Opinion | Are the intellectual benefits of reading overrated?4 min read . Updated: 17 Nov 2019, 09:57 PM IST
The exalted spot of reading can be traced to the fact that it is the oldest method of accumulating information
A few days ago, a girl rose from a large audience and asked Shashi Tharoor to give “a new word for us to learn", as he was “a man of vocabulary". Tharoor, as he sipped elegantly from a tea cup, said: “I will give you a very simple and old word—‘read’." Even though he mentioned reading as a way of improving one’s vocabulary, no one was left in any doubt that he was emphasizing one of our most sacred beliefs—that reading makes you intelligent, that the act of reading itself is a form of intelligence, and that reading is the most superior way to absorb knowledge. Through reading, he “developed the kind of mind that God has now blessed me with… so my only advice to all of you is read, read, read…" There was applause. Ordinary people rewarded his message through their greatest tribute—it went “viral".
His is not only a common view, but has the finality of a settled, common truth. As a result, a vast number of people live in private shame. They are not readers. They find books boring. They may read out of professional or academic compulsion and, on occasion, they may read an article that might be useful, which has “a takeaway", but generally they cannot bear to read long articles; they will struggle to reach the end of this short column, even though I am trying to trick them right now into believing it is all about them.
There are others who are actually interested in reading, but they cannot focus; their minds are too active for the stillness that reading requires.
Among the vast millions of non-readers are highly successful people—industrialists, and CEOs and surgeons and techies and actors and even directors. Actually, even writers. One of the great secrets of our age is that most educated people in the world do not wish to read or cannot read well. Many of them are intelligent, just as many well-read people are not very intelligent.
Reading appears to have the qualities of an ability and, in this light, a vast number of people in the world might have a reading disability. On occasion, I see non-readers, long oppressed by ceaseless tributes to reading, cursing the state of affairs and declaring that reading is not everything, that there are other valuable forms of acquiring knowledge. But generally, people do not have the courage to say this because they fear they will be perceived by others as not only uninformed, but also unintelligent. Most of them, even though they do not enjoy reading, force themselves to read a book as a form of self-improvement. You can see them in public spaces, peering into a book for a few seconds, then looking up at the slightest distraction. You can see them on a flight almost never turning a page; their minds have wandered away to more beautiful places.
Actually, even readers of one genre demonstrate a reading disability when faced with books from other genres. Men who enjoy thousands of pages of dense military history lose their ascetic powers of concentration when they are forced (by love) to read a literary novel. People who enjoy Jane Austen may read a popular history of calculus exactly at the speed, and the level of comprehension and retention, of a semi-literate.
Even within the area of a reader’s interest, he might find it hard to focus.
The literary deity, Gabriel García Márquez, struggled for several years to read a celebrated novel whose first five pages generations of readers have struggled to get past —Ulysses by James Joyce. But, like many of us, García Márquez thought something was wrong with him and not the book. Later, “as a docile adult", he managed to complete the book. “Docile" is an important expression. The young who are gifted with good minds may not have the docility to read. All through my early youth, the best-read boys were terrible writers; they still are. They filled their vacant heads with the works of other people because their own minds produced nothing.
Beneficiaries of reading, like writers, and people who are good sponges of the intelligence of others, are unsurprisingly the evangelists of reading. But what every seasoned reader knows is that a good book is rare to come by. In that way, a book is no more sacred than other human creations.
Kindle’s indicators of mass reader-behaviour point to the fact that most celebrated books are abandoned very early—like A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking, and Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. And that list of “transformative" books you posted on social media is mostly a lie.
Books might be over-venerated, but is it the same as saying that reading is overrated? Is reading a “good" book superior to watching a good film or a good documentary? There is a widespread notion that reading results in a deeper retention of what is absorbed. But there is no evidence to support this view. From what I have seen, retention itself is an ability. People who retain a lot from reading also demonstrate higher levels of retention from watching a documentary or a film. And many good readers retain very little of what they have read, just as they retain very little of what they watch.
Some people absorb knowledge better from sounds and visuals; and others better from calm reading. The exalted place of reading can be traced to the fact that it is the oldest technique of accumulating vast amounts of information, and to the fact that writers, who have an outsized influence on the world, have promoted a wish as a truth.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’