The importance of reading long, difficult, serious books
I’m finally taking the plunge and getting an e-book reader, either a Sony Reader or a Kindle. My birthday is next month and I’m asking my family to contribute funds toward the cause. On a regular basis I read so very many things in electronic format, both for my professional writing activities and for my personal daily diet of articles, essays, blog posts, etc., that the ability to unchain myself from the laptop and do some of this reading in a more user-friendly format — nicer on the eye, more accessible in the moment (sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, for example); in a more traditional book-ish manner, that is — will be a blessing of biblical proportions.
That said, I still agree so very passionately with the following words from law professor and best-selling author Stephen L. Carter, whose full essay you really must read (see the link after the excerpt):
Books are essential to democracy. Not literacy, although literacy is important. Not reading, although reading is wonderful. But books themselves, the actual physical volumes on the shelves of libraries and stores and homes, send a message through their very existence. In a world in which most things seem ephemeral, books imply permanence: that there exist ideas and thoughts of sufficient weight that they are worth preserving in a physical form that is expensive to produce and takes up space. And a book, once out there, cannot be recalled. The author who changes his mind cannot just take down the page.
….A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection.The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing — and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas. An important lesson of serious reading is that ideas need not be correct to be important.
….Indeed, we might say that democracy in its modern form emerged from the idea of written-ness. Absent the codex [the ancestor of what we think of as the book], ideas would still be the province of a privileged priesthood. The Internet, by hypothesis, will spread ideas to everyone. But if the form of presentation no longer signals permanence and eternity, if we are no longer encouraged to work our way through difficult texts, then we will likely see the decline of democracy and the rise of something else.
— Stephen L. Carter, “Where’s the Bailout for Publishing?” March 17, 2009