Books are dead and we have killed them

Books are dead and we have killed them

Editor’s Note: This is a column and does not reflect the views or opinions of the Daily Barometer

“I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.”

So said Kurt Vonnegut in his book “Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage.” 

March is National Reading Month, in honor of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. But this March you won’t find many readers. In fact, reading has been in decline for years, as polls show, and a shocking statistic from a study done by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2022 shows that just over 50% of United States adults hadn’t read a single book in the last year.

For some, this may come as a surprise. For others, like myself, this feels like old news: reading has been dead for quite some time now. In 2012, that staggering number wasn’t much lower, with 45.4% of U.S adults having not read a book in the last year. 

If you are a young person or a college student like myself, you may have noticed that your friends don’t read. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a friend of mine reading a book. Maybe you yourself don’t read anymore and have expressed a sentiment I hear often amongst people my age and have at times asked myself: “Why don’t I read anymore? I used to read so much when I was younger and now the spark is gone!”

My love for reading disappeared in middle school, right around the time I got my first smartphone. I found it hard for books, which are long and drawn-out and take some time to get to the point, to compete with YouTube, Netflix and social media, where the reward is earned much quicker. 

It seems that studies confirm my experience: “In recent years, less than 20% of U.S. teens report reading a book, magazine or newspaper daily for pleasure, while more than 80 percent say they use social media every day,” stated a 2018 press release by the American Psychological Association. 

I don’t even blame us; school is draining and work is challenging. Being asked to come home and read for two hours after a long day of chemistry homework or essay-writing seems ridiculous. It is much more relaxing to fall on your bed and sink into the warm and comfortable doom scroll, right?

Wrong. In fact, the Yale School of Medicine said in 2023 that “youth who spent the most time on their digital technology were statistically more likely to exhibit higher levels of internalizing problems two years later. Internalizing problems include depression, anxiety, social anxiety, somatic complaints and other concerns.” 

Conversely, the NEA and a 2009 study from the University of Sussex stated, “reading reduced stress levels by 68%, making it a more effective means of relaxation than taking a walk, drinking a cup of tea or playing video games.”

Reading for pleasure is also important for a myriad of other reasons. According to the National Library of New Zealand, reading can increase your academic performance, improve your cognitive function, help you develop empathy and knowledge, promote active citizenship, better your psychological well being and “can be relaxing and provide an escape.”

Additionally, Becca R. Levy, an epidemiology professor at Yale, in 2016 said to the New York Times, “People who report as little as a half-hour a day of book reading had a significant survival advantage over those who did not read … and the survival advantage remained after adjusting for wealth, education, cognitive ability and many other variables.”

This data doesn’t seem to matter to people, though, and I have even gone months or years without reading while knowing full well that I was choosing to opt out of what are very clear benefits. 

Statistics such as these are not going to get us back into reading. But what about our moral, educational and social responsibilities to do so?

When presented with the staggering readership statistics of recent years, Oregon State University religious studies instructor Matthew Lynch said he’s “not surprised.” 

He argues we are seeing an “individualization of knowledge” that is “driven by tech” and that the students are “cheating themselves.” 

Students supposedly come to college to learn, but aren’t putting in the work. Lynch said that you “can’t make those intellectual connections without putting in the groundwork.” 

I feel this has come with a shift in the way students are viewing the purpose of a college education. This shift is characterized best in a recent opinion piece by David Brooks where he argues that college is more than a “pre-professional training in algorithms and software systems.”

We are forgetting the importance of reading—not to mention engaging with other works of art, theater and music—as it relates to society and the culture at large.

Lynch said that when he has read he has “learned to think like somebody else.” 

In this, I believe he has most simply described reading’s utter importance: it enables you to think empathetically, to consider the position of others, to understand the expanse of great ideas that floats atop our material world. 

He also claimed that by not reading, not “putting in the groundwork,” you are taking “away from the collective learning” of the classroom. Students are “not in class by themselves for themselves.”

“They are missing out on something they are not going to be able to get back later. It’s actually a sad thing,” Lynch said. 

So I say that by not reading, we are hereby depriving ourselves of joy, knowledge and empathy. How can we—in the current milieu of mass bitterness, isolation and ignorance—promote unification, peace and humility? 

Read more. Take the personal initiative to educate yourself. You will be surprised as to how great an effect this small change can make on your life and the lives of those around you. 

After falling out of the habit of reading in middle school, it took me a long time to earn it back and I can safely say that, for at least one year in my life, I was on the wrong half of the NEA study. 

The lasting shift came for me while reading, as ironic as it is, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Specifically while reading the final monologue of Mustapha Mond. 

In this monologue, Huxley delivers a fiery argument in favor of an elitist government much like the one proposed by Plato in his “Republic.”

My feelings on the topic aside, while reading those 50 or so pages, I experienced Vonnegut’s miracle: I realized that in our world, there is a grand thought, a collection of great ideas that is interwoven into every single aspect of our lives. 

By reading this book, I got a small taste of the philosophical truth of our natural world. Since then, I have been enthralled by works of philosophy, theology and history and see these ideas play out in my life and the lives of others every day. 

The best thing about this grand thought is that it is there for the taking: anyone can read these great ideas. Though, I understand the difficulty of getting started again. 

Luckily, the hardest part is just picking up the book. The rest is easy.

This is quite true in my own life, as I have in the past often found myself not wanting to even pick up my book because the reading session will likely be “draining.”

But everytime I push past this lack of motivation, I find myself in a joyous and peaceful state of mind for the rest of the evening, a state I would not dare to describe as “draining.”

Another thing I find personally important in maintaining a reading habit is forcing myself to read every day, no matter what. 

Even if I’m so busy that I can only squeeze in two or three pages, I always pick my book up. By doing this, I believe I am strengthening my love for reading and after a couple of months, I find myself intentionally blocking out multiple hours of the day for reading. 

I also find it crucial to read books that work for you. Not everyone is going to enjoy philosophy, classic literature or history, but reading anything is better than nothing. So if you have a series you like or an author you used to love when you were younger, great, start there. 

If you aren’t sure what to read, ask a friend or professor or read one of the books mentioned in this article (maybe “Brave New World”!).

Once you have found a style, author, topic or era you love, stick to it for a while, give yourself and your brain time to build up the habit. 

Lastly, go easy on yourself. When I started seriously reading again, I was slow and found myself failing to comprehend things as quickly as I thought I could. These things take time. You will miss days and blow through chapters not retaining any of the information. But don’t let this be cause for giving up: whatever happens, just keep reading.

Was this article helpful?
Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Daily Barometer Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *