the South with me when traveling, because even though I have read it a hundred times every time I read it it's like it's the first time, and that book just weirdly calms me down.

For me, it’s definitely Norwood
posted by thivaia at 8:51 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]

Reading is not just scanning text. A screen is a different medium than a book. Each medium has its pluses and minuses. Recent research keeps coming back and saying that reading from a screen is not as productive as reading from a physical book. Comprehension and remembering go down when reading from a screen. Why? From my own personal experience, the screen environment is too ripe with distractions. It’s hard to pay attention. With a book, it’s easier to flip back a page to reread something. Plus, some of us remember where on a page that text was, and where that page is roughly in the book, making it easier to find. But I may be prejudiced. I live in my own library full of books.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:16 AM on February 10 [11 favorites]

I was always that little girl with her nose in a book (and still am), and long ago got used to being considered odd for it.

Even in a book club, of all places, where none of the other members ever read the monthly book because they were “too busy.” It was certainly their prerogative to prefer other activities over reading, but their very strong implication was that anyone who has time to read lots of books has no life.

Reading doesn’t make you superior, but not reading doesn’t either.
posted by elphaba at 11:13 AM on February 10 [17 favorites]

> I still travel with a book...

I am generally opposed to New Year's Resolutions, but this year I decided to resume this practice, which I fell out of sometime in the last 15 years. That being about how long it's been since I got a smartphone.

Reading on the web is not like reading books. Never reading full-length books causes part of your reading comprehension to atrophy. You can engage with books with an ebook app, but that has its limits. The books you want might not be ebooks. They might have pictures or tables or footnotes that are poorly-represented in ebook form. ebooks are OK for novels but not really for nonfiction.

I have all 3 of TFAs open to look at later... as for the thread: being well-read is not virtuous, really, except maybe there's some virtue in not letting your body go to hell through laziness and an insistence on eating only junk food. Though I would argue that it's not lack of virtue that impels people to let their bodies go to hell that way. But being well-read is advantageous, in somewhat the same way that being in good physical shape is advantageous. You can just do things more easily. Physical things if you're in good shape, and mental things if you're well-read.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 11:59 AM on February 10 [5 favorites]

I might be the only one in the world for all I know, or one of a dozen at best, but my favorite way of reading these days is the Panic Playdate - a tiny, square, handheld game console with a crank and an ereader-like screen, that you can hold in one hand and carry around in your pocket. Here's a picture of what my reading experience is like, crank or use the directional pad to scroll down in the text. I'm converting EPUB files to raw TXT, because that's what it accepts. Zero frills. Yet I've read multiple books this way and it's singlehandedly reinvigorated my dormant reading habit. And my life does feel richer for having a reading habit.

I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter how you read. Use whatever device or analog printed method you choose. I've found this quirky lil' device hits my particular pleasure zones, but everyone's going to have different needs and preferences.
posted by naju at 12:15 PM on February 10 [10 favorites]

Yea, the slight towards popular books doesn't really support their central point.

This makes me think of the current conversation happening around the popularity of YA books because "YA isn't just for young adults". Beyond the whole 'can't get no respect' part of the YA being seen as "at odds with literary prestige" argument Castle also argues books should center their audience.

C.J. Anders, another YA author argues in a WAPO opinion piece that adults should not be embarrassed to enjoy stories for kids. But the issue comes when media attempts to take material aimed at kids or YA and then expand iterations to include adults. Anders argues that this "need to be “taken seriously” so as not to embarrass older fans" results in stories that ruin the revisions with gritty realism. Or that these stories get drained of some of their magic and lack wild leaps into the improbable, like batarangs, martial art sewer turtles or explaining The Force. Or soot sprites.
posted by zenon at 12:16 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]

But being well-read is advantageous, in somewhat the same way that being in good physical shape is advantageous. You can just do things more easily. Physical things if you're in good shape, and mental things if you're well-read.

Just like there is no single metric of good physical shape, there is no singular metric of intellectual competence. There are some "mental muscles" flexes by reading long form texts. There is likewise a skill you can develop for reading academic papers, both understanding them and evaluating their quality. There is a kind of media literacy that is developed by watching a wide variety of films, and another that comes from closely listening to a lot of music. Just like with physical fitness is more about staying active than training one particular way, it is more important to stay mentally engaged than it is to specifically read, or watch films, or whatever.
posted by The Manwich Horror at 12:34 PM on February 10 [9 favorites]

One thing I despise is when Amazon sends me bullshit metrics on my reading

I love it when Amazon recommends books I've written. "We think you'd be interested in this."
Well, so I am!

I still travel with a book
Me too, always, either print or digital. Heck, today I just went to see a movie and made sure my phone's Kindle app was topped off in case I got there early and could sneak in some reading during the pre-trailer nonsense.
posted by doctornemo at 1:21 PM on February 10 [8 favorites]

Novels are a comparatively new art medium

I'm sorry to be pedantic, but that's really true only for Britain, which figured out novels very late in the game (then made up for lost time in a hurry). Roman literature has book length prose fiction. Japan has The Tale of Genji circa 1000 CE. The middle ages offered a bunch of these, like romances of chivalry. Some Icelandic sagas read like novels. China's Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh are from the 1300s. Early modern Europe has even more, like the deranged Gargantua and Pantagruel. Don Quixote is from circa 1600 CE.

Margaret Anne Doody's The True Story of the Novel is a great book about this.
posted by doctornemo at 1:28 PM on February 10 [14 favorites]

I think The Manwich Horror has it right. If you read a lot, you are flooding your brain with novel ideas, which you have to process and evaluate and make judgements about. Whether that's The Murderbot Diaries or The CIA World Book or Chuck Tingle's latest, you are working your brain, and you are learning to see things from different points of view.

In the past 20 years, I've really started learning and internalizing the language of film, which has opened up a whole new world, even as someone who has loved old, foreign and art house moves for far longer than that.

And, in my career as a game designer, I have been delighted (and sometimes appalled) to see the new and interesting forms and conversations games are having.

If you love a thing, immerse yourself in it to the point where you can think critically about it, you are going to get some great and sometime wholly unexpected benefits from the endeavor.
posted by chromecow at 11:54 AM on February 11 [6 favorites]

There's a real advantage in becoming accustomed to an extended period of disorientation while you figure out a new world in a new novel, when you are allowed to (supposed to!) suspend your judgement and just be curious and open to the possibilities being given to you, to the new information about characters you thought you understood, to the shifts in events that shed new light on all the ways you were wrong about the assumptions you made.

I spent much of my free time in 2022 painting a mural of a fantasy forest on my bedroom wall, and while I was doing that, I listened to Agatha Christie novels. In many ways I didn't have a thought in my head: I was just listening and absorbing, and carefully tracing the edges of leaves. Then that would be punctuated by realizations: oh shit, she's the murderer/he's not really dead/oh it's the hostess/it's the kid/she was dead the whole time he was talking to her! But I would come out of those sessions centered and calm and able to think expansive thoughts and make connections in a way that is so much more difficult to accomplish normally.

There's a real power in contemplation and extended periods of concentration—similar I think to the benefits of meditation—and I think one of the ways modern capitalism tries to keep us spending and producing value for shareholders and being good little cogs is by distracting and worrying and entertaining us away from that kind of calm and curious mindfulness.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:50 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]

I've found myself reading less since I started writing fiction. I think it's because the power of reading, for me, has always been being able to inhabit other spaces, other worlds, almost literally. I remember vividly reading Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Dispossed" on a broken-down bus in Santiago back in the '90s, and the feeling of not being in Chile, but rather on Anares or Urras.
The thing is: this effect, the pull of other worlds, is even stronger when you're the one writing them, regardless of your own talent or lack of it.
So I find myself using much of my reading time for writing instead.
I will end this with a quote from my favorite book because why wouldn't I:

“I come with empty hands and the desire to unbuild walls.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia
posted by signal at 8:10 PM on February 11 [5 favorites]

I'll admit that I have a huge chip on my shoulder about intellectual snobbery -- I was a scholarship kid at an Ivy who absolutely did not belong there, culturally, and it really fucked me up -- but it's giving christ, what an asshole.

I love reading. But I read novels more-or-less indiscriminately. I don't read nonfiction, pretty much ever. I'd rather take up running (tedious and unpleasant to me!) than take up reading biographies or political treatises or whatever this guy thinks people ought to be reading.

I don't think people ought to read more unless they actually enjoy reading. Life is brief and largely unpleasant, and if what it takes to get through is TikTok or superhero movies or whatever, then so be it. The idea that people "ought to" spend their leisure time -- the constraints on which the sorts of people writing this sort of piece clearly don't understand -- doing something they don't enjoy just because it's "virtuous" is eye-rolling.

(almost) Nobody goes to their grave wishing they'd read more textbooks.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:58 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]

> biographies or political treatises or whatever this guy thinks people ought to be reading

His favorite books, according to his Goodreads account:

Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (Robert Pogue Harrison)
Developer Hegemony: The Future of Labor (Erik Dietrich)
Does Writing Have a Future? (Vilém Flusser)
The Dream Machine (M. Mitchell Waldrop)
Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software (Nadia Eghbal)
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (William B. Irvine)
The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (David Deutsch)
The Denial of Death (Ernest Becker)
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (Brian Christian)
Siddhartha (Hermann Hesse)
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:32 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]

It's interesting how reading is purported to improve the mind by "expos[ure] to a variety of topics and ideas that will deepen and broaden your world view at the same time", but that worldview is never quite deep or broad enough to accommodate "the "popular/coffee table" books of the year, the bestseller/airport/Oprah-recommended books". Or children's books, or romance novels, or whatever personal bugbear of disdain is brought up to represent the degenerate tastes of the lower classes. (Note: these essays are perhaps exceptional in that the author literally divides readers into upper and lower classes; usually this is left to subtext.) By reading "you will be able to know that you have the ability to grapple with complex subjects from the minds of different humans"; but if that sounds "too woke," don't worry, because you needn't listen to "just any humans, but intelligent experts in a subject." Whew, close one!

But seriously, there is a lot to be gained from reading; reading broadly, reading deeply, reading intensely, reading for fun--if you're enjoying it. But reading because you ought to, with the grim determination of a person swallowing a meal of vinegar and kale because it's supposed to be good for you? Nah. Touch grass, as they say.

Broad-mindedness, kindness, openness to the world, to other people and to different ways of thinking are not the exclusive domain of the "upper class reader" (or the world traveler, or the well-educated: all different ways to say "the wealthy"). And that is something I've learned, not primarily from books, but from social media--from blogs to twitter to tiktok. From just ordinary humans, directly and inexpertly sharing their thoughts and experiences. It's a shame Adams won't broaden his mind enough to give it a try.
posted by radiogreentea at 10:14 AM on February 12 [9 favorites]

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