It was a Tuesday afternoon. I had an hour to kill.
Normally, I would have found somewhere quiet to read while I waited for asketch comedy meeting to start, but I’d left my book at home. Instead, I walked three blocks to the bookstore by my office.
I wasn’t planning on buying anything — especially considering I’d spent $90 on books on Amazon — but at 5:40, I was three books richer and another $60 poorer.
If I’d spent that money on anything else — toys, video games, music, alcohol, custom sketches of my pets — I would have felt a sickening mixture of guilt and buyer’s remorse for frittering away my money so impulsively. But with a bag full of books, I felt nothing but smug satisfaction.
The Greatest Good?
I’ve grown up in a world where reading is the greatest good — the worthiestof pursuits. In my childhood, my parents created an economy where I bought screen time with half-hour increments of reading. I’ve been taught that money spent on books is money well spent. That a personal library is an incomparable possession.
But what is reading?
Just another form of consumption.
Books, like TV, movies, music, video games, or the Internet, is just another platform for consuming content.
Why, then, do we revere it while deriding all the other mediums I just mentioned?
- Reading is active. You can zone out and watch TV or mindlessly play a video game, but reading requires close to 100% of your attention if you intend to actually understanding what you’re consuming.
- Reading has tangible benefits. It will improve your language skills, make your more empathetic to different perspectives, and help strengthen your brain.
- We’re obsessed with self-improvement. The Internet, at least my corner of the Internet, can’t stop talking about how to 10x this, grow that, or increase the other thing with one simple trick. In this quest for more knowledge, more attention, more whatever, we turn to books as theultimate source of wisdom (since they’ve been around so long).
While all of this does start to make a decent case for the cult of reading, I think there’s an even deeper truth that explains why we feel reading is a great use of time and every other form of consumption is a waste of it.
Reading as the Incumbent
History is endlessly divided into periods — the middle ages, the industrial revolution, the interbellum. BC and AD (or BCE and CE). But before history can be divided into periods, we have to define when history even begins.
For that, we have a simple rule — prehistory ends and history begins when history is first recorded. In Egypt, that happened in 3200 BCE. In other nations, like New Guinea, that prehistory didn’t end until 1900 CE.
We define history by the ability of a civilization to write, which implies the ability — at least of an elite few — to read.
Reading is the oldest form of media — the first book, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was penned in 2100 BCE. At the end of the industrial revolution with the popularity of Dracula and the spread of literacy, we came to see books as more than educational or religious documents, but as entertainment as well, and for more than just the cultural elite.
But it’s more than entertainment — reading is the hallmark of “civilization.” Of a group of people having “made it.” Of leaving behind primitivism and becoming civilized.
Reading is something we’ve always done. We cannot historically recall a time where we weren’t writing, and by association, reading. It has always been there.
Reading is woven into the very fabric of history, life, and time itself. It’s no wonder we regard it highly.
No. We revere it.
As a fun thought experiment, imagine a fictional reality where (somehow) smartphones and social media were invented before books. Imagine parents Facebook messaging one another as kids put down their connected digital devices — stopped communicating with one another — and retreated to their rooms, alone, to read fictional tales of mystery, murder, and romance. I’m sure those parents would feel like parents do today — that the world is changing, and not for the better.
Rather than celebrating a new connected age, we promote The Hardy Boys over digital dialogue.
So Stop Reading
Of course, reading can be a worthwhile pursuit. The benefits I mentioned earlier are real. There are billions of brilliant narratives than can change your life and just as many that can be a vehicle for new educational discoveries.
But there are just as many books that are a waste of time, of space, of the trees that were killed to print them.
Reading is consumption, and like all other forms of consumption, it has no values other than those that we give it.
We’ve chosen to imbue reading with positive associations while tearing down TV, movies, video games, and Snapchat as a banal waste of time. We donate money to give needy children books. We challenge ourselves to read more books each year. We read articles about how to read more books.
We celebrate reading as if the act of processing words on a page is a holy act in and of itself.
But it’s not.
There’s a difference between 50 Shades of Grey and Guns, Germs, and Steel, just as there’s a difference between The Godfather and 2 Fast 2 Furious, just as there’s a difference between Call of Duty 5 and Undertale.
Reading for reading’s sake is no better than turning on Netflix and letting the queue take you for a ride.
Like anything else, reading can be used for good or for bad. It can be used for education and enlightenment or cheap entertainment.
I will always spend my money on books, without the slightest tinge of regret. I will continue to read every morning and every night.
But I recognize that reading is consumption. And consumption, of any kind, should be done in moderation. Because an act of consumption will never be a better use of time than an act of creation — of using your brain, abilities, and education to bring something new into the world.