Get off the reading rainbow?

It’s never an easy thing to hear someone suggest that something you love and value isn’t actually worth very much. But that’s the experience I had reading the most provocative article I’ve seen in some time, Marshall Poe’s “Death to the Reading Class.”

By way of background, if any word can be said to describe me, it would be reader. I learned to read very early, before starting kindergarten, and read heavily throughout childhood. While much of my reading then was mass market fiction rather than “Great Books” or interesting nonfiction, I still probably could have been characterized the heaviest reader in any school I went to. I read after school, before school, and during school – and not just in recess, to the eternal frustration of my teachers. I would rush through my assignments as fast as possible to pick up a book again.

As a result of this incessant reading, I’m one of the fastest readers I’ve met. I’m a speed-reader, taking in multiple phrases at once. When reading mass-market fiction, pages fly by at one or two a minute. J.K. Rowling’s later Harry Potter books, big, 700- or 800-page tomes, I would read in four hours flat – and then sometimes reread the book again in the same day.

Moreover, since heading off to college, I’ve also become a steady reader of nonfiction, usually reading six to 12 books of varying denseness per year. I don’t read as much as I should and often end up spending months reading a book I could easily finish in a week, but no one could accuse me of disliking reading.

Even moreso than books I’m an extensive reader of short writing – news articles, essays, Wikipedia articles and other short nonfiction found in such abundance on the Internet.

And to cap it all, my job is a WRITER. I produce printed media. I have, in other words, a significant financial investment in the primacy of the written word.

So with all that, Poe’s description of me as a member of “the Reading Class” is definitely apt. I “love reading,” I “do it all the time,” I am a “propagandist” for reading, telling “everyone who will listen that reading is beneficial, that one should read often, that text is intrinsically better than other media.” Indeed, I “love reading so much that it is hard for (me) to imagine anyone not wanting to do it.”

Poe says that represents a significant lack of theory of mind on my part. In fact, he argues, “most people don’t like to read” (emphasis in original).

That disinclination to the printed word hasn’t been corrected by universal education, nor by the mass production of books so that they’re amazingly cheap, nor by the creation of newspapers that were practically free, nor by the establishment of libraries that WERE free. Even removing almost all obstacles to people reading, Poe says, hasn’t gotten people to read:

Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read. Note that we have no reading organs: our eyes and brains were made for watching, not for decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets. To prepare our eyes and brains for reading, we must rewire them. This process takes years of hard work to accomplish, and some people never accomplish it all. Moreover, even after you’ve learned to read, you probably won’t find reading to be very much fun. It consumes all of your attention, requires active thought, and makes your eyes hurt. For most people, then, reading is naturally hard and, therefore, something to be avoided if at all possible.

Instead, Poe says, most people prefer audiovisual forms of information intake. Just compare how much time people spend reading to watching TV.

The real problem facing society isn’t that some people don’t read enough, Poe argues; it’s that some people don’t have access to enough information. Since they don’t want to read, we should make that information available in audiovisual forms:

We need to face facts: people do not want to read, they want to watch and listen. Our task, then, is to give them something serious to watch and listen to, something that conveys the richness and complexity of our written work in pictures and sounds.

This is intuitively alien to me, though it makes a certain amount of sense. I greatly prefer reading to listening or watching, if only because reading is so much more efficient for me. I’m always annoyed when one of the blogs I follow embeds a YouTube video without providing a description of what it is, because I don’t want to have to watch a three-minute video to learn some bit of news that could easily be related to me in text form. I only listen to podcasts on long car trips — when around the house, I get bored by the slow pace of the spoken word and usually get distracted and tune out.

And yet these audiovisual platforms are incredibly popular. Many or most people would rather listen to a one-minute audio comedy bit (to pick something amusingly fitting) than read a 700-word comic article from the same writers, but I’d take the latter every time — it’ll take no extra time but feels much more natural and much less of an interruption than playing an audio or video file.

Poe says the solution is for people with ideas to focus on presenting them in audiovisual forms so that more people can access them. This writer worries that he might be right.

A bit of optimism for the reading class comes from author Alan Jacobs, who says the problem isn’t that people don’t like to read, it’s that people aren’t reading the right things.

“[D]espite the lamentations of many contemporary Jeremiahs, the cause of reading is not a lost one by any means,” Jacobs argues, though he promptly undermines his argument with an in-retrospect-embarrassing reference to the “hundreds of enormous Borders … bookstores.”

Rather than trying to read weighty, classical material that they are told is “good for them,” Jacobs says readers should read “at whim, without shame and for pleasure.”

Is Jacobs right that the cause of the written word can be reclaimed if people just lower their standards a little and enjoy themselves? Even as a fairly proficient reader I know that I read a lot more with certain types of books — like, say, mass-market fiction — than with others, like the thousand-page pop-scholarly history of the Thirty Years War I’m currently grinding through a chapter at a time. So if other people are facing similar dilemmas, maybe it’s worth it to lower one’s sights and pick up the trashy novel at the library. (But even though it’s a lot more work to read serious nonfiction I still enjoy it and wouldn’t want to give it up just to boost my books-per-year count.)

Unfortunately, Poe seems disturbingly persuasive. Certainly he’s overly glibly dismissing the written word, which remains vibrant on its own terms even if it’s less popular than television or radio. But just because the world of the non-reader seems alien to me doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Perhaps it’s time to get with the moving picture?