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The Point: Don’t call me Ishmael: Why we should read

Published: February 1, 2008
Section: Opinions


I’m concerned, both as an English major and as a person, about the declining reading rates in our country. It seems I can’t open a newspaper or magazine without finding an article about how the reading of literature has been replaced with other pursuits. People, apparently, spend all their time in front of the TV or computer. They have no attention spans. Sales are down and, indeed—with the advent of electronic readers and the Internet—the book as we know it might be an endangered species.

Now, I don’t know how exactly to interpret this information. I accept that people read less, but I also recognize that it’s more profitable for a magazine to run an article about how we’re living in a bookless, distopian society than it is to run a piece like “Guatemala: I Guess It’s Still There.” And sometimes I question how much past generations actually read. I feel like if you worked threading needles in an early-twentieth-century factory you probably weren’t that into Tolstoy.

But the idea of the book disappearing scares me. I don’t know how to fix it—maybe we need to reevaluate the place of technology in our lives, maybe we need to throw some money in the direction of public schools so kids don’t spend all their time joining gangs. But, at any rate, I think everyone should read more frequently and more seriously. It doesn’t have to be a chore we perform for our teachers or to attain some ideal of what’s “intellectual.” Reading can be intensely pleasurable.

I know that, as an English major, I’m biased. I know that many English majors are freaks who are way too into the male heroes of Jane Austen novels and that many of them write awful, embarrassing poetry. I myself am guilty of snobbery—today, I unironically called my roommate’s Bret Easton Ellis novel “trash” (to be fair, though, American Psycho is pretty much trash). I have visibly winced when hearing acquaintances talk about “being really into” Chuck Klosterman or even Jack Kerouac. I have thought to myself, “I read The Decameron and one-eighth of War and Peace this week. What did you ever do?” I have done these things and I’m sorry.

But I’m not an intellectual. I’m not even a terribly good English major. Last semester, I read—without exaggeration—only twenty pages of Moby-Dick before giving up and reading plot summaries on the Internet. Just the other night, I watched a PBS pledge special about Jane Austen, but changed the channel when the Masterpiece Theater production of Mansfield Park came on. I did not choose my major because of lofty, philosophical reasons. I chose it because it was the only subject in high school at which I was not terrible.

And, despite all this, the act of reading still excites me. The positive associations I have with my favorite books are overwhelming and go beyond the fleeting feelings, positive or negative, that I might have for a professor or class. My paperback copy of The Great Gatsby, with the annotations I made in eleventh grade, is precious to me. I wish everyone could have the feeling of discovering a beautiful, relatable piece of literature that hasn’t been shoved down their throats by greedy marketing executives.

People tell me they don’t understand poetry, or they don’t like having to “analyze” novels. This is an area where our education has failed us. It’s true that you have to work hard to contextualize and understand a book, but the act of reading shouldn’t be thought of prohibitive or as something at which you might “fail.” Books are written so that they can be read. You won’t understand or like everything you read, and you don’t have to. But you’ll never know what you do like, and you’ll never have the pleasure of mastering a work of literature if you never read.

So get out there and get to a library. I think they still exist.