Here in my dotage, coasting through the gentle days of retirement, I spend much of my day reading. It's an irreplaceable pleasure in my life, and has been so since adolescence.
But such a pleasure is increasingly curious in today's world, and I find that lamentable. For whatever it's worth, I'd like to offer a defense of books.
Real books, let me hasten to add. Yes, e-books have their uses. For example, they’re convenient when travelling. But they haven’t come close to replacing their paper cousins, as was commonly predicted. And for this there are various explanations.
One of these is that e-books are somehow less "immersive", less able to capture and hold the full engagement of the reader. This notion is consistent with research showing that much of digital reading is actually skimming, and furthermore that memory for details is poorer with digital than with paper text.
This is credible, but I think there's an additional explanation. There’s something more satisfying about paper books, and that is just their . . . physicality. It's the heft of them. Their texture. The actual turning of pages.
And even their accumulation. The steady metastasis of bookshelves throughout the home is itself a kind of satisfaction. Now granted, much of that is the compulsive pride of the collector.
But there’s more to it than just hoarding. John Updike captured it when he suggested one’s book collection “externalizes the mind”. The shelves constitute a kind of visible history of one’s thinking. If you are one of those people for whom ideas are as real as things, the appeal of such a visible history is evident. It sketches who you’ve been. It shadows who you might become.
But issues of paper versus digital aside, it is of course the reading itself that's most important.
It is a counterweight to contemporary life. That life, as you well know, is frenetic. Everything is quick. Most things are noisy. Distractions abound, particularly online.
Reading can be palliative for this stress. It develops slowness. We sit quietly for a while. We unplug. Unless we've made the mistake of reading on our cell phones, we escape the ceaseless, trivial chatter of those devices. We encounter no messages, no advertising. We think our way into something.
Along that way, we benefit greatly. If we’re reading fiction, we’re likely honing empathy and appreciation for human complexity. If reading nonfiction—more common for me these days—we’re likely building conceptual structures and factual knowledge.
And as you’ve probably read, we may be building better brains. Although not yet proven, there is at least some evidence that mentally challenging activities throughout life may help buffer the depredations of dementia.
Well, fingers crossed.
But of course all these benefits are unpersuasive for non-readers, a demographic that seems to be growing. Fewer people read for pleasure these days, in any format. For them the appeal of books is rather odd.
For the rest of us, the appeal is rather obvious. It’s right there on the page.