From every boomer’s childhood when the only place to read a story was in a book, today we have electronic devices on which we can read every form of literature. But as Pensacola, Florida, baby boomer Jill Thomas writes, that has its downside.
The first novel ever read to me was Charlotte’s Web and I wept when Charlotte died, leaving her babies to entertain Wilbur who (thanks to Charlotte’s literary creativity) would live on.
The first book I finished on my own was The Trumpet of the Swan. Sam Beaver’s affection for the lovelorn mute swan officially launched my love of reading. The E.B White book set was given to me for Christmas several years prior. I can still visualize the box and the illustrations on book jackets.
When I was a kid I would read while walking down the sidewalk, sometimes bumping into people and telephone poles. My favorite day in elementary school was Thursday afternoon because that was when my class went to the library. I was enchanted by the rarified atmosphere and the dusty book smell. I adored the stacks and would run my hands along the bright colored book spines, feeling so excited by the anticipation of finding the newest Ramona the Pest or Harriott the Spy.
My lust for libraries lasted throughout my school years and well into my twenties. In high school, my friends and I often congregated on the fifth floor of the downtown Toronto Reference Library. As a college undergraduate, I smoked cigarettes at the 1st-floor study tables at the massive concrete D.B. Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario. As a grad student, I frequented the gloomy study carols in the dusty stacks at the University of Toronto and the below-ground book dungeons at the University of British Columbia (even though I didn’t attend either of these schools).
And throughout it all, I collected books. Between the ages of nineteen and thirty, I moved house dozens of times, sometimes traversing from one side of Canada to the other, every time hauling dozens of heavy boxes full of childhood books, favorite novels, and texts with lofty academic titles I would probably never read.
Decades later, I read Charlotte’s Web to my kids. When we started the last chapter, I warned them to brace for heartbreak, and when Charlotte died I cried (again) but the kids were stoic. They’d seen too many movies with heartbreak and dramatic deaths to be moved by a spider.
Nonetheless, we kept reading. Rereading my favorite children’s books (and finding incredible new ones) was one of the best pleasures of being a parent.
Then in 2009, I signed up for Facebook and immediately, passionately, and absolutely fell in love with Web 2.0. I launched a blog and started a new career in digital marketing. I was (and still am) obsessed with and addicted to the internet.
In 2016, I realized I had not read an actual book in six years. I read more words every day than I ever have, but none of these words are printed on paper.
With so much content so easily accessible, how can one resist? Ted Talks, Podcasts, blogs, and social media. I lie in bed, phone in my hand, scrolling and clicking flitting from one idea to the next. Apparently, I’m not alone. Pew Research Center reports that book reading in America is declining (a lot).
The negative consequences of my internet addiction are becoming more obvious. I am ever more fixated on dopamine hits of distraction. I find it increasingly difficult to be mindful. I have developed the attention span of a squirrel. I find it strenuous to sit through a movie and difficult to read a blog article to the end, much less an entire book. Fake news sites, click bait, and trolls make me anxious. I find it difficult to resist comparing my life with my humble bragging friends’.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a big fan of the internet. I believe it can and will continue to make the world a better place. Injustices go viral and social movements rise up to react to them. Transformative education experiences are universally accessible to students with limited means in far-off countries. It’s harder for bad people to do bad things without getting caught. It is easier to keep up with faraway friends and most importantly, cat videos are awesome.
However, I do think we are fooling ourselves into thinking that intellectual curiosity drives our internet addiction whereas we are in fact making ourselves dumber. The terrifying, ill-informed, and rude public discourse during the 2016 presidential election makes a strong case for this.
What is the solution? Its time for us lapsed bookworms to start reading again. Let me remind you why reading is good.
For starters, good stories expose us to new ideas and different world views in the most accessible way. Fiction takes us to places (real or imagined) we cannot get to any other way. Books, and the stories they contain, enable us to deep dive and form emotional connections with and have empathy for people who are unlike us.
Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul. — Joyce Carol Oats
Most importantly in this time of fake news and trolls, books make us smarter. Blog articles, tweets, and Facebook transmit information that is designed to be easy to consume. Social media rarely challenges our intellectual capabilities. Just like a constant diet of fast food makes us flabby, so does a constant intake of social media make our brains lazy.
Even worse, click bait and 140-character sentences create the false impression that every opinion is equal to all other opinions. Books, on the other hand, compel us to dig deeper. They increase our breadth of knowledge which enables us to differentiate good ideas from bad and discern fact from opinion.
Books also make us more articulate by building our vocabulary so we have more words to explain how we feel. They help us relax and dream and stretch our creativity. They expand our understanding of what is possible.
Reading a book forces us to focus. To get the most out of a story, we must fixate on the plot and complete the book. In doing this, our brains learn concentration.
These are all good reasons to work hard at becoming an active reader. I personally made this resolution ten months ago while on vacation after reading Stephen King’s On Writing. I was inspired by Mr. King’s declaration that he reads seventy-five books a year. Ten months later I’ve read twenty-five books.
I stopped downloading them onto the iPad to resist the temptation scroll while I am reading.
It felt awkward at first but I’m gaining momentum. For the love of reading, I challenge you to do the same. The future of intelligence is in our hands.