Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Pretense of Reading

Last month, I took issue with the notion that reading is always an unalloyed good:

There's an assumption that reading is always good and anyone who reads is smarter and therefore better than those who don't. The truth is that it's not that you read, but what you read. I run across a lot of people who like to talk about how much they read. But when you ask them they read, it's usually Stephen King, John Grisham, Grafton, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, or the latest dysfunctional family offering from the Oprah book club. Nothing wrong with the products those folks turn out. There definitely is a place for them. However, if that's all you read, you're hardly lifting yourself up to a higher intellectual plane.

In yesterday's Denver Post, David Harsanyi uses a release from the National Endowment for the Arts on the increase in "literary reading" in America to make a similar argument:

Reading, in and of itself, holds no extraordinary significance--or, rather, no more than watching a smart television show (and there seem to be many of them around these days) or surfing the Internet. In fact, one could argue that by picking up a heartbreaking work of staggering garbage like the "Da Vinci Code," you can effectively knock 20 points off of your IQ.

We understand that all books are not created equal. There are, in fact, books that peddle completely nonsensical and sometimes dangerous ideas. Take, if you will, one of the best-selling books of all time, "Little Red Book" by Mao, or anything ever written by Michael Moore or Patrick Buchanan.

That's not to say that there aren't countless top-notch historical tomes, literary masterpieces and engaging biographies on the market right now. It's merely to say that "we" don't bother to read them very often.

"Here's the Story: Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding My True Voice," by Maureen McCormick--to not-so-indiscriminately pick a book--debuted at the No. 4 position on The New York Times Best Seller List last year and I still see stacks of it at my local library.

Having been raised on the common-sense wisdom and idealistic energy of "The Brady Bunch," Marcia's uplifting story of surviving in a callous, post-Brady era was quite the read. But, inarguably, I could have gleaned more educational information scanning the back of my cereal box.

One of my pet peeves with the strident anti-television folks is that they often operate under the assumption that anything you read is automatically better (and better for you intellectually) than anything you could watch on TV. As Harsanyi notes, this is utter balderdash. It's not "that" you read, it's "what" you read. Likewise, it's not "that" you watch TV, it's "what" you watch that matters.

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