Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reading, a waste of time?

A while ago my friend J said he considered reading a waste of time (I'm paraphrasing here).

I've been puzzling over that remark ever since. In my childhood home, my parents didn't talk with me and my brothers much or give us a lot in the way of explicit instruction in values, but it was understood that reading was an essential activity. Weekly trips to the library were as much a part of our family cultural regimen as sit-down meals (oh, the agony), rigorous school attendance (perfect plodding attendance, year after year), music practice (at 6 in the morning, with a flute, an exercise in dizzy-making, nauseating hyperventilation).

I went through the motions of reading the classics when I was still sounding out words. It didn't really matter that I didn't understand what I was reading. It was what we did. And compared with the other requirements of my family, it was relatively painless and eventually became an important pleasure, a way of getting lost, my first experience of getting high, really, and hallucinating (kind of).

My belief in the value of books has never before been challenged. So I was startled when J said (I think) that he considered them a form of entertainment, consumerism, a distraction from productive work.

TV, movies—yes, those it could be argued are "mere" entertainment. But books? He's right, of course. I used to love to eat candy corn as I read, one kernel at a time as I turned the pages. And when I read now, even though I don't eat junk food while I do it, I still feel full and a little overpleasured (my teeth don't hurt though). And yes, it does feel like a guilty pleasure. After all, a creative person should be making something rather than lying back and eating up someone else's creativity.

But does the world really need another thing—intellectual or material? There's so much "stuff" in the world already. Am I not doing my part by borrowing from the great stockpile and adding nothing? After all, when I read George Eliot, say, or Edith Wharton, the themes are as relevant today as they were when they were spelled out a century and more ago. Other people are updating them, in any case. Do I need to jump in too? What could I possibly add? Is it not hubris to want to "do" and "make" when so many others do it so well? Why can't I just read?

But why am I writing this stupid blog then?

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