This week, we broadcast our fifth annual summer reading list show. Over the five years that we've done this, we've been really impressed at how widely and deeply read our listening audience is. It really heartens usto know that there are still avid readers out there, in this age when reading has been declared all but dead.
But there is reason to worry that reading as we once knew it may be dead. Granted people do still read -- though not the printed page, at least not nearly as much as they once did. More and more, they read their kindles, their ipads and even their computer screens. You can get just about any book you want in an instant these days. One could perhaps reasonably hope that these devices may lead to a rebirth of reading that would reverse a long steady decline.
To be sure, they have a long way to go to accomplish any such thing. In 2007, for example, 1 in 4 adult Americans reported not having read a single book. On average, Americans read about 4 books per year. And that number keeps getting smaller year after year.
If one were an optimist, who tended to look on the bright side always, one might respond that although book reading is on the decline, people spend more and more time reading all kinds of writing that didn’t even exist decades ago – the blog,the online chat, the text message. So maybe one could say that reading lives. But lives in a different forms.
But seriously -- Blogs? Chats?? Texts??? That’s not reading, not really. That kind of "reading" is to genuine reading what synthetic processed cheese food is to real cheese.
In saying that we don't mean to be either snobs or luddites But we do plead guilty to being a lover of reading, genuine reading, reading of the deepest kind. Reading of the deepest kind is reading that deeply engages the capacities of the mind and heart. Think of reading a novel that moves you deeply -- not by being superficially titillating, but by taking over your moral imagination and giving it a real work out. Think of philosophy books that challenge you to think and think again, not by beating you over the head with histrionic arguments, but by subtly leading you to new insights and new depths of thought. Or think of non-fiction that invites you to see seemingly familiar things in a whole new light. It’s that kind of reading, and that kind of writing, that seems to be on the decline.
We at Philosophy Talk believe that that kind of reading -- critical, reflective reading that is both emotionally and imaginatively engaged -- is both a fun thing and a good thing. One could even argue that the mere act of reading, and reading deeply, can help make you a better person. It exercises capacities that play a huge role in real life: capacities to judge, feel, and imagine. Don't get us wrong. We're not saying that reading is a substitute for real life and lived experience. But reading is, we think, to real life what baseball practice is to an actual baseball game. Reading is a way of hone the imaginative, emotional, critical, and evaluative capacities that you need to be able to deploy in real life if you are to live well. It would be a shame if the art of deep reading were ever to disappear from our culture.
Certainly, there is a lot that threatens it. The makers of mass culture -- especially mass culture for the young -- specialize in promoting the cultural equivalent of synthetic processed cheese food. If you feed people enough of that sort of thing, after awhile they begin to acquire a taste for it and to dislike the real thing. That would be a sad outcome.
Because so much of what mass culture offers up for us to consume is the culture equivalent of synthetic processed cheese food, reading of the kind we're talking will seem to many to be something of interest only for the "elite" few, who spend more time buried in books, rather than hooked up to some screen. But we shouldn't let reading devolve into a past time only for certain elites. We need to empower more people in our society to become the kind of readers we’re talking about. That’s definitely something our schools should be doing more of. And it’s also a reason why its important for us to do our small part, by compiling a philosophical summer reading list every year. Every summer, we want to invite our audience of very avid readers to help us extol the virtues and joys of reading – real reading. Won't you join us and become an ambassador for the book and for deep reading that enhances our most fundamental human capacities? Tell us what good reads are on your own summer reading list? Tell us what have you already read or plan to read that you would recommend to others.