The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Mairead Small Staid shares a brilliant piece of writing all about reading and its apparent demise. She frames the problem well:

The diminishment of literature—of sustained reading, of writing as the product of a single focused mind—would diminish the self in turn, rendering us less and less able to grasp both the breadth of our world and the depth of our own consciousness.

So, what we write and what we read helps shape our thinking and our very being? I like that. But Staid goes further — a lot further — and claims that the attack on reading is tied to topics like democracy and the environment:

And perhaps the greatest danger posed to literature is not any newfangled technology or whiz-bang rearrangement of our synapses, but plain old human greed in its latest, greatest iteration: an online retailer incorporated in the same year The Gutenberg Elegies was published. In the last twenty-five years, Amazon has gorged on late capitalism’s values of ease and cheapness, threatening to monopolize not only the book world, but the world-world. In the face of such an insidious, omnivorous menace—not merely the tech giant, but the culture that created and sustains it—I find it difficult to disentangle my own fear about the future of books from my fear about the futures of small-town economies, of American democracy, of the earth and its rising seas.

The remainder of the essay describes the experience of reading books, the immersive act that it can be when done rightly.

The heightened state brought on by a book—in which one is “actively present at every moment, scripting and constructing”—is what readers seek, Birkerts argues: “They want plot and character, sure, but what they really want is a vehicle that will bear them off to the reading state.” This state is threatened by the ever-sprawling internet—can the book’s promise of deeper presence entice us away from the instant gratification of likes and shares?

The alternatives like Twitter and news sites and talk radio (aka podcasts) cannot give this depth. They were not designed with this intention.

Horizontal reading rules the day. What I do when I look at Twitter is less akin to reading a book than to the encounter I have with a recipe’s instructions or the fine print of a receipt: I’m taking in information, not enlightenment. It’s a way to pass the time, not to live in it. Reading—real reading, the kind Birkerts makes his impassioned case for—draws on our vertical sensibility, however latent, and “where it does not assume depth, it creates it.”

I could quote this entire article (and nearly did). Please stop here and go read it in full. This is a repeated message in my space, but this message bears repetition. It’s crucial to remind ourselves that depth is important and worth fighting for.