The Problem of the Modern Reader

I opened the New York Times Business section today, and saw an article on Kindle increasing readership. Amazon states that people buy 3.1 as many books as they did before owning the device. It would seem that the Kindle is increasing peoples desires to read, which most people would call a good thing. This is a bit deceiving. The fact of the matter is, is that Kindles are more or less for people interested in owning a gadget, then they are in reading. Otherwise they would see that the Kindle is pretty much unnecessary.

It is obvious that someone would read more once they bought a Kindle. Someone would also listen to more music after they bought an iPod. If one were to not use it, why would one spend an asinine amount of money on something one wouldn’t use? Wouldn’t one have already realized they wasted $250 on a glowing book with a battery? It seems people forgot reading is free if you just go to the library and have some patience.

I read an article recently that detailed a young girl who downloaded the Twilight series onto her Kindle, and the library reporting that the availability of digital books may just save the institution. The fact is that on demand television, movies, music and books makes people uninterested and flippant if they cannot get access to anything in the world immediately. I can see the demand system working for movies, television and music. Those three things can mostly have a time limit of two hours, and you can generally do other tasks while listening/watching. The benefit for such short-term culture is evident. But a book? What plausible reason is there for needing a book or article immediately? This makes me contemplate what kind of relationship people engage in with books.

I do not understand what sort of advantage a Kindle can offer, aside from convenience. I don’t see why someone could not wait an hour or a day to find a magazine article or a novel. You can’t physically write in the margins, dog-ear a page, throw it across the room if you disagreed (well you could, but unlikely,) or glance at what a stranger is reading. It is engaging and promising to see what someone is reading. It can start a friendship or a romance. Sherman Alexie discussed. the idea of digitized cover art on the back of a digital reader, which besides looking cool, would be pretty awesome.

And this is the one nefarious advantage I can see with a Kindle, is that nobody can tell what you are reading, unless you asked them. I was speaking to a friend about this, and she mentioned that she met a woman with a Kindle and thought it was wonderful. I told her I am pretty sure it is a modern conveience, designed so people don’t have to embarassed about the low-quality books they are reading. She told me she in fact asked what they were reading?

“So which Dan Brown book was it?” I asked. She burst out laughing.

“How’d you know?”

What the reported increased in readership isn’t stating is what the people are actually reading. Take a look at the Kindle Store Best Seller List. The highest placer that I could comfortably call literature is Sherlock Holmes at #29, which i could surmise may have something to do with the upcoming feature-film starring Robert Downey Jr. Machiavelli’s “The Prince” follows immediately after and somewhere farther down is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But no high-brow challenging stuff. I don’t really expect that, as much as I would expect it to place on the New York Times physical best-seller list. The Kindle wants you to continue buying books, they don’t give half-a-shit if it has a shred of cultural merit.

The fact is that Amazon and the entire publishing industry is ultimately a business. Thus, the Kindle reader perpetuates the problem of the modern reader. That it is now an act of consumption and the majority of our society has begun to regard reading as entertainment or fun. This may sound awful, but the books truly worth reading, initially aren’t enjoyable. It is very tempting to quit. The brain, or more specifically the part of the brain dealing with reading comprehension, is a muscle. It must work and sweat to expand. Otherwise it will be languish and weaken. Good reading really is work. I don’t want to read some of the books I should read, but I am always thankful I put my shoulders down and read it. The lessons learned in these books come up in life on a near-daily basis.

This problem doesn’t plague the modern music buff, as there is a cavalcade of alternative and indie music surrounding you. The art-house theaters and film critics have plenty of auteurs making quality films. However this may be a disadvantage of the medium of books; they take more time and effort to absorb. You have to think.

But sometimes people want to read when they don’t want to think. It is perfectly understandable to have trashy books around the house to kill time. But this is no excuse to ignore challenging work. Dave Eggers published a pretty sharp discussion on this in an introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of the meta-challenging masterpiece “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. It proposes the duty of the modern reader, whether or not we must read this ambitious and challenging work. It is an interesting question, likely to be probed at a later date, considering Foster Wallace’s suicide last September. It is also interesting to note that Foster Wallace implores the reader through an AA group to continue “Coming Back” and to “Not Give Up.” It becomes somewhat clear that Foster Wallace is talking to the reader and not the characters. He knows what he is doing is difficult and it is tempting to quit.

The reason that books only come out on the beach, or an a Sunday afternoon when you have jack-shit to do, is because reading has been nominalized into a form of sensed obligation. Thanks to the remants of a cultural instinct that one should read. people are still compelled to put on their New Years Resolution’s to “read more.” People should read more. However reading today is often something that is basically flipping pages of simplpe prose, as an apparently productive way to pass the time. This is a pacification of this instinct. It is the easy way out. And like most shortcuts, easy reading can be detrimental; consider this Einstein quote “Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” I imagine that Einstein is referring to reading as entertainment, that serves as a distraction rather than a stimulant. And if one, thanks to the Kindle, has the ability to disguise what they are reading, then the deserved embarrassment will dissipate. People will just read more crap, and think they are doing their part as a cultured adult.

It may be easy to pass me off as old fashioned or that I have a high standard when it comes to reading. Both may be true. But I am happier with a higher standard, regardless of whatever personal disapointment follows. The high standard comes with a proportional level of enjoyment. If you know a lot about any certain subject, whether combustion or Russian novels, you appreciate well-crafted work on a higher level when you see it. The idea of “serious” and “easy” reading is about as senseless and pretentious as it gets, but it necessary for distinctions. But one should not confuse the pretensions of a distinction, with the perceived pretension of a work. Most “serious” writing I read is about as unpretentious and mundane as it gets. It can even be fun.

I am an optimistic person. I hope that the Kindle will motivate people into reading more. But to a further extent, I hope that reading more realizes what truly turgid shit they are reading sometimes. I hope it gets people to explore the world of contemporary and classic fiction. If you are a person who is in need of a spark to remember why good books make your life a better thing, I highly recommend “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett. You can read it in an hour, and it will rekindle your faith in reading (pun intended). But if the Kindle also provides a framework of thinking where reading should be easy and entertaining, it will likely take something external for someone to make that jump, much less if their scope of reading is limited to suggestions by Amazon. It will be a truly happy day when I see someone reading Mann or Gaddis on their Kindle. I mean when I have to ask them.

But please, if you want to read more, consider buying a lamp and a nice chair before buying a Kindle. It’s a lot cheaper and a lot more practical.

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One thought on “The Problem of the Modern Reader

  1. Rachel Mathias

    Excellent, sir. That just energized me.

    The kindle Bestseller list just made me want to puke. Truly. Tolstoy #71.

    I attempted to discuss Mann with several people this week. If only they knew who he was, let alone anything of The Magic Mountain or of Naphta and Settembrini. However, despite my unending disappointment with the lack of readership in our society, we must 1. continue to read 2. continue our ongoing dialogues about said reading and 3. continue to ask other people what they are reading (see #2).

    Reply

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