the activity of reading

Last Friday, two different articles appeared simultaneously in two major news outlets about the same subject – the death of the library. Or more rightly, the death of books in the library. One was about the tossing of books at a prep school in Massachusetts, the other about the “future” of libraries, though with an argument as old as the hills. Being a librarian, I read these with some interest and thought about them more over the passing days.

Much of the talk of the end of libraries has to do with the idea that books are an outdated mode of communication. We simply do not read books anymore. We read online (via the Internet, our handhelds, or our Kindles). Who needs a book? They simply sit on the shelves and take up space. The threat to education that always arises at the suggestion people don’t need a library and its books anymore, this is always countered by the notion that READING is the important thing. Books are just the vessel the words once came in. That’s over now.

Sitting on the hillside yesterday, having my lunch and – shockingly! – reading a book, I started to think about this idea. Is there any difference? If I were reading the same “book” on my iPod, would it be any different? My answer… yes. For one reason, my iPod does a whole bunch of things. I can read a book on it and at the same time listen to music and check my email and watch a video on YouTube. It’s great! And if I’m trying to become absorbed in the latest story about the decline of my profession, this multi-tasking likely doesn’t matter. 

Or does it?

Is there any difference between watching a football game on television at home, watching it in a bar with a bunch of friends, or watching it from the seats at the stadium itself? I would argue that there is. And I think the argument for reading without books follows these same lines. The thing you are doing – the activity you’re engaged in – may well be the same in any number of settings, but you cannot deny that the setting does factor into the experience.

There is a physical aspect to reading that plays a role in the experience. To sit on the beach totally absorbed in your paperback copy of “The Perfect Storm” is simply not the same as reading it from your laptop on an airplane and NOT simply because it’s a story about the sea. To sit and hold a book, to turn the pages, to take in the words of the story – because this is the only thing a book can offer you – gives focus. To turn the last page, gives a sense of finality. To turn the corner down and mark your place for the next time, makes the experience real in ways that the virtual book – with all its technological advancement – simply cannot do.

I agree with those who say that such absorption is not always important in reading. I skim things all day long and without detriment to my work. But over time, if this is the only way I read, I find I’m skimming through my entire life. I can’t think a deep thought, focus on a problem, mull things over. I can’t have a lengthy conversation. I can’t sit and do one thing without anxiety. 

I realize this is merely a “daily muse” and I’ve no evidence to back up my theory, but I’d offer that there is a physiological aspect to reading that is influenced by the way the words are coming to us. It’s not just reading you teach when you give a child a book. You teach them to sit and to focus and to pay attention to something. You teach them to take in the story and to let the story take them somewhere else. I imagine this develops all sorts of neuropathways quite different than those developed in other activities.

What will happen to the kids at the prep school who read without books? Time will tell, I imagine, though I fear at a pretty big cost to them.

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