I have been an avid reader of words for forever it seems. I read! For 6 decades this was how I defined myself. Then I also became a writer of words. I stopped defining myself years ago, but words on a printed page (I do e-books now also) are still the great love and joy of my life.
Over the past few months I have followed a few discussions in cyber space about the merits of reading. Many of the readers commenting said they could not understand how people can’t or won’t read. Well I find it difficult to understand also, I know the loneliness of not having books to read, however I am well aware I am not everyone. Some of the comments suggested that not wishing to read somehow indicates a lower intelligence, less learning and a lower imaginative life. That somehow reading books indicates the contrary. On these last points I disagree.
I haven’t, I admit, given much thought before to the question. Some of my friends read a great deal, some don’t – it is just so. I know it would be a clever person indeed to decide which the reader was and which not by the general tone of their conversation.
Surely nowadays there is not the necessity to read to keep up to date with life. As to whether there is more intelligence gained from reading, or whether love of reading is caused by greater intelligence, these are ideas and thoughts which wipe out the collective intelligence of a great part of the globe and are I feel condescending.
One of the recurring comments in the discussions was that people choosing not to read, (on the whole the conversations were about fiction books) would be slumped in front of TV screens receiving stories, knowledge passively. Not engaged as a reader is. Surely not? Is a drama – grand or soap – on the screen not as engaging for the viewer as the written word for the reader? Do viewers not cry, yell and cheer? Maybe throw things – I don’t know.
Reading is a relatively new skill in our history. Most of our ‘imaginative’ storytelling was a listening, watching, communal experience, from way back. Around a fire or in a theatre, now on the ‘box’ it is how millions have had and will have their imaginations fired.
Passive? No, no, observe the child being ‘read to’, consider the face, the movements, excitement, dread, laughter. Engaged or what? Watch any theatre audience, maybe they sit, so do readers, but they are engaged with others in a way us book-a-holics are not. We are wrapped in an isolated world of our own.
Does it matter that people do not wish to read books; it matters of course in our society that they can read. Not to understand the written word can be a handicap in many mundane ways, understanding instructions, filling in forms and having a choice. The choice of whether to read a novel or not. Reading for knowledge? Well yes, if one enjoys the experience, but such a great deal of our world is visual and aural and has always been, we can discover in other ways.
One of the best informed men I ever met, especially on fungi, Shakespeare and the great British poets was a ‘lowly’ porter back in the 70s who could barely sign his name. We had endlessly fascinating discussions – I was fresh from English Lit. A level exams and knew it all. Well maybe not!! All over the world, on my travels, I met wise and intelligent people who had never been taught to read but who had absorbed knowledge and information like sponges.
Is ‘reading’ a story more worthy than ‘watching’ a drama on TV or at the theatre? Story telling whether from between the pages of a book or as a community experience is where the extraordinary can be placed into perspective, a name given to untold fears and anxieties – where we can wrap a protective cocoon against LIFE and all its uncertainties. Which is why it is that books and indeed every form of storytelling disappoint, even anger, when the ending is not at least hopeful, if it can’t be happy. A bad ending spoils the illusion that we can control life events
Is a novel an extra bonus in life, for some of us, a choice we relish? Or is there something about pinning words to paper and encasing it in a cabinet of cardboard that makes a book special – makes the story within a more worthwhile product than the looser form on our screens, on our stages? Or is it indeed merely another way to escape?