Why reading counts

I read an article yesterday about how the standard of everyday writing has deteriorated over the years. The writer made the point, probably correct, that a young soldier of the American civil was a more articulate and capable writer than most people today. Why would that be? Well, he hypothesised, it’s because people don’t read as much as they used to, and don’t learn and absorb language in its written form as once they did. Today there are so many alternative means of communication, where once there wasn’t. The written word has been diminished by TV and the internet, and corrupted in large part by social media. It matters less these days what a man writes, it’s what he says that carries more weight.

This was an academic writing. It was a lucid, well-considered essay. He wondered aloud if it mattered so much, after all, if this is the day, the culture, what value is there really in knowing how to construct an argument or sell a point in a piece of writing? Should we still bother to teach our children the basics of essay writing?

Naturally, as someone who writes, and as someone who went through school at a time when reading was priority one and the ability to write clearly was drilled into us, I resisted that. I do often feel a bit of an outlier in today’s society, particularly in reference to younger generations. I read, and always have. It’s educational, but it’s also very much a pleasure. As for writing, well, it’s how I express myself. It’s my medium. A world without it seems pretty bleak and sad.

From a practical viewpoint maybe he had a point. It was a surprising opinion from someone who exists within the cloistered halls of academe, but then, the world is not a university. Ultimately, what serves out children best?

For some reason I recalled this article as I took Rigby for a walk before. As he always does he tugged at his lead, sniffing here and there, pulling in one direction before stopping at some fascinating unknown until I have to tug at him. My mind wanders, free of boundaries. I had in me still the post I had written earlier, subsiding, but still quietly roiling. That, and remembrance of the article got me thinking.

Perhaps it’s a fine articulation of the world as it is today – a world of strident opinions, a swiftly moving and unsubtle world foreign to the world of our grandparents, when everything was slower, when people read as much as they watched TV, a world before the internet.*

I believe this was much the beef of the Unabomber. I’m not going to stand in the way of progress, especially when I’m such an avid consumer of it myself. What is lost though is some perspective, and lots of nuance. It’s the loudest that get heard most, and the most persistent.

This is the problem with the decline in writing, and particularly, reading.

An educated mind takes its cues from different sources. It consumes information from a variety of mediums and voices. A truly educated mind takes in all the information and weighs it prudently before making an assessment. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the test of a first-rate intelligence was the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind and still function. The older I get the more I realise how true that is, and how rare.

If society no longer reads then it can only take in ‘present’ data. It doesn’t read history, or philosophy, or even some of the great novels, and so misses out on the lessons of, balance and perspective such reading engenders. The prudent weighing never occurs.

Readers are discerning. To read is an active choice. We select what we choose to read, and our eclectic decisions both reveal our thinking and shape it. Take that away and all we are left with is passive listening. There’s no choice in that. It’s noise we absorb even if we elect not to listen to it.

If our information intake is limited by only what is spoken to us then the reasoned and moderate will be drowned out by the loudest and most sensational. It is the most persistent we hear, regardless of truth or value – a truth or value we are less able to discern because we have lost that education. Opposing ideas are shouted at us, presented as finished arguments and not points of conjecture. Who resists that? Not enough.

This is why writing is important, and more so reading – it’s the free and democratic exchange of ideas, mostly without cant or motive. It’s context and perspective, and ultimately wisdom. Best of all, an educated mind makes for an independent soul. Surely that’s something everyone should aspire to?


*It’s a post for another day about how the medium creates sensation. Bad things always occurred, and often horrible things, but we didn’t know it, or never saw it because there were no cameras, and only ever found out about them well after the fact. These days these things are brought into our living room, or our PC. There’s an immediacy there never was, which creates expectation and a ghoulish voyeurism. So be it, but I believe many things happen now only because there is a medium to capture it. Without witnesses these acts have no meaning, and in another time would not have occurred. With a ready audience available now we have gruesome set-pieces created for political effect. Modern terrorism is all about that.



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