In Praise of Reading

25 July 2017

We modern humans read all sorts of things and for all sorts of reasons. Reading newspapers helps keep us informed about what’s happening in the wider world. We read letters, or once did, from those still dear, but no longer near.  Lovers separated by oceans and continents once routinely bared their hearts to one another in passionately composed letters, recieved and read with great delight.  As humankind’s ability to travel the world increased, reading took on ever greater importance as a means of cementing and maintaining bonds of family and friendship.

These days the written word can itself travel at the speed of light. And so instead of long delayed but eagerly anticipated letters written on parchmant or paper, we keep up with distant friends and family, and even perfect strangers, via instantly recieved posts on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, e-mail and text messages.  These short bursts of reading have their place in our lives.   But they are no substitute for more intense and challenging forms of reading.  Reading massive tomes of philosophy, volumes of history, dense scientific journals, or rigorous mathematical proofs takes serious commitment, but they repay the commitment by  strengthening  the intellect.  Similarly, reading demanding poetry or literary fiction expands our emotions and enriches the imagination.

Reading is essential for a well-lived human life. Indeed, it is one of the central pillars on which our capacity for autonomous self-governance rests. In the antebellum South, especially after Nat Turner’s rebellion, it was a crime to teach slaves to read. The slave owners reasoned that a slave that could read was a dangerous slave, while a slave that was kept illiterate was a slave easier to control and manipulate. While I suspect that slaveholders vastly underestimated the unquenchable nature of the thirst for freedom, even among the illiterate, they were no doubt right to believe that reading can give added direction and intensity to that thirst.

Sadly, illiteracy is still with us. In America, according to a 2013 survey, nearly 32 million adults cannot read. That’s an astounding 14% of America’s adult population. Moreover, 21% of American adults read at below a 5th grade level. Worldwide, there are one billion non-literate adults. That’s roughly 26% of the world’s adult population. Not surprisingly, they are mostly clustered in the developing world. Though we think a lot about overcoming global poverty as a barrier to global justice, we don’t think nearly enough about overcoming global illiteracy as a key to global justice.

Thanks to rise of modern means of communication, reading is in serious decline.  Who has time for dense and hard to digest books, when easily consumable and more immediately entertaining audio and visual information streams at you on demand, 24/7 from every screen in your possession? Now I fully acknowledge the awesome power of both sound and image. Each can do things to our minds that the printed word will never match. So let a thousand flowers bloom! We are blessed to live at a time when there are so many ways to tell a story, package a message, or depict the world. We should eagerly embrace them all. It would be a sad day indeed, however, if the ready availability of sound and image were ever to drive the printed word into extinction.

The act of reading exercises the mind in ways in which neither sound nor image can hope to match. A well written book invites you to savor each word. Where a film takes over your imagination and relieves you of the hard work, a book offers mere hints and directions, and demands that you do the work of following through on the hints and direction for yourself. This labor of the imagination can sometimes be intense. But such intense labor has great rewards. An athlete in training who pushes herself to the limit in practice, reaps the rewards of her labors when the game is on. So too, does a reader. The mental muscles we strengthen when reading will serve us well when the game of life is really on.   

When we speak, we try our best to be direct, to make our meaning plain, easy to grasp, and unambiguous. That’s largely because the spoken word is here one moment and gone the next. And absent a recording device, we cannot make it return on command for reexamination. But because the written word endures and because we can read and reread it, a writer is free to pack layer upon layer of meaning into even a single sentence.

Now unpacking dense layers of meaning takes a certain skill. But it is a skill that can be taught and learned. Mastering this skill is very much worth the time and effort. After all, the world itself is a text densely packed with layers of meaning. And mastering the ancient art of reading the written word can help us to master the even more difficult art of reading the text that is the world.

Comments (6)

BurtB's picture


Thursday, May 10, 2018 -- 11:38 PM

Let me, in praise of reading

Let me, in praise of reading and philosophical thought, define, here for the moment, as contemplation that includes meditation, reflection, rumination, introspection, etc., and even reverie. And one of the most contemplative writers is the poet W.S. Merwin, not 90 years old, whose most recent book of poetry, Garden Time, was written as he was losing his sight, some of the poems he dictated to his wife. It's a slim volume that deserves much contemplation and I highly recommend it be added to any summer reading list.

BurtB's picture


Thursday, May 10, 2018 -- 11:40 PM

poor proof reading on my part

poor proof reading on my part--not 90 years old should read now 90 years old...
mea culpa

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, July 2, 2018 -- 1:24 PM

As I have said before, my

As I have said before, my favored reading is philosophy or other prose which may have a philosophical tint. Currently, I am enjoying the latest Steven Pinker tome: Enlightenment Now. While it does feature charts and graphs in support of its premise, it also flashes an entertaining style, sprinkled with moments of humor. Professor Pinker' s lucid and engaging style shines in this volume. I avidly recommend it. In your local library now---although you may find yourself on a long wait list.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Monday, July 2, 2018 -- 1:51 PM

Harold, Pinker is on this

Harold, Pinker is on this week's show talking about his book!

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, July 5, 2018 -- 1:00 PM

Thanks, Laura. I love his

Thanks, Laura. I love his reference(s) to Stein's Law: Things that can't go on forever don't. Had never heard of that before reading the book. Poignant, yet appropriate; though if we subtract living things and add enlightenment, we might hope that Stein's Law does not hold in that case?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, August 22, 2018 -- 10:18 AM

I am wading through Rawls' A

I am wading through Rawls' A THEORY OF JUSTICE (Original Edition, re-printed in 1971). Not sure why this work escaped my notice until now, but it is interesting. At around page 250 (of nearly 700), I nearly took it back to my library. Then, I finally began to comprehend what he was saying. In some ways he reminds me of Searle, even using some similar terms which I first encountered when reading the latter's works. Judging from their birthdays, I would have to classify them as contemporaries. I'll be doing some additional research on Mr. Rawls... I now understand why this book is highly regarded.