Why We Should Read Fewer Books

“Outside of a dog,” wrote Marx, “a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” (That’s Groucho, not Karl, by the way). But who has time to read these days? We’re all too busy levelling up on Farmville, or polishing our Twitter bios. [Editor’s Note: no one has played Farmville in over a decade.] Book reading rates are dropping. For instance, in a 2019 survey, over a quarter of US adults reported not having read a single book in the previous year, while the average book consumption of the remainder (when you factor out the smaller percentage of avid readers) is 4 books per year. The US ranks poorly for time spent reading, with Americans averaging about 5 hours per week (around half that of the average Indian or Thai) – and before you wheel out your prejudices on low-brow US culture, you should know that the UK ranks even worse than that. Such facts are often trotted out by those doomsayers who see in such statistics the omens of cultural decline (many of whom – coincidentally, I’m sure – appear to rely for their living on writing books and newspaper articles – and newspaper sales are dropping too, of course).

But all this must be contrasted with other, quite startlingly optimistic facts. World literacy is now higher than it’s ever been, and continues to rise. In 1800, almost 88% of the world was illiterate; by 2016, this figure had been completely reversed, with the literacy of the most developed countries achieving an extraordinary minimum of 99%. So what are we to make of this? The answer is obviously that people are not reading less; they are simply reading fewer books. In recompense, they are reading blogs, newsletters, Facebook and Reddit posts, tweets. They are also writing – when you think about it – more than ever before. While the standard might not match that of your typical Victorian letter correspondent, has there ever been an age where so many people communicate in written form? The mobile phone and the Internet have seen to that. So things aren’t so bleak as we might think, for we are in fact living in the most literate age the world has ever seen – assuming you agree that literacy is a sufficient sign of the health of a society’s culture, that is (which, of course, it might not be).

For literacy aside, it’s certainly true that there is something that our digital age is causing us to lose. For me, a good book is like a mental bath, like sleep or meditation, from which mind and emotions emerge refreshed. There is also of course the benefit to concentration and mental engagement that immersive reading fosters: whether or not you agree with its contents, are elated, moved or annoyed, you are consciously stimulated, intellectually provoked, taken into your imagination or off on some mental tangent of your own. In contrast, engagement on social media is a wholly different affair. A debate on Twitter can feel like trying to thread a needle in a high wind, in the dark, with both hands tied behind your back. It’s just not built for that level of meaningful interaction. But nor, for that matter, is Facebook, Reddit, or other potential forums for debate. More than anything, the experience has a fragmentary quality, as it takes place where there are countless other calls on your attention – ads, notifications, other topics, the drive-by opinions of other users, all popping up or scrolling perpetually by, and all constantly tempting or buffeting your interest elsewhere. As I’ve written before, the experience can be disorientating and even upsetting, and the very opposite of refreshing mental immersion. So why do we do it? Is it a fear of missing out? We must keep up to date! But there is just so much to keep up to date with that, if we’re not careful, we may never meaningfully engage with any of it. People have long felt like that about popular media and the news, of course, but things are now so much worse. In fact, the word “engagement” itself has become so debased by online media that Facebook and Twitter now use the term simply to designate that someone has merely clicked on something (perhaps only to skim, like or share) – which is obviously no guarantee of having read anything, let alone thought meaningfully about it.

In an essay published in 1851 (“On Reading and Books”), German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expressed a similar frustration in relation to his own times. A book, he averred, is preferable to conversation (whomever it’s with) simply because a person tends to put more care, thought and energy into what they write than what they say. Furthermore, to read the work of a great mind is to follow in their footsteps, and so give ourselves the opportunity to elevate our own thought and experience to their level. Books, then, provide valuable cultural and educational experiences – at least, some of them do. For while he champions reading, Schopenhauer bemoans the state of contemporary publishing, advising that we should completely ignore newspapers, which he considered sensationalist and shallow, and estimating that “Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature aims solely at taking a few shillings out of the public’s pocket”. Most writers are out primarily to make money, and what is popular or successful is no indication of what is worth reading, for “the man who writes for fools always finds a large public”! Accordingly, he argues, to make best use of our time, “the art of not reading is highly important. This consists in not taking a book into one’s hand merely because it is interesting the great public at the time”. Rather than stuff our bookshelves with what’s on the bestseller lists, we should instead seek to read fewer books, to jettison those that will only waste our time, and cherish and reread those that will educate or instruct us.

This, you might think, is a high bar. Should we only read so as to learn and to improve ourselves? What about entertainment and enjoyment? Switching off? Escapism? Would that mean no more Harry Potter or John Grisham, and no more Fifty Shades of Grey? [Editor’s Note: The author claims only to have read two out of these three things, but refuses to say which.] Schopenhauer was a notoriously curmudgeonly old so-and-so, who slept with a gun under his pillow and whose views on women don’t bear repeating, but outside of his flaws and quirks he was an interesting and original thinker, and I believe that his point here is truer now than ever before. Not only can’t we read everything, we shouldn’t, and we should therefore choose carefully.

But which books should we read? How do we decide? Schopenhauer argues that we should prefer those things whose quality has been verified over time – if it were up to him, we’d all be reading Shakespeare and Homer. But what if such authors hold no appeal for us? Must we plod through all those lists of books that we simply must read before we die, the great canon of literary classics (many of which, my inner cynic suspects, have been cobbled together just to keep publishers and university English departments in business)?

Of some help here is the American pragmatist philosopher William James. In his essay, “The Will to Believe”, James argued that our decision to believe something often has a subjective aspect, being influenced by what he termed our “passional nature”. In other words, what we choose to believe is often more swayed by our emotions, personal associations, private memories and experiences, than any mere fact of the matter. I can believe in UFOs or ghosts despite the lack of any conclusive evidence, or hold fast to my religious faith no matter how much Darwin you rub my face in. This means that belief can sometimes legitimately differ between individuals, which of course is especially true in matters of literary taste. You therefore might agree that Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is “900 pages of absolute joy” that you couldn’t put down, or “literally torture”, from which you were relieved to bail out at page 90. It’s really down to you.

I am, you’re probably not surprised to hear, an avid reader. But more than that, I’m an avid book buyer – or at least, I used to be. For years I would scour second-hand book shops, charity shops, car boot sales, that table in the library where they’re always selling off books (why are they always doing that?!), as if it were my duty to rescue any title I’d vaguely heard of from bargain-bin oblivion. In hindsight, I think this was chiefly motivated by vanity: I wanted to be “well read”, to be the sort of cultured person who had devoured the obligatory list of “great works”, as well as the latest “must read”. But not only is life too short, we do our own self-development and happiness a disservice when we ignore our “passional nature” – that is, what genuinely interests us – in favour of “what we should read”.

And so, just as William James tried to set out those things that influence our inclination to believe something – how meaningful it would be for us, what difference it might make to our lives, and so on – I now subject any book I own to similar criteria. I have therefore begun to give books away – things I will never read, things I’ve read and won’t ever again, things I started and intended to return to (but decades later never have), and things I really don’t know why I bought in the first place. It’s hard, I won’t lie, but it’s also a relief. Instead of hanging over me in silent reproach, my bookshelves have once again become inviting, something I visit with renewed interest and anticipation. As with an overgrown garden finally taken in hand, things have started to reemerge from the weed-strewn wilderness. I no longer care about reading challenges, or keeping up to date with the latest literary trends – which, let’s be honest, is really just about selling books. I try to read now for enjoyment and instruction, wherever that takes me. If a book’s not providing that, then I will respectfully set it aside. From now on, I will read fewer books (and blogs, tweets, and posts too), but what I read will be “better” – however my passional nature defines that.

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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Image credit: Cincinnati’s Old Main Library 1875 – 1955