Saturday, 6 September 2014

On Reading

I need to distract myself from life, so...blogging it is! I tried alcohol at first, but then I realized that the two aren't mutually exclusive. I wrote roughly half of this piece a couple years ago, then (as I do for so many of my blog posts) abandoned it.

(it turns out writing things is kind of hard)

Anyway, our topic for today is America's 16th-favourite pastime, reading. I begin with what I assume is not a particularly shocking statement coming from me: I really like to read. Like, really really. It's been a constant source of enjoyment for me since I was very young, and thankfully I have kept up the habit as I've grown less young. I say thankfully because as many people know from experience, it's not actually that hard to fall out of the habit of reading. What starts as a cherished childhood habit becomes an occasional adult indulgence; we've all seen it happen. And that's really a shame, because if we consider what I would call the Big Five of entertainment media - television, film, books, music, and videogames - reading stands alone for a number of reasons. Well naturally they all stand alone for one reason or another, but I'd like to focus on what makes reading so special.

And it is special. Fans talk about reading in hushed tones: it's cozy. Or it's relaxing. Or comforting. Connotatively speaking there's no doubt it skews warmer than the other mediums. And part of the reason for that, which I didn't really appreciate until I started writing this post, is that the act of reading itself is highly intimate. Think about it - even in a purely physical sense, reading is unique in that it takes place entirely within your personal space. Whereas a movie or videogame goes out of its way to brashly involve the whole room, a book strays no more than a few feet from your face. And it does so quietly - of the five, reading is the only medium that involves no sound. These two factors - proximity and silence - help to wrap the reader in a kind of insulating bubble; a bubble where the rest of the world, beyond your book and wherever you happen to be oh-so-comfortably curled up, ceases to register. As almost any avid reader can attest, read a good book and you can completely lose yourself, to the extent that being interrupted results in a blink, a shake of the head, and the realization that yes, you had completely forgotten where you were.

But part of what makes reading unique is that this retreat from the outside world is twofold. I realize I'm venturing into more well-trodden ground here, but it still bears pointing out: reading, obviously, takes place in the mind. And so on top of the physical bubble that we create around ourselves when we sit down with a book, there's a further withdrawal from within that bubble into our own thoughts. I'll spare you the hackneyed cliches ("reading transports you to a world of imagination!"), but there is something pretty cool about that. It means that when reading a book, the experience - if not the actual content - is generated entirely by you, the reader (this is in marked contrast to, say, a movie, where the content and experience are essentially one and the same - two people may get different things from a movie, but by and large they see the same frames and hear the same sounds). This obviously adds to the intimacy I mentioned earlier (after all, what are we more familiar with than our own thoughts?), but it also means that reading is at its core an extremely personal affair. Of the millions of people who might read a book, not one of them will have the same experience as any other. For each scene we read, what we see in our head - the face of a character, or the slope of a hill, or even the angle from which we view the scene itself - these are utterly unique, to be seen by no one else in the world. Looking at it this way, it's not really a stretch to say that in the history of reading, no two people have ever read the same book - a thought that, if not profound, should at least give pause.

As an aside, when it comes to picturing scenes in books I've always found the whole viewing angle thing to be fascinating. I mean, if you're going to picture a location obviously it has to be from some angle, but still, how exactly does your brain go about choosing the particular angle you end up seeing? What criteria are used? It's as if we each have our own personal cinematographer in our heads, busily working away to select shots for us in real time, as we read. And incidentally, as a person who used to reread a lot of books, I can attest to the fact that once I picture a scene, it tends to be pictured exactly the same in subsequent reads. I find this kind of cool, as it even works for totally inconsequential scenes, in books that I haven't read for years. It seems like our internal cinematographers do their job once, to generate a kind of mind-movie that goes along with the book, and the brain uses that forever after.

Intimacy and mind-cinematographers aside, though, books are just kind of generally awesome. For instance, I've always loved how in-depth a book can be with respect to its characters and its world. I mean, for one there are the obvious advantages of just being able to tell the reader what characters are thinking in a novel. Thoughts can go a very long way towards defining a character, and in lieu of such direct brain access, movies or TV shows are often forced to rely on narration, awkward exposition, or Significant Glances. Even beyond that, though, I think books have the upper hand. I look at some of my favourite epic novels, like The Lord of the Rings, or The Dark Tower series, and I see an entire universe in them. When it comes to information content, a book can simply have more stuff stuffed into it than a movie or television show. Lacking the time constraints that directors face, authors have the option of delving much more deeply into their story. Think of how many scenes have to be cut from a typical book-to-movie adaptation - mostly nonessential scenes, to be sure, but scenes that together add up to a much more detailed and nuanced universe. I'm finding this weirdly hard to convey, but I feel like...oh, I don't know, like the real world has this fractal nature to it, where you can just keep probing deeper and deeper and keep finding more and more reality, because it is real. And movies and books alike, being fictional, are both just these facades, which seem fine from a distance but start to show their seams if examined too closely. But books manage to go a few levels deeper than movies - you can zoom in further before you start to see that unreality. With added detail comes a richness that yields a more realistic and believable universe - and a more interesting universe, because there's more to explore. The Hogwarts of Hollywood is a pale shadow compared to the Hogwarts of Hardcover, is what I'm trying to say.

Now of course, that's not to say other mediums don't have their advantages. I mean, yes: if I were forced to choose between only reading books and only watching, say, movies for the rest of my life, I would likely keep my Kindle. But it would be a close thing. I'm a huge fan of film, and there's no shortage of things I can point to that movies do better than books. The one that jumps straight to mind is powerful imagery - in terms of creating lasting, indelible visuals that can be recalled years later, my imagination is no match for Steven Spielberg. There's a reason we talk of movie adaptations bringing a book "to life" after all. What I can conjure in my head simply isn't vivid enough to compete with onscreen visuals. Or sound, for that matter - humour in particular is incredibly difficult to pull off without sound. This is a bit of an aside, but if you look at text-based humour, it's a very different beast from on-screen or in-person humour, relying much more on dry wit or sarcasm. I suspect (though I couldn't say for sure) that the reason for this is that certain tones of voice are able to be conveyed via text much more easily than others. The tone used in dry humour, say, is very close to what we already hear internally when we read. Whereas something like, say, this (to choose the first example that comes to mind) relies on an outburst, something that can't be easily generated by the brain's internal narrator. You really couldn't do this joke in a book, I don't think (certainly it wouldn't be as funny). Your brain just can't yell like that. Don't get me wrong, books can absolutely be funny - but I think in a much more circumscribed way, that requires a lot more effort, and that has to be tailored around the limitations of silence.

But anyway, such disadvantages/tradeoffs aside, I think it's fair to summarize my position as fairly pro-reading. So I do think it's a shame that people don't read more, even if that's quite possibly the most cliched opinion in history (What's that? A self-styled wannabe intellectual coming out in favour of reading? What's next, less-than-stellar behaviour from Rob Ford?). To nudge people more in the direction of reading, then, I thought I'd finish up by talking a bit about my personal reading habits. I actually have three reading "rules" that I've always strictly followed, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me. I didn't really choose to implement the rules so much as they arose organically, and they may be somewhat arbitrary, but I do think they've helped to keep me in the habit of reading over the years. So here they are, in (unintentional) alphabetical order:

1. Always be reading a book

At any given time you should always have a book that you're in the process of reading. This is probably the most important rule of the three. Note that the rule says nothing about how often you should read your book - maybe it's every day, or once a week, or maybe only once a month. Doesn't matter. Just always be reading a book. As soon as you finish one book, you should immediately (preferably within the day) pick out your next book to read. Maybe read a page of it or something just so it feels like you've "started" it, psychologically - that way you're actually "reading" it, as opposed to just having abstractly chosen it as your next book. The point is, there should never be a point where someone asks you what you're reading and you don't have an answer. Obviously this trivially helps you read more, in that it simply gets rid of the gap between you finishing one book and starting the next. But it goes deeper than that. I really think this approach puts you in a different mindset than if you just read books sporadically. It makes you a reader, rather than someone who just happens to read occasionally when they find a good book. It ties it into your own personal identity, which I think is hugely important in inculcating habits. And although, again, this rule doesn't commit you to any particular reading schedule, I suspect that people who did adopt the rule would just naturally find themselves reading more frequently, without much effort on their part.

2. Finish every book you start

This is perhaps a less important rule, and more just a reflection of my personal tastes - I don't like the idea of starting a book then abandoning it. My personality is selectively perfectionist, and I guess this is one of the ways it manifests. Not finishing a book just seems sort of wrong to me, somehow. Of course, it's usually not an issue because I've gotten pretty good at picking out books that I want to finish anyway. But the few times I would up with a really awful book, I still slogged through to the bitter end. I think for me the rule is useful just to prevent a slippery slope scenario where I stop reading one book because it's awful, then I think abandoning books is okay, so I start doing it more and more, with books that aren't so awful. That's the point I guess - in isolation not finishing a book that you can't stand is fine, but if you find yourself only making it through half the books you start, I think something has gone wrong. Reading deserves better than that.

3. Only read one book at a time

Also to an extent just a reflection of my personal tastes. I think I like my reading very orderly: start book, read only that book, finish book, start new book. When it comes to reading I don't like getting sidetracked. It's the same instinct behind Rule #2, in a way - dropping a book to read something new, even if you do later come back to the first book, still seems to me to display a kind of...distractedness, I guess. Like you're always being lured away by the next new shiny thing, or whatever. You chose your book for a reason, so stick with it. Of course it goes without saying that this doesn't apply to everyone. Some people just like the variety of being able to switch back and forth between two stories. Some people like to read fiction and non-fiction at the same time. That's totally reasonable - it's just not for me.

Anyway, those are my three rules. I'm definitely not saying that everyone should follow them. They're more descriptive rules than they are prescriptive ones - how I do read in practice, rather than how I ought to. Rule #1 seems like legitimately good advice, though, and I would encourage everyone to give it a try. There are a few random other tips I would also throw in, things that have worked for me - try to read every night before you go to sleep, make an effort to cultivate good sources of book recommendations, get an e-reader to eliminate the trivial inconvenience of having to go to the book store, and so on. And I guess I would give the standard meta-advice of trying to look for different pieces of advice out there, and see what works for you. Mostly though I would just say that if you like to read, and wish you read more, really the thing to do is simply make an effort. Go out tonight and buy a book, or pick one up that's been collecting dust for years on the bookshelf, and just start reading. It's relaxing, it's enjoyable, it's mind-expanding, it's...just worth it in general. You make yourself a little bigger with each book you read, because the book becomes a part of your self. People sometimes wonder how I seem to know so much, and honestly, the reason (apart from me being super lucky to have gotten a really good memory) is that I've read so many books. There's a whole world of knowledge and experiences and different points of view to be had out there, and it's literally limitless - books are being written at a pace far faster than people could ever read them. There's never been a better time to be a reader - we live in a world with an unprecedented and almost unimaginable wealth of stories.

You're missing out if you don't take advantage of it.


  1. Stephen,

    I thank you for this piece. If it weren't for you, I most likely would never have read the majority of the Star Wars novels (the movie name in which people describe and differentiate me from other Marks available to them). I, however, loathe reading. You know this. I loathe reading so much so that it makes me hate the world with the vehemence of 1E+04 suns. I can't shake this feeling that I am wasting so much time while reading fiction/biographies.

    Reading to me is much like any other task in life which I find annoying, including but not limited to sleeping, eating, using the rest-room. The only reason I partake in the listed examples is because I have to in order to survive. Reading to some is joyless. The only reason I have read a great many Star Wars novels was not for personal enjoyment, not for imaginary transportation to far off lands, nor even to create my own persona in the Star Wars universe (I do all of this through watching the films, cartoons, and video games). Instead, I read because I want to know more about a particular topic. I read for knowledge, not for enjoyment (who are Han and Leia's kids, what ever happened to Chewbacca, why did Luke sex a ghost???). Worse over, I read out of spite (Everyone says X book is amazing, I read it to show them some people don't like X [I have been wrong before and actually admitted to liking X - I'm not typically fishing for a fight in a "spite read"]). In the scientific community, the way we convey our results primarily involves lecturing and reading. The latter has always been useful for me to expand my own mind. I'm sure you read papers on a daily basis like me. Sure, I'm not going to fictional worlds, but I am expanding my mind in the here and the now by stuffing "usefulness" (very loose definition which means different things to different people) into my head.

    I'm not trying to argue any points with you or anything. It's just that if you are going to read, do so for your own reasons and make your own "rules". I feel your article had a spin along the lines of "read and you (your audience) will feel better about yourself in a mushy emotional way". There are other ways reading can make you feel better about yourself without getting emotional, i.e. through teaching you "stuff". As a result, I read to learn, not to elect for an emotional state of mind. These thoughts only loosely (if at all) follow your three guidelines.

    In closing, I like reading your blogs. They typically challenge me to think about the topic at hand and keep me abreast of the goings-ons in one of my very bestest friend's life. I hope your studies are going well and that you finish soon!


  2. Well, I mean yeah, my article definitely had a spin. That spin was "I like reading. Here's why, and here's how I read." If you loathe reading, then that's fine of course, but I guess you're not really the target audience for this post. Although for what it's worth, like I said I wrote much of this post a few years ago, and I've since switched to reading mostly non-fiction rather than fiction. So I'm definitely in favour of reading to learn.

    1. The post was super mushy though, I'll give you that.