I don’t know how many books I read last year. I probably could find out if I wanted to but I don’t particularly care. It isn’t important.
What I do know is that I read a lot of interesting and thought-provoking writing. I watched videos that changed my mind and my approaches to life. I listened to podcasts and other media that taught me new skills and opened up new perspectives. I learned. I discovered. I like to think that I’m a better person now than I was a year ago. Books, for the most part, weren’t involved.
Which gets me to the heart of my problem with Hugh McGuire’s “Why can’t we read anymore?”. It never questions whether it’s worth it. It never questions whether enacting the digital equivalent of hairshirt ascetism in order to read more books is worth the effort. It takes the moral judgement of the cultural elite as fact. It never asks whether the value a book gives you equals that of the social media and websites that you’re giving up. It just takes that as a given.
Most of what follows isn’t strictly speaking a response to Hugh’s piece. (Apologies, Hugh!) He is writing about his own habits in a constructive effort to improve his life, which is cool. However, his rhetoric and line of reasoning echo a strain of anti-digital elitism that I’d like to pick at. It’s a strain of bildungsphilister that is pervasive in publishing circles and sees books as an unalloyed good and social media as a corruption.
(I’m not going to link to those tracts. I’m linking to Hugh because I like him and agree with him on most other things. Just not in this particular case.)
O tempora! O mores!
The very least we can do is acknowledge the possibility that this worldview— books good, social media bad — may not be universally applicable. That the reason why many (not everybody, but definitely many) now read fewer books is that the web, social media, and apps give them more value, provide a better experience, and just generally have a bigger — more positive — effect on their life than books would.
For almost every adult reader, a website that couples text, video, and exercises is a better way to learn than reading a book. (Both trumped, of course, by having an actual mentor who both knows the subject and how to be a good mentor.) And the website remains better than a ‘enhanced’ ebook because it doesn’t have to be structured linearly, in chapters, or mimic the printed format in any way.
For almost every thinking voter, mid-length articles and commentary are more informative and more thought-provoking than books on the same subject.
And don’t try and sell me the idea that books can present more complex ideas or break free from the echo-chamber. Most ‘thinking’ books are padded to hell. Besides, nobody buys a book of political commentary unless they think it’s likely they will agree with it beforehand.
More importantly, once you become savvy to the craziness native to social media (which is everybody who practices social media regularly for more than a year or two), it becomes an excellent source of a low-level understanding about important events in other countries and places. I wouldn’t have a clue about what was going on in Baltimore at the moment if it weren’t for online activists posting information on Twitter and Tumblr. And Twitter brought to me this excellent interview with David Simon on the roots of Baltimore’s problems. The empathic awareness of the root and context of the important problems of our day that social media enables is impossible to do in a book.
All of this is assuming that people are curious, open-minded, and interested in learning, but if they aren’t there’s nothing books can offer that will fix it.
And if you’re in the habit of ignoring the people around you, don’t blame your tools.
That isn’t to say that social media has no downside. It definitely increases your exposure to idiocy and your vulnerability to abuse and harassment. But, just because one or two social platforms fail to address those problems, that isn’t a reason to abandon the ideas of the web, social media, or apps in their entirety.