• Glennis McCarthy

Do Not Read Gentle

If we stop reading it will mean the downfall of society. Sustained, concentrated reading is not only important, but in many modern texts, it is what keeps people from self-destructing. The warning signs have been exploited and explored by writers since the early 1950s when society first latched on to the comforting glow of the boob (tube). As technology continues to advance, so will our disinterest in reading books. Reading will continue to become less and less important until we are a half-informed society of anxious, confused people.

Lynn Venable captured the fear of the un-read and unknown only a few years after televisions entered most homes in America, with her 1953 short story Time Enough at Last. Focused on a single character, Harold Bemis, whose only wish is to have uninterrupted time to read a book from cover to cover, she takes the downfall of society theme to the extreme with a nuclear explosion. Bemis is down in the bank vault when it happens; he is the sole survivor. Venable has saved Bemis, a reader, killing the anti-reader, symbolically depicted by his wife, Agnes.

So too do we see this theme in children’s literature. In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, our title character is an impossibly young genius with the capacity to read whole novels in one sitting. She loves reading and is ridiculed and bullied for it by her parents, two television-obsessed jerks. In one of the more horrible passages, Matilda’s father destroys her copy of John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony in front of her eyes. In the end, Matilda triumphs, and her parents are all too happy to abandon her to her teacher, an avid reader named Miss Honey.

Finally, consider Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy. In it, society has devolved into a world of morons led by King Moron who is a reality star. (Sound familiar?) We see this future society as they happily watch a single-frame, two-hour movie of a man’s posterior. The most popular show in the year 2505 stars a poor schmuck repeatedly getting kicked in the jewels. Idiocracy’s main character, Joe, who has been in suspended animation for 500 years only to wake up to this nightmare, frantically tells his partner to go back in time and tell people to read a book.

Every day we read for basic survival. Then, on our devices, we read snippets and blurbs, scroll and skim, and sometimes only have time for the headlines. This is not the reading to which these stories referred. I found an article on Refinery 29 in which, a woman named Sadhbh O’Sullivan swaps her phone for a book for one week. I read this article on my computer. In the middle of a sentence, just as I was engaging with the text, a full-screen ad popped up, screaming at me to take the reins on my financial future. Now I am thinking about my financial future. Will my child be able to attend college? Will we be able to retire? I am panicked, I can barely finish the article. In fact, I want to quit reading, and I do. I scroll to the bottom of the text where she makes the point to prioritize what feels good. The irony! I read half of the article and all I came away with was a bad feeling. How is that even considered reading?

Real reading can heal. Bibliotherapy, popularly defined in Caroline Shrodes’s 1949 dissertation, is the practice of helping patients to feel comforted or providing them with solutions to their problems by “prescribing” a book in which the characters are dealing with a comparable situation. The right book can reveal, heal, and help us learn how to help ourselves. Even prisoners are allowed to have books.

In this BBC video, author Maryann Wolf notes, “There is nothing less natural than reading. Reading is an acquired set of skills that literally changes the brain.” She goes on to explain that reading exploits a principle of design in the human brain that allows it to make new connections…it begins afresh in every new reader. We are not born readers; we must learn to love to read. This is the premise of Idiocracy: enough non-readers pro-create to the point that they eclipse and wipe out intelligent readers.

In the same video, author Cressida Cowell says that reading brings three magical powers: creativity, intelligence, and empathy and that reading for the joy of it is one of the two key factors in a kid’s later economic success. An empathetic, creative, smart society of successful people? Sounds like science fiction.

Bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud reminds us that reading puts our brain into a meditative state, slowing our heartbeat, calming us down, and reducing anxiety. But these benefits depend on deep reading. Otherwise, we are not able to negotiate meanings with the author and to construct new meaning from the text. The deep reader focuses on the author’s message, on the ideas she is trying to convey, the line of argument, and the structure of the argument. The reader makes connections to already known concepts and principles and uses this understanding for problem-solving in new contexts. (Hermida)

Humans have a strong survival instinct, which is why stories about the end of society will always exist. But reading a book is not running from a bear. Today, we are taught that success means being in constant motion. Reading feels yielding. It cannot catch our food or protect us from a nuclear explosion, and it is boring to watch. It might feel like a waste of time. But if we have the will to live, then why not the will to thrive? Is it because we are not born with the ability to read? Reading is about creating the world we want to live in, and the one we want to leave for future generations. At the end of Idiocracy, Joe, the smartest man in the world, is now President. The narrator says that Joe did not save humanity, but he got the ball rolling. Let us get the ball rolling. We must read, and we must read fiercely and with purpose. To read is to live.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” -Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s

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