Friday, February 02, 2007

Is Reading Truly Essential?

There is this modern myth that people who read books are smart. It is only reinforced by the fact that a lot of people don’t take (or don’t make) the time to read books unless it is a requisite in school or simply a fad that strikes their fancy. But make no mistake, the world is not without readers. In this era where information is the key to many industries, reading is a skill that is developed by most people—perhaps even I dare say the illiterate ones. The problem that arises is not whether people read or not—because people do and I can hardly conceive of a human being living in this technological age and not be familiar at least with the basics of language—but whether they read books. If were to consider simply reading per se, people do read. Even in a third world such as the Philippines, millions of people are reading, whether it’s your mundane street signs, newspapers, magazines, Friendster profiles, or the annoying text message lingo that is utilized by cell phone users. The concept of reading an entire book, on the other hand, is treated as if only certain people are capable of such a feat, the same way non-practitioners imagine never having the necessary talent to pursue a career in medicine, in art, in poetry, or simply running a huge corporation. The task is daunting and the real question one can’t help but ask is whether the chore of reading a book is essential to human living.

Before I begin, I must clarify that there are a lot of bibliophiles in the world. One merely needs to look at my circle of friends and one would be astounded why I am posing the relevance of book reading in the first place. But an all-too human mistake is to assume that my world is always true on a macro level. Yes, the social circle I move in is composed not just of book readers but book lovers. But I would dare say that I am not the norm, and it is only natural that a bibliophile would hang out with fellow bibliophiles, the same way a basketball player might be friends with fellow basketball players. I have no evidence or statistics to prove my theory but I will assume that in every country, there will be a percentage of that population that devours books on a regular basis, people who go out of their way to buy and actually read the books that they purchase. These people need no incentive to read the books they read but simply do so for the love of it. No fad is necessary, no movie adaptation of a popular (or obscure) title, no controversy is required to stir their curiosity. Yet they seldom make up majority of the population, or at least it seems so in my country. There will be exceptions of course as the Filipino masses have been known to voraciously devour romance stories, be they in the form of cheap paperbacks, radio dramas, or telenovelas. Personal experience also edifies my question on a nation’s readership. Strangers usually seemed amaze to find me reading a book, my bookmark somewhere in the middle of the novel. They are even further surprised to see me the next day with a different book by a different author and assume, for simplicity’s sake, that I am smart when in reality, I’m not or rather I’m not so much intellectually superior to them as they would have me (and others) believe.

Reading is an act of communication. Some writers even claim that the act of reading is an act of telepathy. And to a certain extent, it is as it lets us convey our thoughts to other people without needing to speak it out loud with our own voice. If there is something that is superior to reading in terms of communicating with other people, it is probably the act of speaking and listening. Every creature, be it human or animal, makes sounds whether it’s a simple grunt or a complex mating call. If there is a primordial act of communication, my best bet that it was probably through the act of speaking (of course one could content that body language and touch played a part, and in the case of some animals, scent, but that is diverging from the topic at hand). Reading merely evolved out of this, or at best, a skill that was developed later on in the stages of evolution. There is, however, one advantage reading has over hearing. Adult humans tend to rely more on sight than on sound. Even human mnemonics support this theory for people are most likely to remember something they saw rather than heard (and one is reinforced by the other). Sight has played a huge role in the human paradigm. And while others are sensitive enough to utilize their aural faculties, humans tend to rely more on sight which is why even the act of composing music Is committed to notes on paper rather than simply playing back a song or tune over and over again.

Human beings are visual creatures and the act of writing is perhaps our most primitive way of keeping track of records. There have been, of course, the tradition of sheer memorization and the passing down of knowledge from one generation to another but the disadvantage of such a method aside from the inevitable inaccuracy that arises from it is that it requires two humans to participate. If one were to simply leave a message that warns of danger, it would be impractical to have a human being watch over a particular area for all eternity, simply to warn off potential wanderers when a simple sign would do. And that does not address the question of a human being dying prematurely before he can convey all his knowledge and ideas to others. So the act of writing becomes essential to human beings history it facilitates communication without needing other humans as a medium.

Of course while I can defend the essentialness of reading, the act of reading books is another matter. Books are a luxury but they are by no means the only way we use the written language. They come in all forms, from signs, documents, broadsheets, magazines, or even on electronic screens that is neither paper nor a book. A human could live his entire life reading a lot of things yet never pick up a book and read it from cover to cover. Such is the modern way of living thanks to all sorts of devices that facilitate telecommunication but that is not a curse of the modern age. In fact, the only reason books nowadays are prevalent is due to the invention of the printing press which made publishing accessible to the masses. Before that, books surely existed but the only way to create or replicate one was to manually write it or copy it by hand. Thus books were a rarity and only accessible to a privileged few. And when you get right down to it, how essential is reading to a pauper’s life when you have other skills to hone: farming, fishing, hunting, cooking, and animal husbandry.

The educated might cry foul and mention that books empower readers with knowledge and wisdom. But my retort there is that just because I read does not mean I am smart, nor does it mean that all smart people read. Philosophy has tackled this and one proof is that every person is capable of philosophizing, of wondering and debating about the mysteries of the world. The well-read man is no different than the masses when it comes to discussing philosophy—the only significant advantage one has over the other is that one of them might be more fluent and precise in describing his or her thoughts. And even then, the result does not always lie with the well-read individual. If we look at history, there is also the likes of Socrates. I’m not claiming that he never read a book but Socrates wasn’t really fond of the written word. Instead, he favored the act of living dialogue, or two intelligent souls having discussion. It is in fact a limitation of the act of reading. Speaking and hearing are actions that come in pairs but not so with reading—information travels in a one way street and a reader can’t immediately communicate with the author. There are also the other informal ways of attaining wisdom and knowledge: simply listening to the advice of your elders, exploring the world on your own, or even the philosophical act of debating upon the world in isolation. Reading a book is by no means the only requirement although the faculty of being able to read helps a great deal. It is even conceivable that the smartest scientist in the world never needs to pick up a novel in all of his adult life, merely concentrating on reading academic papers, scientific journals, and email correspondences with his peers. In such a scenario, why read books then?

The answer perhaps lies not in such a profound or noble reason but in a simpler one. The first time I picked up a book to read willingly, it was not in the quest for knowledge or perhaps a need to understand the human condition better. Rather, I did it because I thought it would be fun and enjoyable. It is the same reason I would go out and play a sport, or go to the theater and watch a movie, or turn on the computer and play a video game: entertainment. In the end, as much as people will claim the greatest contributions of books are the advancement of human knowledge, or bringing about peace in the world, or perhaps even making a breakthrough in technology, people read because it is a pleasurable act.

Make no mistake, this epiphany does not diminish the relevance of reading books. It is commonly believed that humans have basic needs—food, water, shelter. However, I beg to differ if that is merely enough. They are all we require to survive perhaps but we need more to be human: we need companionship, we need work, we need something to pass the time. For a soccer player, a basic “need” he has might be the ability to play soccer. For a cook, the ability to cook. For a teacher, the opportunity to enlighten and teach others. If all humans needed to survive was simply food, water, and shelter, the concept of prison or simply living in a box wouldn’t be so scary. All the basic necessities are addressed yet it’s certainly no way for a human being to live—and can in fact drive a person insane. For me, reading a book is one such need: it does not have the same urgency as food, drink, and shelter, and by no means does every human being depend on the ability to read books to survive. But for certain people, reading a book is surely a necessity they can’t live without or else they will end up living a life that is less than human.


Anonymous said...

Charles, you're probably the most perverse person I know, honestly. These are things which had occurred to me, but trust you to focus on that which is most irrelevant. I disagree with almost every single thing you've written here, not so much in essence, but with regard to the fact that every point you make seems to devolve to the level of a facetious personal issue. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I guess it's mostly a stylistic distaste.

In any case, thanks for coming to the con and let me take you out to lunch in a couple of days, when I've recovered somewhat.

Anonymous said...

We'll add one more comment: those wishing to be good writers must be good readers--whatever the genre in which they wish to write. Those who write advertising copy, as you note above, must read a lot of advertising copy. Likewise, those who wish to write fictional novels must read great fiction novels. The skills of reading and writing are closely linked.