Why We Ought to Read

Today, very few people feel the need to read the dusty, classical texts of ancient writers. Or perhaps, a more accurate account may be that they are unable to do so, what with the zeitgeist of contemporary life being one where people are overloaded with societal duties. It seems as if people today are often forced to multitask to incredible extremes. As Nicholas Karr points out in his book “What the Internet is Doing to our Brains,” we are becoming increasingly inept at focusing on one particular task.

Technology has been no savior in this regard. As a matter of fact, as Karr has noted, technology is the prime culprit in preventing people from detaching themselves from society and engaging in leisurely activities.

So then, what do I mean by leisurely activities and how does it pertain to reading? Well, the concept of “leisure” envisioned by say, Hannah Arendt, is a deliberate act of “contemplation.” So thus when we are robbed of time, robbed of time to reflect upon ourselves, robbed of time to read, then we are losing the time we can spend to “contemplate,” or to be inquisitive about the world around us. When men are robbed of their ability to be inquisitive, they are effectively blinded of their ability to see the faults of the established zeitgeist and are washed away with the times.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Ray Bradbury had pointed out in his book “Fahrenheit 451,” published in 1953, that though technology shaves time to do chores, it also erodes peoples’ time to contemplate—for example, as dressing up for the day becomes easier, “the man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour.” (p.74).

“Fahrenheit 451,” one of the most well-known novels depicting a distopian society, tells of a chilling alternate history where firemen burn books. The story unfolds as a fireman proudly proclaims, “Monday burn Millay. Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then bury the ahes. That’s our official slogan.” (p.15)

As the story unfolds, the protagonist, a fireman by the name of Guy Montag, begins to have doubts about whether or not burning books will really increase society’s aggregate happiness, as he had been taught by his superiors. Montag is led to realize that books must have enormous significance when an old woman commits suicide upon learning that her books must be burnt. In a sudden bout of enlightened discourse, Montag proclaims, “I thought about the books. And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up. A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper […] we need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” (p.68-69).

Yet Montag was challenged by another character who reminds him that “the public itself stopped reading of its own accord […] in any event, you’re a fool. People are having fun.” (p.113) In other words, if the public didn’t care about grave issues, then wouldn’t it be better to let them become carefree of all societal woes?

Ray Bradbury was not the only author who imparts this question upon the reader. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author credited for creating the jazz age, has one of his characters point out in his most celebrated work “The Great Gatsby” that “the best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool […] everything’s terrible anyhow, everybody thinks so—the most advanced people.”

So then, the question comes down to whether or not the public ought to read books and become aware of societal woes, or remain ignorant?

Ignorance is bliss.
Or is it?

One thing that we can observe is that the cause for reading books is not a lost cause. As a matter of fact, many of Japan’s topmost business “elites” have read classic texts consciously aware of what the books’ significance. For example, Katsunobu Onogi, well-known in Japan as the former president of Long Term Credit Bank, was reputed to have read books voraciously. As Gillian Tett, former bureau chief in Japan for the Financial Times reveals in her book “Saving the Sun”—an account of Japan’s failure to modernize its financial institutions—that “In London, Onogi happily roamed around secondhand bookshops, devouring European and American works by Weber, the German political scientist, John Milton, the English author, and Charles Lamb, the English essayist who had written about the dangers of financial speculation and asset bubbles back in nineteenth-century London.”

So then books, through their ability to store the collective knowledge of mankind, have the ability to give us the wisdom to make better decisions.

Once again, in “Fahrenheit 451,” Montag is made aware of the significance of books when Faber, an academic-in-hiding tells him,“the books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember Caesar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.” (p.112)

Even the most seemingly infallible of us make mistakes. But we can lessen the severity of these mistakes and make better decisions and thus create a better system of informed decision-making handed down from one generation to the next if we decide to retain our collective knowledge through books—which are tangible relics of our experiences, and arguably our greatest treasure.


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