Why we’re disinterested in reading
Reading sucks. In 2017, when I was in the ninth grade, I remember classmates who boasted about how they could finish 600-page books in six hours. One friend would mention Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno,” another friend talked of John Green’s “Paper Towns,” while some friend from the end of the room shared insights from Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
I got it, they liked to read. Fiction books entertained them and non-fiction books enriched their minds.
What I didn’t get was why all of that mattered — why an inclination toward reading great books was characteristic of learned men and women.
And why would it matter? After all, for me, reading was too bothersome. In terms of entertainment, movies and short videos provided me with stories comparable to books. No one had to plunge into the realm of self-help to learn life lessons if one just had common sense — or YouTube. Reading seemed outdated, old-fashioned, and impractical. Between reading tedious books and watching convenient videos, the choice for any teenager of my generation was obvious. The tedium was simply too much and the pay-off seemed unsatisfactory.
But 2017 was four years ago. Big changes can happen within a year. What more when four years have passed? In many ways, my views on this matter have been turned upside down. What changed?
For one, I realized how school sucked the life out of the activity of reading. Think about it. Many students like me disdained reading because it felt like a chore. Students are conditioned to have a reward after reading — read to get grades. Take grades out of the equation and you have an empty task that robs you of your precious time.
This is where Goodhart’s Law comes into play: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Are good grades the end goal of education? Most students would say no, but this may often be mere lip service. A more honest answer is that of course grades are the end goal, even if they shouldn’t be. Learning should be the aim of our reading. To become better individuals capable of thinking clearly and acting justly is the true goal.
Evidently, I hated reading not because I was predisposed to do so, but because I was conditioned to. School made reading a chore. We got bored. We weren’t inspired. Our reading was a mere requirement. Learned men and women didn’t read for such a reason; they knew all too well that books were vessels for life-altering, culture-shaping ideas. And reading was the tool to reach them.
This is why I now read.
“The fact that you can’t remember things doesn’t mean that you haven’t been shaped by them.” Doug Wilson, a theologian, said that. And I could not agree more. It captures what I like about reading. You don’t have to remember everything. Unless you are a genius, trying to remember everything is a foolish task. What you must strive for is that life-shaping experience. Absorb the sentences that you look at. You will soon find the words you read molding you into a different person, a better person. The best part is that you don’t even need to remember that they did. Over time, maybe after a couple of months of consistent reading, you will see how different you have become from the recent past. The authors you have read have somehow shaped you in ways you never thought of.
I don’t mean to paint an overly romanticized idea of reading in the time of a pandemic. First, reading, like most good habits, is hard to start. But know that it will be worthwhile. Second, there is the reality of the pandemic. Hardly any article is written these days without reference to COVID-19 (including this one). Burying oneself in reading in these trying times may come off as too disconnected from reality. However, I think it isn’t.
Reading is a means to an end. That end is the transformation of an individual into a human being that can think and function properly in society. If you’ve been paying attention to social media in any way, then you know that we live in a highly politicized online space. We see arguments left and right. It pays to be a reader in such cases, so one can argue smartly, intellectually. Some people who decide to voice out their views end up showing that they are uninformed or merely culturally conditioned. Note that this may happen on any side of the political spectrum, or whatever sides there are in a particular issue.
Gaining insights from great texts helps us shape a coherent worldview, a conceptual model of how the world works. With it, we can make sense of things and interact with people in a more cogent manner. And a critical reader, if one has read properly, would have built a fairly sturdy mental framework to use.
So, reading is not old-fashioned and pointless. Far from it. My ninth-grade self was dead wrong. We need to be readers now more than ever.
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Stephen Suba, 19, is a freshman philosophy student at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. He likes speedcubing, basketball, and steaks. He dislikes raw veggies, flying cockroaches, and barking dogs.
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