On reading books

For the first few years of blogging I posted up a monthly list of the books I had read and a playlist of music that had formed the soundtrack to each month, but eventually stopped. To some, that would indicate that I have given up reading and adopted a more monkish silent order, but nothing could be further from the truth. I continue to read (and reread) a wide variety of real, physical books – no ebooks for me – I spend enough time staring at a screen as it is!  So books are a welcome, tactile object that are comforting and easier on my eye (alas, my reading glasses are much stronger than they used to be!)

I have noticed that I am talking about reading more often these days. Not just the act of reading – emails, twitter and facebook feeds etc, or even online articles which are usually kept deliberately short, or even mainstream magazines which all seem to be lists, pull-quotes and advertising these days, like we are incapable of engaging with anything that would require us to stop and concentrate for a while, or challenge us, surprise us or amaze us.

Some of the books I read have not been ‘easy readers’ and have had me frequently reaching for the iPad to google something or use the dictionary (which my children find very amusing because of it’s quaintness). For many, this is too much like hard work and is, I suspect, the primary reason for the popularity of Dan Brown and others of his ilk. Still, it’s better to read any book than not read at all. But me, I like a challenge.

I enjoy expanding my general knowledge and learning new stuff. I like to be taken away by a story and engage with their characters, their emotions and experiences, to walk their streets and fight their fights. I have been transported around the world (and sometimes far from it) and travelled through time, from the stone age to several millenniums beyond now. Some books were so good I didn’t want to leave and have since re read many times to return to what have now become familiar places and am able to notice new things within the story, a bit like someone who takes their holidays in the same place every year and who enjoys the familiarity, but instantly notices what has changed since the last visit.

A good story should leave us with something. Even if it is the frustration of having finished it and can’t start reading a new one because you are still mentally or emotionally connected to it. I’m sure the germans have a good word for that.

The books themselves and the stories they contain are only the physical part of the experience. It is how we as individuals engage with them that increases their value. It is a little like alchemy; the books themselves are the raw materials, the letters printed on each page their DNA, and we are the cauldron in which these base elements are combined. It is our imaginations that have the capacity to transmute them from the language of the author and create the ‘gold’ that is the experience of a good book.

Warning: this next sections sounds like I’m a whining old fart.

So why is it that ever fewer people read books these days? Especially young people – there, I’ve said it! This is not a tirade on the young, just a lament on the decline of reading for pleasure. Its not surprising though, as there are so many other distractions competing for attention, especially the smartphone and all its technical wizardry.

The problem I see with this is that whilst the smartphone offers a myriad of opportunities to occupy your time, much of what is found there is reduced to bullet points, lists and memes, liberally interspersed with pictures of cute kittens of course, as well as everyones own opinion, whether you like it or not. We have almost unlimited access to the worlds knowledge at our fingertips. Learning, literature, music, film, bullshit – all available.

And herein lies the problem; with all this information easily available almost anywhere, for many people there is little use for retaining any of it, and this worries me quite a lot. With reading – not just skim reading, but reading books – any books, factual or fiction – requires the reader to engage with the information they read and allows opportunities for broader perspectives, comparative responses and intellectual stimulus. It can develop our own emotional and intellectual viewpoints, question our convictions or confuse us on previously held understandings.

This allows us to actually own the stuff we read. The more we read, the more connections we make, whether we recognise it or not. I have had the pleasure of experiencing that wonderful moment when reading, that something else read previously made more sense, or even joined up several unrelated threads gained over many years that suddenly throws the switch on a eureka moment on a particular subject. Thats a great feeling. I’m sure the germans have a good word for that too.

So what may become of us after several generations where list-reading, meme liking, gossip flinging and first page googling are the norm? I’m not certain, but I’m sure it has already begun and the zombie apocalypse is already upon us. But instead of ravaged corpses shuffling around with arms outstretch murmuring “brains, delicious brains”, I’m already seeing once ordinary people shuffling around staring at their palms murmuring “memes, more memes” and ‘just one more kitten Gif and I’ll stop”.

And on that note, I will switch off and go finish my book.

PS. If anyone is interested, I’m re-reading José Saramago’s ‘Blindness’ – a brilliant story by one of the worlds very best writers. He’s not an easy read, but well worth the effort…

PPS. I’m also listening to Black Slipper on a daily basis…

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