Is Reading Overrated?
Does our very humanity reside in books – or are we reading a little too much into it? William McInnes, Nicki Greenberg, Shona Martyn and Andrew Relph consider the biggest question of the Festival with Margaret Allen.
Perth Writers Festival 25th February 2012
This is indeed a big question and one that is worth considering, but a short hour at a writers festival is probably not the place to do it. It certainly wasn’t a question that was considered at this session despite the title.
The chair started the discussion by deciding that the panel of authors and publishers were not equipped to debate the question given their professions. She shut down any possibility of anyone disagreeing with the assertion that reading is not overrated, instead inviting discussion about reading in general And yes, it was a light hearted group and yes, William McInnes (tired and bereaved though he might be) was extremely funny, and yes, it was a warm Perth afternoon but still…
I am not suggesting that the discussion wasn’t enjoyable and interesting or that the panel weren’t earnest in their desire to promote reading and I am not ignoring the comment McInnes made early in the hour that reading wasn’t overrated unless you didn’t have it, but the rest of the panel did ignore it and at no other point did anybody question the assertion that Allen had made in her introduction. I like to think I was playing the devils advocate and was not simply being provocative and was not entirely trying just to be clever in front of William McInnes – but it did stop the discussion a little when I suggested from my chair in the second row that maybe some people might think that Yes! Reading is overrated.
Reading is certainly rated very highly in our completely literate society. We hold the ability to read as the pinnacle of civilised behaviour, but debating this question within that literate society, and worse, within a small tent full of writers and visitors to a writers festival is mostly an exercise in patting yourself on the back. This is a question that needs to be debated in a wider context, in a world containing non-literate societies.
If you asked a member of a lost Amazon tribe whether he thought his humanity resided in a book he might have a different answer to ours. He might suggest that while something is gained, something may be lost by putting all our eggs in the reading basket. He might think that what you gain in knowledge you actually lose in experience or what you gain in entertainment you lose in communication. It is worthwhile noting here that we talk about authors having a conversation with their readers through their work (Andrew Relph writes about this extremely eloquently in his book Not Drowning Reading.) but sitting silently reading a book is not something our non literate tribesman would recognise as a conversation.
If we look at this question in relation to literacy rates in Aboriginal people we might ask whether they believe we over rate reading. While they are undoubtedly aware that reading is necessary in order to thrive in our literate society (in fact in many ways we have made it the ticket of entry) I expect they would argue that reading is not necessary to being human and for them, has not been necessary to survival for thousands of years. Maybe we should explore the idea that disaffected youth who struggle to learn to read may be that way because they distrust our dependence on reading and rail against the destruction of their access to story by other means.
Human beings have not physically evolved to be able to read, we just invented it and until quite recently in human history it wasn’t something that many of us did. We did, however, evolve to need story in the same way we evolved to need sugar, salt and fat in our diet. That we have bent our will to find faster more efficient ways to feed ourselves sugar, salt and fat is clear but can it also be argued that we invented writing and reading as a more efficient way to mainline story?
Somewhere around the year 300 AD someone decided to write down the words of the Bible. Whatever the motivation; to collect all the stories in one place; to prevent the loss of important messages through faulty memory and poor understanding or maybe to allow greater access, the result was to fix the stories to a point in time. The result was to transform what had been a flexible and evolving creed into a rigid dogma. It is quite conceivable that the writing down and subsequent reading of the words belonging to a religion and the strict adherence to those words which then becomes possible, may have given rise to fundamentalism.
One member of the panel is a talented graphic novelist and even though she made mention that many graphic novels and comics do not use words, nobody seemed to notice that she was talking about communication without reading. Then the panel and the audience applauded reading aloud to children (and adults) and the rise in audio books in a busy society but none of them seemed to grasp that listening to stories is not reading. Theatre, music, television, comics, graphic novels and audio books all provide ways to access story and knowledge without everyone needing to know how to read.
Listening to stories may well be intrinsic to being human but reading perhaps is not. Reading is not a goal in itself; it is simply the means to the goal of assimilating story and gaining knowledge. Is it presumptuous of us to declare that reading is the only means of reaching that goal? Teachers encourage us to read to our children as if the sole purpose is to inspire them to read themselves when in fact the point of reading to children is to feed their need for story. That they decide that learning to read is a quicker way to access story is simply a byproduct.
In this millennium we complain when our children spend too much time on the computer or texting and exhort them to go out and talk to their friends in person but surely in another age reading occupied the same place? I remember many occasions as a child and as an adult where I have spent an entire day reading, emerging blinking and disoriented from the start to finish of a novel or from study. I recall in my childhood, my mother often telling us to get off the couch, get your nose out of that book and go outside!
Besides, much of what we do on our computers and ipads is read. Reading can be solitary, sedentary and for some people a substitute for experience. I will be forever grateful for reading, which saved me from the difficulties of schoolyard interactions. But unlike Andrew Relph it was not the content of those books that helped but the fact of them. It was an avoidance technique. I looked busy; heedless and needless of companionship and an uninteresting target for bullies. I survived but I learnt to hide in books instead of learning how better to cope.
I am a reader. I am the sort of reader who has read at least 90 of the books on every list of “100 books you should have read before your eyes fell out”, So it is fair to say I might be just stirring but I think the point is that every time you hear that no one is going to disagree with a question you should automatically pause and check your pulse. I am not disagreeing that reading is important to us and to the evolution of our civilisation so far, I am just saying we should never accept that anything we humans do is ever going to be of unquestionable, universal good.