Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Are There So Many Dumb Articles About Reading?

Another day, another high-profile example of People Being Wrong On The Internet about books and reading. It's really time to stop the madness. I'm going to declare a personal moratorium on linking to these articles or engaging with them directly,* partially because giving them more traffic will only encourage them, and partially because at this point these stories just make me so tired. (This week most of the attention seems to be going to the one about boys and the one about the President.) But I did think it was worth asking, more generally, why there are so many dumb, panicky articles about what people are or aren't reading in the first place. To some extent, I'm sure I just notice them more because things about books get into my filter bubble; if I started caring passionately about chess, I'd probably suddenly notice a million examples of People Being Wrong On The Internet about chess. But I do think there are objectively a lot of these articles about reading.

And I think a lot of it comes down to the idea that books, and especially novels, have this mysterious, magical power to make people think about new things, and think about old things in new ways. Those of us who love books are now saying 1) Um, duh and 2) But isn't that good? And to most of us, it is! But to a lot of people who write these articles, all this exposure to new ideas and encouragement to think for oneself is dangerous, especially when the reader in question is someone they see as inferior to themselves (children, women, minorities) or as an enemy (a Democratic president).

If you hand a child a math book, you can expect him to learn some math; if you see a president reading a string of biographies of previous presidents, you can choose to assume that he's contemplating the duties of the office. But if they're reading novels, then it's harder to predict what they're getting out of all that made-up stuff. It could be making them think about new things, and then anything could happen. And if you already have a lack of imagination and intellectual curiosity and a deep suspicion of the other, then that right there is reason to PANIC PANIC PANIC.

* You know, for today. Until something comes along that I just can't resist. I'm not promising anything crazy here.

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