In the last few weeks I read two Star Wars novels, a collection of essays by Laurie Notaro, a biography of Axl Rose, Carrie Fisher's latest memoir, a book about the stomach disorder I may or may not have as well as three non-fiction books by Ben Mezrich. During that time period I also managed to read a newspaper nearly every day, countless magazines and, yes, a variety of news found online.
For those of you in the younger generations who may be unfamiliar, novels are like a series of pretend Facebook posts strung together to tell a story. Imagine if what your friends had to say went on for longer than 140 characters and was actually compelling. I know that it's hard to compete with "having a bad day" as far as storytelling goes, but trust me, some of these novelists have really mastered the whole multiple sentence plus a story arc thing.
Though I'm teasing a little bit, I do fear that the Internet and its penchant for short, easy-to-digest information is slowly destroying our ability to read. If you can be vaguely informed (or at least not embarrassingly uninformed) by glancing at Google News then I fear most people won't dig much deeper.
Depth has been replaced by a superficial knowledge of everything. You may not write long letters to any of your old friends, but you know a sentence or two about what every person you have ever met does every day. The same logic holds for newspaper and book consumption. We won't read Andre Agassi's biography, but we will skim a few paragraphs posted online giving us the highlights (he took meth and wore a wig).
Without reading -- the kind of reading that involves sitting for long periods of time and looking at multiple pages, not simply scanning headlines -- our capacity for in-depth understanding disappears. Reading serves as the foundation for pretty much all knowledge. Reading develops our understanding of the world, enhances our vocabulary and generally gives us something to build other skills upon.
It's possible to learn without reading (reading a book about ice skating would probably not help you actually skate) but in most areas not being a good reader makes learning much harder. Reading also allows you to learn a lot of things quickly without actually experiencing them.
For example, I neither enjoy the music of Guns N' Roses nor have any particular interest in partnering with a bunch of guys who abuse heroin. Reading Axl Rose's biography, however, gave me an understanding of both. Perhaps that's not immediately useful information, but if I'm asked a question about the derivation of "Paradise City," or what happens when your heart stops from drug abuse, I now have an answer.
Reading does not come easily for some people, but the more you do the easier it gets. If we fail to give our children the ability to read (not just the technical ability, the actual acquired skill of doing it well) then we handicap them for the rest of their lives.
It's easy to pretend that the Internet has somehow made reading less important when all it has done is make those who don't read a little harder to pick out. The prevalence of really short stories and news items hasn't made these people any less uninformed or any smarter. Instead, it has just given the stupid enough superficial knowledge to hide amongst an ocean of similarly misguided folks - none of whom are likely to have read this far anyway.
- Daniel B. Kline's work appears in more than 100 papers weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org