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Getting Back to Reading

Getting Back to Reading

YouTube has become the lazy-man’s library. It is easy to sit and do some menial task (dishes, laundry, even a video game) while listening to some decent “educational” channel on YouTube. I myself have become seriously guilty on this point; it’s impossible to guess how many hundreds of hours I have spent listening to Christopher Hitchens, Stefan Molyneux, Jordan Peterson, Sargon of Akkad, Millennial Woes, The Justicar, Devon Tracey, and several dozen others.

And these channels have certainly been gifts. Styxhexenhammer666 provides more relevant content and better analysis than any mainstream media outlet I can think of, excepting maybe CSPAN on a good day. Dave Rubin and Joe Rogan host better and more informative interviews than anyone, including CSPAN on a good day. And if current events and politics aren’t your cup of tea, there are channels for other interests too. Thousands of them, in fact. I follow a channel whose sole purpose is to document, test, and evaluate different styles of mouse traps.

This wasn’t always so. People once read newspapers, magazines, and books for their information, only occasionally tuning into the the nightly news for a novel presentation of what they had most likely already read about… assuming they had a television. Now the new video and audio mediums are everywhere, with a shockingly high quantity of content. They are not merely supplementing the written medium; they are replacing it. Reading, like watching or listening, takes time, and we only have so much of it in a day. I haven’t completely read a book in quite some time now, (although I’m about a quarter of the way through half a dozen), and observation indicates that my experience isn’t an anomaly. Americans appear to be having a harder time finding the patience or interest in reading.

But something qualitative — not merely quantitative — is lost in this transfer of attention from the written word. Reading and writing promote reflection and a critical lens when evaluating content, in a manner that speech, through its empathic, emotive nature, generally does not. Written media strips the information down to what is essential (writing that does not do this quickly becomes irritating), and allows the reader to naturally pass through a paragraph in all variety of non-linear pathways; re-reading sentences, scanning for key-words, even double checking one assertion against one made two paragraphs back. By contrast, visual media presents us with a deluge of critically irrelevant visual cues, such as the presenter’s clothes, the studio, visual effects, etc. In combination with the naturally more linear timeline of the presentation, and we can see why visual media is naturally more difficult to evaluate analytically. While not as egregious, even audio media has some of these distracting and subjective qualities (the nature of the reader’s voice, for instance).

As a result, spending less time reading, and more time listening and watching, gives us less reading practice, which means less practice in the skills used for reading and in the critical, cognitive muscles exercised by reading. If we assume that the media we consume will incline us by habit towards patterns of thought suited to that input, then we may be losing something valuable as we begin to read less.

Vox Day describes this phenomena not merely as useful advice, but also as a tool for helping identify intellectual charlatans, who tend to prefer speech to writing:

Writing forces you to articulate more precisely. There are many things that sound pretty good, but once you put them down on paper, you realize that the argument has holes in it, you start to see the problems with it. It is much easier to baffle and dazzle and bypass people’s reason when you’re speaking to them.

Perhaps ironically, the very person Vox Day is criticizing in that post (Jordan Peterson) holds a similar viewpoint on writing:

The best way to teach people critical thinking is to teach them to write […] because there’s no difference between that and thinking. And one of the things that just blows me away about universities is that no one ever tells students why they should write something. It’s like ‘well you have to do this assignment.’ Well why are you writing? ‘Well, you need the grade.’ No. You need to learn to think. Because thinking makes you act effectively in the world, thinking makes you win the battles you undertake, and those could be battles for good things. If you can think and speak and write, you are absolutely deadly. Nothing can get in your way.

And of course, Hitchens echoes the same perspective:

…if you can write, you can talk. You can talk if you can write.

Any writer will tell you that the first secret to writing well is to read a lot. The more reading, the better: good prose for discipline, bad prose for motivation, and off-the-wall, random text for inspiration, style, and subject-matter.

If writing is deeply related to critical thinking, as Peterson suggests, and if reading is critical to writing, then it would seem that our cultural listing towards audio-visual media to the exclusion of the written is a turn for the worse.

This is not to say that speaking is not a good skill in its own right; it certainly is. There is a reason that Plato and Cicero wrote in emulation of natural conversation. But rhetoric is a different skill-set than critical thinking, even if good rhetoric tends to favor the true position, all else being equal. It is easy and natural to pick up rhetorical skill that covers over a deficiency in the quality of one’s thinking, and a sufficiently talented and charismatic speaker may go through much of their life without ever having to really think about what it is that they are saying. Especially if they are funny.

In medieval Europe, education centered around the “trivium:” in order, grammar, then logic, then rhetoric. The order matters because grammar is the foundation for logic, and logic is the foundation of rhetoric. Rhetoric without logic is hazardous, just as logic without grammar is simply nonsensical. But our world is moving into a more rhetorical world, and is doing so faster by the day. Videos, ads, podcasts, most smart-phone content, all of this bypasses the reading which once ensured an understanding of grammar and at least prepared people’s minds for logical thought. We read less, and we think less. We don’t think; we react.

Technology is making addictive media more ubiquitous, more convenient, less expensive, and in many ways, actually difficult to avoid (my work requires me to carry a company-issued smart-phone). The temptation is to simply allow the powers that be to reach out through the technology around you and to consume as much of your attention as possible. The opportunity cost to this is, needless to say, quite expansive, but we can miss the opportunity cost of reading because the visual and audio content we replace it with might seem functionally identical. What’s the difference, after all, between reading a book, and listening to the same book on Audible or Overdrive?

It may not feel like there is a difference, but there is. Reading and listening use different parts of your brain, engage different thought-processes, and over time, result in different kinds of minds. Given a choice between a mind that can only speak and listen and one that can also read and write, I think the desirable option is obvious. The only question is how much time we are willing to make in a day to read the classics of philosophy and literature. My guess is that years down the road, when those of us who first grew up immersed in the internet are middle-aged, we’ll be able to see a direct correlation between habitual reading and general life success.

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