What Has Become Of Reading? The Fluid Image Of The Book And Its Reader

Picture of By Cindy Zheng

By Cindy Zheng

When was the last time you picked up a book? The act of reading has gone through many changes throughout the years – from being viewed as leisurely to compulsory and now, performative. It further depends on which of the various kinds of media you read – a comic book is perceived a little differently than a newspaper. But if reading is essentially diving into the black-and-white world from another person’s view, why is one allegedly more intellectual than the other? Why are classics highbrow but chick-lits lowbrow? Let’s discover how the numerous facets of reading are perceived today, and where this beloved activity is heading towards.

When asked about his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie simply replied: “Reading.” For others however, literature is just a “hot new accessory”. I guess there are just different types of people when it comes to reading.The two extremes might be those that have never willingly touched a book in their lifetime (aside from the required Kafka read in school and the following trauma which might have affected their current attitude) and those that hail books as their only way to escape their current life and responsibilities. In-between, there are those that claim to love books, but never really read, unfortunately.

I mostly belong to the latter. Many will relate when I write that reading was my very first vice; I’ve loved it obsessively growing up, but can only rarely find enough time for it anymore. Looking more closely, while it’s true in some ways, how come I can spare some time to scroll through my Instagram feed or binge that show the other night, but not for picking up one of the many books on my dusty shelf?

Now that we have many other forms of entertainment, media that has minimized our attention span, it possibly diminished the attractiveness of flicking through black-and-white pages. But is reading a book really that different from skimming online articles, scrutinizing tweets or listening to podcasts?


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The antidote to mental resignation

Frankly, yes, quite fundamentally different. Consuming digital media is much less demanding than reading a book. Things like multi-screening, e. g. watching a film and being on social media simultaneously, are not possible with a book as it requires your entire attention. “Reading is the work of the alert mind”, according to The Marginalian, “a power unequalled to any other form of communication”. It’s not just a bookworm praising her obsession, the benefits of reading have been studied extensively. Results show that literature lovers have increased empathy and longevity – reading adds an extra 23 months to your life. It’s the way we still derive knowledge from the past, building up on wisdom over centuries.

On the other side, data on people that do not read are also used; morbidly enough, the prison industry plans its future growth through the percentage of illiterate children. Being illiterate is often seen as a stigma, which doesn’t help in changing that correlation. In the U.S., adult literacy rates are the same as 25 years ago, with 1 in 6 adults being illiterate. While there are certainly many factors at play, it might help if the image of reading and the reader is reflected upon.


An elitist endeavor

Readers are often perceived as more stuck-up and more arrogant, elegantly termed book snobs. Reading has become competitive, people making resolutions to read a specific number of books and an increased interest in classics and non-fictions.

These developments are not wholly negative, but it can refrain people from buying books they are actually curious about, force them into skimming texts just to appear well-read, and make them feel insecure about not understanding or appreciating a prestigious title. But reading should be more than just a vehicle to acquire a certain status. Not only does it make it more enjoyable, but because it encompasses much more than ancient philosophical texts, experimental poem collections and prized self-improvement titles.

While it would be fine if these are on your reading list, it’s a problem if you choose quantity over quality. The main motivation to read should be for fun, not just out of desire for self-improvement. The hype of apps like Blinkist, instead of offering a solution, emphasize how reading has become increasingly shallow. Maryanne Wolf wrote about the danger of skimming instead of reading, saying:

“When you lose the novel, you lose the ability to go into another person’s perspective. […] This vulnerability to demagoguery in all its forms – of one unanticipated and never intended consequence of a mode of reading that doesn’t allow critical analysis and empathy.”

A huge reason for skimming is not only time, but interest. If you are truly engaged in a story, you will not skip ahead. But experiencing this so-called flow is different for individuals. For some, they will only derive it from certain kinds of books that might belong to the so-called ‘genre fiction’, a category for books that are written to fit into a specific genre — such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, and horror.

And well, genre fiction is the low-brow counterpart to ‘literary fiction’, which is more likely to be critically acclaimed, the kind of books that go on to win awards. But distinguishing them as high vs. low forms of books is extremely counterproductive, and simply untrue.


Chick-lits, comics and creepypasta

From my opinion and experience, reading literary fiction grants me similar amounts of knowledge and pleasure as manga, Japanese comics, has. However, not everyone shares that same sentiment.

Comics have been “decried as fostering illiteracy”. The beloved science fiction author Neil Gaiman disagrees, calling it ”snobbery and foolishness”. Forcing a child towards specific books will not magically fire their love for the written word. Much the opposite, it will stir their annoyance until reading becomes unpleasant and therefore an activity to avoid.

Comics or graphic novels can be a gateway drug for reading in general. In contrast to their belittlement, combining text with visuals, following a visual narrative actually makes reading more complex and challenging to readers, encouraging the improvement of comprehensive abilities

Other genres deserve a justification as well; horror is not simply to entertain in a morbid way, they act as a reflector of our fears and anxieties, helping us to process them. Reading exaggerated and distorted scenarios can offer us comfort, not because of its accuracy, but because we are in control and aware of the fact, in contrast to real life, that the horror will end. Yet, those enjoying horror are often frowned upon.

The same goes for readers of romance novels that are universally reputed as badly written and superficial, especially if they are by female authors. Erotica has an even worse reputation – simply the term “Fifty Shades”evokes ridicule and distaste to some. While the novel did face serious and justified criticism, the prejudice surrounding erotic or romantic novels in general is often baseless.

Because just as much as Jane Austen is a gifted writer of many of the most well-known classics, she is also a great chick-lit author.

In contrast to popular belief, reading sexually explicit content is associated with being emancipated and progressive. It can make readers more courageous in their own life and poses as a medium that women are less conflicted about enjoying, compared to straight-up porn. Ironically, sex as depicted in smutty fiction is often perceived as more authentic than in the filmed format.

While this actually isn’t an essay about getting you to read some smut, and there has been anecdotal evidence of its negative effects, denouncing the genre in its entirety is groundless. Every genre has its black sheeps, but generalizing them due to one of them becoming popular is ludicrous. Because just as much as Jane Austen is a gifted writer of many of the most well-known classics, she is also a great chick-lit author. And genre-discrimination is only one of the issues the readers must deal with.


The fault in the written words

For the most part, books are written by humans (surprise!) – as representative of the inner worlds of authors, they are shaped by their surroundings and characteristics extensively. For example, it turns out, no matter how imaginative an author can be, most of them set their books in environments they are familiar with. Reading about small towns, suburbs or big cities is enticing, but problematic if they are heavily concentrated on very specific places and cultures. 

Another issue is the male bias in publishing. Before the 1990s, the gender ratio was never even close to being balanced. Looking at the New York Times bestsellers, women are consistently catching up, from lows such as 14% in 1975 to highs of 38% in 1970. Only after the 1990s did women steadily occupy more than 40% of the list. And publications are known to be male-biased, a count in 2019 resulted in only 2 out of 15 houses publishing a few percent more female authors, the rest was male-dominated, with 6 representing less than 40% women.

Diving into the world of another’s mind is exhilarating – yet, as much as we gain from it, we cannot forget that authors are also just humans with their own faults, and that authors of any gender can fall into the trap of gendered language and a biased worldview.

Furthermore, the language used in novels can be frustratingly lazy and biased. The Pudding analyzed 2.000 culturally relevant books for their gendered descriptions, comparing adjectives used to describe body parts of male against female characters. Interestingly enough, hair is twice as likely to be mentioned for women characters than for men. For bodies, arms were sixteen times more likely to be described as slender for women, while male arms were mostly written as strong and muscular. Faces were pretty, beautiful, and small for females, while men were handsome or dark. 

Diving into the world of another’s mind is exhilarating – yet, as much as we gain from it, we cannot forget that authors are also just humans with their own faults, and that authors of any gender can fall into the trap of gendered language and a biased worldview. More than avoiding certain authors, it is important to broaden the selection by considering things such as ethnicity, gender, and historical context.


From page turner to screen scroller

Another worrying thought in terms of books is digitization. Reading is one of the only popular non-digital forms of media left next to newspapers. This analogue approach is part of their charm, because their content is fixed, nothing interactive or addictive added.

From a more philosophical stance, Herman Hesse has stated in 1930 already that technology may evolve further, but reading will remain “an elemental human hunger”.

While Neil Geiman claims that reading books digitally doesn’t matter much, that content is the most important thing, it only seems true to a certain degree. Reading on-screen is associated with shallow information processing, and the emergence of more easily entertaining media often overshadows reading in the digital format.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad. Platforms such as Wattpad, an online self-publication and community for emerging authors, reaches up to 90 million monthly users who are mostly under-40 years old. It suggests that reading will not go away anytime soon, even if we do face significant changes.

From a more philosophical stance, Herman Hesse has stated in 1930 already that technology may evolve further, but reading will remain “an elemental human hunger”. As more and more entertaining inventions will appear and satisfy people’s needs, books will “win back in dignity and authority”.

This early prediction is likely to be correct; although digital technology is part of the problem, it can be part of the solution, too. For example, The Guardian lists some tips to follow if you’d like to restore reading as a hobby, from following book accounts on social media to trying audiobooks and reading on your phone. 

For myself, seeing and listening to other people in their adoration for literature inspired me to pick up books again, and in an authentic way. Because no matter where your motivation stems from, the act in itself should remain holistic.


Enlarging your worldview

Reading is fundamentally different from watching a film because instead of witnessing events and things happening to people on a screen, a reader is immersed in the story that solemnly consists of a range of “twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks”. In Neil Gaiman’s words, “you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes“.

It’s unparalleled in fostering empathy, as you live through the observations of another person, experiencing places that you have never been to. Sometimes, you are so deeply stuck inside a book, immersed in another world, that once you wake up from it, you feel like you have returned from somewhere, and we know that every trip brings a change from within.

And that change can be brought even further: especially fiction shows us vastly different worlds that often bear similarity, but never reality with our world. They can inspire us to reflect, inspect, and finally protest our current reality. It can give us the idea that the world as it is, might not be as fixed and set in stone, but that there can be a better future ahead.


Continuing the eternal effort to get people to pick up a book

In Germany, a well-beloved and used campaign of libraries and bookstores is “Schock Deine Eltern – lies ein Buch!” which translates to “Shock you parents – read a book!”.

While this is one strategy, it is also worthy to view books from a more positive side. Reading can be your only escape in a harrowing situation, a lifeline so to speak. Debbie Millman compared them to dogs – as one among a few on this planet that just want to be loved, and will love you back generously, requiring very little in return.

I further like to draw a romantic comparison between a book and a body – the wrinkles and marks that accumulate over the years are a sign of age, but also of the life and love they have experienced. The more they are able to show, the more they are likely to have been through. My favorite book for sure has been through a lot. No matter what books are to you, if you view them as purely fun, as a friend or teacher, who cares what others might think of it.

To truly strip ourselves from those kinds of judgements, reading a book for how it makes you look, to make you seem smarter, to avoid them to not seem dim-witted – we should embrace it, and with it, all the other prejudices that deter us from reading.

For a final, wistful note by Rebecca Solnit: “A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another”. Whether I am indulging in a 200-year old text by a British poet or the 3000th chapter of the new Detective Conan manga – let’s read to enjoy the minds of others, and respect the worlds they have brought to life

Cover: Cindy Zheng

Edited by Carolina Alves

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