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Against Reading

Against Reading: why life is better spent doing other things.

Ferreus. Hi, Procopius. What are you up to?

Procopius. Hello, Ferreus. I’m just catching up on my reading.

Ferreus. What magazine is that?

Procopius. The Economist. It’s a bit stilted, but it helps me understand world affairs.

Ferreus. I looked at it once. It was pretty boring.

Procopius. Well, we need to find out things by reading, even if it’s a bit difficult.

Ferreus. Perhaps you do – but I disagree!

Procopius. You’re joking again. Wait, are you serious? What do you mean?

Ferreus. What I mean is that reading is overrated. I talk to many people in my line of work, as you know, and those who read are as ignorant as those who don’t, in fact, even more so.

Procopius. You’re talking nonsense.

Ferreus. Hear me out. I think reading is a waste of time, if not worse.

Procopius. Seriously? Come on, is that what you tell your children?

Ferreus. Not now, for they have to read to get through school. But then school, and the educational establishment, require children to do many things that they don’t need in real life. I’ve experienced that many times over in my own life. Who needs algebra now? Or history, that old series of dates? Perhaps if you want to be a contestant on a game show, fine.

Procopius. Are you saying you don’t subscribe to magazines, or own any books?

Ferreus. You’ve seen my house, haven’t you?

Procopius. Of course. It’s a nice house, very large. I remember your holiday party there.

Ferreus. Well, do you remember seeing any books, even in my study?

Procopius. Now that you mention it, I don’t. I know I saw a very large television, a computer, and some prints on the wall.

Ferreus. Exactly. I don’t own books, and couldn’t be bothered to own them.

Procopius. You might read things on-line, or e-books.

Ferreus. Not at all. I’ve found that reading only dulls the mind. It certainly isn’t necessary for success in life. Videos and television are much more exciting, imaginative, and creative.

Procopius. You’re being ridiculous. You mean to say that authors, great ones from the past, have nothing to say to us?

Ferreus. Perhaps they do, but that does mean I should read them? I could always listen to an audiobook while I’m driving to work, or even better, watch a short movie about one of their works. That saves time, and gives me the basic idea. How many copies of War and Peace do you think sold last year – or were even borrowed from the library, if the library had a copy! Let’s face it, Procopius, you’re old fashioned, and can’t help being so. That’s why you like books. You read so much that you no longer pay attention to what’s happening around you. No one reads anymore, or needs to. In the new society, new economy, we learn by watching and listening, from all those videos you can make more quickly than writing things out. And they’re more dramatic and imaginative. Look at the movies being made, too, with all that great and creative animation. Reading is tedious and unsocial; it’s out of step with the modern world. Even news sites, CNN, Fox, the Washington Post, even the old New York Times, they all have videos now, to learn what’s happening in the world.

Procopius. I’m not sure I follow you. How do you even know what to watch? There’s a barrage of information. Doesn’t it make you feel enervated?

Ferreus. “Enervated”? You mean “confused”? I could ask you the same question: how do you know what to read? Look, everything we need to know we can watch. I love sports, as you know. I watch basketball and football, both pro and college. Do you expect me to read about the game when I can see it? How would I sound to my friends, if I talked about the game from the sports pages? And even “sport pages” sounds old-fashioned. I watch the games on TV, or highlights on the sports channel, and if I want to know commentary, there’s plenty of that on TV, too. Same with politics. Why do we ask politicians to debate on TV, if we wanted only to read about their positions? Here’s one of my basic complaints: reading is deceptive. Don’t laugh, it’s true. Reading is deceptive because it is lifeless. You can’t see what a speaker is really saying by reading words; you can see far more by watching faces, and listening to how voices sound. That’s why we like our politicians to perform for us. It’s entertaining and also revealing. So you have to admit that you learn more from not reading; certainly a large-screen TV is better to know about the world than any of your books.

Procopius. I don’t know what to say. Authors, unlike film directors or videographers, can bring you with their words inside a character’s thoughts and feelings. And don’t your children like to read?

Ferreus. Again, words: how can they be trusted? As for my kids, they don’t like reading as much as they like video games. And one more thing – those games remind me of something. When was the last time you saw an instruction manual, or saw anyone reading one? We don’t need reading to know how to make things work. We play with them. My twelve-year-old can teach me more about my smartphone in an hour than I can learn by reading about it. And from what I understand about voice-control and smart devices, we’ll need to read less and less. We speak to these devices, or they see us, and they will speak to us. We’ll train technology and it will help us run our lives, too!

Procopius. I’m going back to my magazine. Let me say one last thing: I think your kids will need to know how to read to do well in college, so tell them to keep it up.

Ferreus. OK, have fun! But I’m not sure about your point about colleges. We’ve been looking at them. What I have found is that they are on board with me; they understand the ways things work now and they all talk about “experiential learning.” It’s not so important that students read as it is that they have internships, get involved in their community outside college, and attend performances. They learn by doing, not by reading. Does your Economist talk about that? And by “collaborating,” too: there’s another buzzword colleges love. Can you collaborate while reading? That is why almost all libraries have more action in their coffee shops than in their shelves, and more places for students to talk and work together. What does that tell you about how important reading is?

Procopius. I’ll think about it. And I’ll need to think up some more arguments.

Ferreus. Let me know – and I’ll let you know about our next party. I’m off to the gym.

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