Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Books: Why read?

I know, I know, I'm doing two things today that are a bit...wrong.

First, I'm going to use a blog post to encourage you to read materials that are longer than blogposts.

Second, I'm going to use the Internet and electronic communications to encourage you to read "dead-tree" books. 

You are correct: there's a bit of hypocrisy going on here. Log off, go read a book for an hour and then come back and tell me.

First, why read long form? After all, there are plenty of soundbites, short posts, even the news is broken down into fairly short stories. 

Realize this: I'm not saying you should never read shorter things. A newspaper article. A Twitter thread. Your friend's Facebook post about their trip to Aruba and Jamaica. However, your attention span and mental processing becomes tuned to the average what you normally read.

So if you normally are reading news articles and then sprinkling that with Tweets, telegraphs, or bumper stickers, your abilities will stretch as far as that requires. Much like your biceps may become excellent at picking up 12 pounds if you pick up 12 pounds every day, but struggle with 20, if you read 5-minute snippets daily, you'll be good at 5 minutes. 

And multiple "reps" are more about toning than about building up--reading 12 5-minute items (or worse, 60 1-minutes!) does not have the same mental strengthening effect that reading 1 30-minute item would have. In truth, it helps your brain learn to shallow switch back and forth through many things, and you do not learn to discern what matters are important and what matters are not--everything bounces through so quickly you miss that understanding. 

Neil Postman hits on this very well in Amusing Ourselves to Death. It's a book worth reading ;)

Want a quick test for whether or not you are sliding into that trap? How do you feel when the news puts too many murders, wars, and disasters between you and the sports and culture events? Are you hitting the website looking for Taylor Swift and annoyed to see Ukraine in the way? You might be trending toward a problem. Oh, and if you always avoid news sites so that you can always miss the "bad stuff," you have probably gone even farther.

Reading long-form helps train your brain to discern what is, and is not important. Further, it helps you distill information as you read it. I have (and like!) some of the shortened versions of books. I have a *lot* from Optimize.me that takes some of the bigger books in productivity, etc., and distills them into 6 pages (3, front and back). It's a speedy way to consume information, but it does not help you retain it better. And, you're assuming the distiller got the right parts. Basically, the TL;DR helps of the current era are just like the Cliff's Notes they're patterned after: better than nothing but often like taking a prime steak and grinding it up to make a quick hamburger. You're losing a lot.

So make the time to read long-form.

Second, make the effort to amass, and read, actual printed books. Yes, get a Kindle. Read on e-ink. Get Logos Bible Software, read/research through those tools. For that matter, get all the books digitized and uploaded in PDFs so that researchers throughout the years can access them. (I mean, seriously, let's get old newspaper archives digitized from microfilm and accessible; there is equipment for that and student workers who need hours and digital tools to help with it. There is no reason to limit historical research to those wealthy enough to travel to large libraries and spend all day reading microfiche.)

But at the same time, you should still acquire and read the printed word. Why? Well, take this blog as an example. It's digital. I can go back and edit it at any time. And, sure, if you know how to parse the metadata, you can see whether or not I backdated that prediction of a Trump win in 2016 (I did NOT make any predictions) or if I added a post or even use Wayback to, perhaps, find one I deleted. 

If you don't, though, or if the other tools do not support seeing behind-the-curtain, what do you do when someone is changing the information? How do you even know?

This is why I would argue for digitization of historical materials, like newspapers and such, through PDFs. These are not impossible to change, but they are harder to change.

Plus, it's far easier to see the footnotes, the references, the linking between information. 

Generally, for me, if I am looking at non-fiction material, I would rather have several editions of a print book than an evolving e-book or website without a chain of reference of what changed and when. Additionally, yes, it costs more to create the print book. Which should result in a stronger effort to get it right.

There are some notable exceptions--at least 4 biographies I've seen in the last decade or so were not only shaded by political and theological agenda, but also missed important points of accuracy. This happens when the author does not bother to engage the primary sources himself.

(Which he could have done without visiting the relevant archives if those sources had been digitized, but they are not. And he did not.)

Now, fiction, generally, I'm more okay with digital but even then, you want books with reference copies available in print. Many of the great works of literature are fiction, after all--can you imagine if you could not determine the original text of 1984 or A Handmaid's Tale? Or Moby Dick? You could do a find and replace and make the whole thing about Moby Duck.


It's always better to read than to not read, but I think you would do well to make sure most of your reading is long-form and at least some of it is coming from printed, dead-tree books. 


PS: Audiobooks? Yes, if you are constantly on the go and can listen, do so. If at all possible, find a way to make space in your life to also read with your eyes if physically able. Again, read what you can, some approaches are better than others but even a cheeseburger has more nutrition than a cardboard box. 

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