Readers and non-readers

A forewarning here to begin: This post could well come off as snobby. It isn’t intended that way, of course, but I do think it’s fair to exercise a bit of judgment and a bit of criticism when it comes to this topic. And the topic, as you’ve no doubt gathered, is reading. Or rather reading or not reading, which boils down to activity or passivity, engagement or perception, growth or stasis.

I started to think about this because a couple of people have recently told me flatly that they are “not readers”. I was surprised to hear that both because the two in question are intelligent individuals interested in the world around them and because I hadn’t ever really imagined a life without reading. In hearing that some people quite simply never read though (and here of course I mean never read anything of length as of course they read in the sense of labels, emails, printed advertisements, etc.) I was forced to consider what that might be like and what some of the personal results might be. In thinking about that I then started to think about capabilities and potential, growth and development. Quite naturally central to all of these concerns are the imagination and the act of thinking itself.

When we read we are engaging all sorts of parts of our brains and processing information at very high levels. To get an idea of how important this is think of how a computer might “read” something. In that case the machine just chugs along following the instructions laid out in its code without having anything going on at any kind of metalevel. A computer cannot interpret anything even if it can solve problems (and sometimes creatively solve problems as with recent AI software that plays go or chess with impressive skill); a computer cannot be right or wrong, it can only do or fail to do (and that is not the same as being right or wrong). For a computer “reading” its instructional code no feelings are in play and no personal experience is occurring. Such might even well be impossible as, for instance, if a computer is programmed to “feel pain” it will not actually be feeling anything, it will simply be alerted via a sensor or sensors that it is in a place where potential damage may happen and ought to move. Try placing your hand on a hot stove and see if that is the only information your brain gives you. A computer is, and will remain I think, at a much, much lower mental level than we are even when we are at our laziest.

Let us now consider our laziest. I suppose that a non-reader spends a great deal of time watching things, and even if those things are videos of professors giving lectures about particle physics the viewer is using much less of their brain than they would be if they were reading about the topic purely because of how the information is being received. Of particular importance here, I think, is the difference in imagination. If the video includes charts and graphs and images about the particles being discussed (as it likely would) then very little imagination needs to be engaged at all. If the video is only a person talking then some imagination might come into play but not a great deal as too much attention will need to be focused on the words being said; the act of listening takes up a lot of energy (as all married couples know). Additionally, and for the same reason, there will be less critical thought going on and more intuitive judgments as to whether or not the viewer agrees with the speaker. This is why politics is such an emotional business; in the gut reaction world of debate the actual content of what is being said takes a backseat to the perception of what is being said, and if that damned bastard dares to disagree with how I see things then I will need to defend not only my point of view but my very self. I’m on the line here! Or so we naturally tend to feel. Not so when reading.

When we read we are far removed from the writer who produced what we are reading and who is the “speaker” in question. We cannot hear her and she cannot see how we are reacting. (This goes for watching a video too, of course, but there we can see the speaker (even if he cannot see us) and that engages all sorts of natural social reactions from our biological programming – think of how excited people get about soap operas.) This distance gives us the space and the time to slow down and consider. We also do not need to engage our listening faculties and therefore have lots of energy to spare which can be used for judging or critiquing or expounding on or appreciating what we are reading. We are moreover deeply engaged in the use of our imagination, and this goes for nonfiction as well as fiction as whatever it is that we are reading we need to visually take in the type, process the meaning of the words, place them in their context, and then – amazingly, really – interpret the whole lot and apply it to our lives and situations. This is an incredibly complex and remarkable human ability. To simply sit and perceive something is the polar opposite of all this; it is artlessly to let the meaning, interpretation, images, sounds, and contextual interplay be handed to you with your only mental effort being to stay awake and pay attention. This may have its place, we all love sitting on the couch after a long day and being entertained (and historically our time is no different from the past in this regard; theater was of course the first TV), but if that is all we ever do then I think we have lost something very beautiful and we have willingly minimized our human potential.

It’s summertime for us in the Northern Hemisphere; take up a book and beat the heat by exercising your brain a bit. Who knows where it will take you? And on that, here are two for free, courtesy of Smashwords’ site-wide July sale:

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