Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Read, whether it's good for you or not

The Star-Tribune features a Bloomberg column: “Reading for pleasure is in painful decline.”

The author doesn’t really cite any evidence of this other than overhearing a conversation between two teenagers, and a 10-year-old National Endowment for the Arts report suggesting a “rapid fall in ‘literary’ reading to a decline in civil participation generally.”

I am one of those believers. Democracy needs readers — in particular, readers of literature. Tackling a book (whether print or e-) is a considerable undertaking, requiring an investment of time, attention and serious thought — and the tougher the text, the more serious the thought. In return, we readers learn the importance of reflection, of patience, of trying to understand another’s point of view — all skills that are vital to democratic politics and seriously in decline across the spectrum.

I sometimes fear we bookies get a little pretentious about reading, as if it makes us better people than those who don’t read. Everybody is guilty of that in some respect, puffing out their chests regarding their own hobbies, like if you don’t listen to classical musical you really don’t understand music, and if you don’t play classical music for your babies they are going to grow up to be doofs or Packer fans. We all think that we do makes us special.

I’ve never changed my own oil on my car or know how to install a dishwasher, but by golly I read Frost and Poe and Koontz religiously. Which guy do you want on your city council? Probably doesn’t matter either way.

That being said, I don’t want to undervalue the time spent reading. It does inform and encourage critical thinking. But so does tracking, hunting and cleaning an elk in the Black Hills. So does bird watching, painting and crocheting. All of that is better than sitting on the recliner watching Laverne and Shirley reruns all night or drinking yourself silly at the corner bar. I’ve done all that, except for the crocheting.

I encourage reading, want my kids to read, think it is valuable; not necessarily more valuable than other hobbies, but valuable. I will say, most smart people I know read a lot. They also eat carrots. Are they smart because they read or smart because they eat carrots? Maybe they are smart, so they read. Maybe they are smart because they read. I don’t know many dumb people who read; and I know a lot of dumb people. So my guess is there could be a correlation.

And it’s not a class thing. I know working class people, professionals and academics who are all smart and all read. I know bikers who read, meat cutters who read, priests who read and senators who read. I do think it is time well spent and people make themselves better by reading. But it doesn’t mean we are better, or behave better, or are wiser, as even the Unabomber was an avid reader.

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