I’ve been an avid reader since I learned to read, which was early in my life.
I like to read, and talk about books, and write about books, and recommend books. And I like to hear from other people about books.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how much talking-about-reading is packaged in a sense of superiority.
Book are a form, a method of passing information from one person to another.
They’re a lovely form, and I like both the constraints and the creativity of the form. But there’s nothing inherently superior about books as a method of sharing or receiving information.
If I read a poem on my Instagram feed, is it less worthy than if I’d read it in a book?
If someone tells me a story, is it less meaningful than if I’d read it in a book?
If I learn how to propagate herbs from cuttings in a video instead of a gardening book, the information is the same. If I use an app to identify a mushroom instead of looking it up in a field guide, the result is the same.
If I identify emotionally with characters, experience catharsis through their experiences, does it matter whether I read it, watched it, or listened to it?
I almost always prefer books over movies, but that’s not because the book is inherently better (though I have, in the past, argued that this is so. I recant. I was wrong). I prefer the book over the movie because I prefer, generally, to read written text rather than watch videos or listen to audio.
It’s a format preference, not a value judgement.
Books aren’t superior to other forms of information sharing. But reading is often used to imply superiority, to intimidate, and to establish intellectual dominance. And that’s not just unkind; it’s dangerous.
Reading books does not mean you are capable of thinking clearly. Even writing a book does not guarantee any sort of reasonable thought process.
Reading a lot does not mean thinking a lot, or learning a lot, or even knowing a lot.
Reading does not guarantee understanding of what you’ve read, as demonstrated by hordes of mediocre white guys who read Aurelius once and now use stoicism to excuse their incredible lack of emotional intelligence.
Reading does not guarantee intelligence or contextual understanding or perspective. It can help build those things: if you’re open, if you’re curious. But reading books is no guarantee of your mental state or capacity. All it really shows is that you have the physical capability and the learned skill.
Attaching superiority to books because they are books is a way of gatekeeping information. And it is a potent tool in class warfare. Guess who has disposable income for books? Guess who has more leisure time to read? Guess who gets exposure to books at an early age?
If we attach moral, social, or intellectual superior to reading books, we’ll often give people who own books, quote books, and talk about books more credence than they merit. And we’ll be prone to dismissing important information if it isn’t contained in a book.