You don’t have to read the book. [On The Contrary]
Happy Book Week!
Here’s why you don’t have to read books anymore.
I’m kidding, but only a little. Like many people who choose to write things for the Internet that exceed 140 characters, books are and have always been an important part of my life. Books are the ultimate comfort form of entertainment, because they not only pass the time better than any other diversion, they give the sense of enriching it as well. Of course movies and television can be enriching and informative, but there was never a deliberate campaign aimed at young children that offered free personal pan pizzas for watching more T.V. (Thank you Book It!)
Throughout my early childhood, our school always pressured us to read, which was really no pressure at all, since I loved to read. I was a little annoyed when they were pushing for Beverly Cleary while I was much more interested in Tolkien, but somehow we got by. Then in high school we seemed to hit the brick wall that was standardized testing. My high school didn’t read. We weren’t often assigned books, and those we were assigned were always short and usually more suggested than actually explored (I don’t ever remember discussing anything longer than a short story other than for extra credit). What time did we have to read novels when my rural Western Pennsylvanian school district was busy trying to cut costs and get more funding by forcing us to take standardized tests constantly? (This irks me more in retrospect and was a reason that I was against Dubbya’s “No Child Left Behind” before it was cool to be against it.) Besides, we were mostly being counseled to go technical and trade schools anyway.
In desperate hope to force myself to have more of a literary foundation for college, I took every advanced English class that my school offered senior year. It was in one of these classes (AP English, no less) that we were looking at Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities. My teacher actually said to the class at one point that we shouldn’t read the book. She went on, “It’s really only important to have a nodding acquaintance with the big works of literature. You don’t have to read them. It’s fine to just glance through the Monarch Notes.” (She had something against Cliffs Notes.)
I remember being astounded and completely offended at the time. Being the self-righteous, big-mouthed 18-year-old I was at the time I’m sure I told her off and then proceeded to dismiss that teacher as both an educator and a human being. I would never have to value anything she said again.
After over a decade, with a Bachelors and Masters degree to my name, I now have to accept the fact that she had a point.
Hear me out, bookworms. First of all, my high school English teacher was completely in the wrong for saying that to a class of college-bound students who were hungry for more knowledge and desperate to get some of the great books of English literature under their belts. Her statement was akin to a guidance counselor telling a student to smoke pot at least once to understand what it’s all about. It’s good advice, but not from that source.
The point my teacher had is that it is often difficult if not impossible to make it through the shear volume of reading material that is out there, and growing daily. If you’re a slow reader like me, fuggedaboutit. My bookshelves are stacked to the point of bursting, my Kindle is filling up, and my table has a tower of magazines that I keep assuring myself I will get to sometime next weekend. And that’s not counting any Internet reading (one has to make time to keep up with Fierce and Nerdy, after all).
Beyond the magnitude of material to simply get through, there is the matter of recall. In less than 10 seconds, can you recall the last three books you’ve read and what they contained? If you’re like me, it’s a little more difficult than it should be, and if I can recall the books I usually only remember the salient points of those books. This isn’t just novels, but non-fiction as well. I remember a few scenes or facts, but most of it is gone and I would have to refer back to the book to bring it back to mind.
I’ve done a test where I have heard an author give a long interview about a book they have coming out (this is more pertinent to non-fiction) and have then read the book. Within a few weeks after finishing, I thought about what I remembered of the book, then listened to the interview again and found that all I remembered from reading I could have gotten from the interview. Now this could be that something about hearing the author speak made a stronger connection in my mind, or it could be that the interview really covered all of the main points of the book and the rest of the book was just filler, but either way the my mind only held onto a small bit of the book. (This is a good note to authors sitting down to speak with Terry Gross—I know it’s hard, but save some of the good stuff for your readers).
It is no longer as important or valuable to be well-read as it once was. Most things we sort of absorb through cultural osmosis. I’ve never seen The Dirty Dozen or the original The Manchurian Candidate, but I know what those movies are about and could rattle off some details about them. I have that “nodding acquaintance” my English teacher described. The same can be said for a lot of great works of literature. And for what I don’t know, it is not easier than ever to find out. I don’t even have to go to a library to find the Cliffs Notes (or Monarch Notes) I now have them at my fingertips on my iPhone (yes, there is an app for that).
All of this will not stop me from reading full books from cover to cover for the rest of my life, nor should it stop anyone else. Reading books is one of the great pleasures in life, and always will be. But the idea of forcing oneself through entire books just to say that you’ve read them might be and antiquated ideal. I’ve reached the point that I never thought I would, in which I have started a book, gotten some way into it, lost interest, and then put it down, never to finish. I used to feel guilty about this, but as it’s happened more and more I’ve come to terms with it. If you write a 600-page volume, you better make it involving to read for at least 550 of those pages. If not, I’ll just stick to the Cliffs Notes.
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