It’s a cliché but you still hear people admit they are such avid readers that no breakfast cereal box goes unread around their house. We might say that such a person really likes to read. But if we stop to consider this reading, are we not focusing on the physical act of reading without regard for content or efficacy. As such, the process of scanning over written words with the eyes to, presumably, gain pleasure and pass some time with some sort of structure, seems to suggest a benign form of autism. Consider when an insistence on reading soup can labels is indistinguishable from ADHD.
But when we speak of someone being “well-read” we are not counting the boxes of cereal or the cans of soup, are we? Reading is not just a physical process to be enjoyed: it must be considered in relation to the content of the text being read.
Is reading for information the same as reading for enlightenment?
I very much enjoy reading an instruction manual before I attempt to construct a complex item like a garden cart or a swing set. I know that part of my enjoyment is the delay that reading allows me before I am forced to face the real challenge. But that sort of reading does little for the growth of my humanity: truth is, even after reading the instructions over and over, I still had two bushings left in the box after finishing that cart so my reading didn’t even do a good job making me proficient at assembling a garden cart. And you know nowadays those instruction are often on a DVD so I don’t even have to read them.
But what about reading a Biology book and learning all about the various kinds of moss, lichens, and liverworts that you can find in the woods behind the barn? Knowledge is Power, right? You never know when an ability to name the seven major parts of a common fiddlehead might get you out of a life or death situation. It’s true: you might be lost in a dark forest, like Dante, and knowing which ferns are good to eat could save your life.
So reading books considered “non-fiction” helps us increase our knowledge of the world and the varieties of thought and opinions a very diverse humanity loves to write about. It also allows us to use our eyes and our brains in the possibly pleasurable act of reading.
But what if the history of the calliope or the sex life of a mollusk is not sufficient to satisfy that part of our brains we call the imagination? Think of it this way: how often do you dream about mollusks?
There is a wonderful and extensive type of books generically called Fiction. Non-fiction may help us repair a car or get to know a long-dead person of some fame, but Fiction is what nourishes our humanity and feeds our imagination. Think of the thought process involved: given the correct training, a horse might have the brain power to ingest information as presented in Non-Fiction (with pictures, of course) but not even Topper had the gray cells needed to imagine a day in Dublin in 1904.
Still, reading Fiction appears to come in a couple of forms: first is to exercise the mind, and second is to dull the mind.
I have compared reading to the challenge of a new crossword puzzle collection. Most puzzle solvers will dabble in the E-Z puzzles but far fewer will attempt to solve a Medium grade puzzle and it is very rare to see the Hard puzzles even being attempted. Obviously, E-Z crosswords, Word-Find puzzles, and other time-passers are good at dulling the mind. So too is most reading material. Despite commercial success, too much reading in today’s world dulls the mind: it is a soporific.
But what about those Harry Potter apologists who insist that any form of reading is preferable to not reading? I am a huge advocate of reading but this argument is poopy. I take time out from reading to keep this weblog, to write snippets of fiction, to explore my thoughts in my journal, to makes delightful crêpes, to live my life. Although I find it unthinkable, I know that there are many people who never read another book after leaving school and for the most part, they have survived and thrived. I know a couple of avid readers who took their own lives violently. Reading is fundamental but it isn’t life.
Another analogy I often use is comparing reading to eating. This is a great analogy which can be strung out to cover just about any situation. We all tend to eat what we like, but sometimes it is important for our health to eat what is good for us even if it’s not on our love-it list. It isn’t fair to favor some foods and denigrate others: it takes all kinds: some of us prefer Italian food, others beef stew with dumplings, and still others raw fish with fermented cabbage leaves. But there’s a very interesting hook in this food analogy … sugar!
Our capitalist overlords long ago discovered that as humans, we find the sweetness of sugar irresistible. The result is a commercial food supply that is laced with various forms of sugar so as to make the food taste better and to make the unsuspecting consumer crave it more and more. I recently read that the average American consumes 75 pounds of sugar each and every year … look at your young son playing in the backyard … about 75 pounds, right?
Now we hear that sugar is the number one ingredient in obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and may even cause cancer. It seems that sugar is a major poison for humans.
Publishers more and more are offering the literary equivalent of sugar: we get a lot of satisfaction from these warm-puppy books, but like sugar, they could be doing great harm to an unsuspecting audience. The dumbing-down of America is moving us rapidly toward an Idiocracy controlled by Plutocrats. In our contemporary world, it’s not just literature or food that adheres to this policy: look at our political candidates.
Let them eat cake, right?
Is it wrong to read popular fiction? Of course not. Perhaps this is a part of what it means to be “well-read.” You, of course, need to be a persistent reader to be considered well-read. My late wife used to sit down in front of Dancing With the Stars and bemoan not having time to read books. You don’t need to be fully dedicated to reading but take the TV test yourself. My experience on this is that I will most often pick up a book (or turn on the iPad) when I have unstructured time, but if I do the analysis, reading is not my primary activity: I do a lot of writing, love to cook involved dinners (for one?), scan the horizon for monsters from the ID, and walk my puppies around the neighborhood, dodging prehistoric creatures sunning themselves on the banks of the lagoon.
I know it’s such a trite admission but I really do have the television off most if not all of the day (I turn it on for the dogs when I go out during the day).
What are some of the characteristics of being well-read? I suspect there must be some measurement of quantity: if you want to be well-read you have to read lots of books. But how many books qualifies you as being well-read? I certainly don’t know but perhaps it can be approximated by adding up a few of the other characteristics of being well-read. Let’s do a brain dump:
- You read a lot of books
- You do not limit your reading to texts which agree with your views
- You do not limit your reading to texts which are all the same
- You read both Fiction and Non-Fiction (although It’s All Fiction in reality)
- You read poetry as well as prose and also essays, dramas, and even epics
- You read Fiction written in other countries and other languages (in translation or VO)
- You extend yourself by reading books that are difficult and challenging
- You challenge yourself by reading books that may make you feel uncomfortable
- You find that bookstores are not actually a good source for books to read (unless you’re a young whippersnapper)
- Books do furnish a room.
Okay, time for me to scan this list again and see how I fit the model. Yes, I read a lot of books with lots of variety; I read Fiction mostly but also Non-Fiction, Essays, Biographies, lots of Poetry, and an occasional Haiku or two. I tend to read in English but can struggle in French and Spanish (harder, slower, but doubly satisfying) and as an American I can admit that my reading deficiency is American literature (CompLit rules!). My favorite books break all the rules of writing they teach in those writing schools and tend to focus on bodily fluids and in-your-face reality. I only go to Barnes & Nobel for the coffee since the store doesn’t stock many books I am interested in (or haven’t read already) but all the walls of my office are lined with bookshelves and books three rows deep (not to mention the hundreds of books on my iPad).
Well read? When I graduated from the UC and traveled to St. Louis for Graduate School I considered myself very well-read. The first thing I learned when placed in a class with other graduate students was that being well-read is a relative condition. If you’re wondering if you are well-read, stop analyzing and go read another book.
And in conclusion I would offer this test: you can consider yourself well read if you can differentiate between good and bad writing and books which are readable but do little to increase your understanding of humanity. Or as Lessing exhorted us:
“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.” — Gotthold Ephraim Lessing