Monday, June 28, 2004

Do Books Make You Boring?

Cristina Nehring provides an interesting perspective on book culture in her New York Times Book Review article. She complains of the growing "self-congratulation of book lovers" that leads to book festival banners that read "Books Make You a Better Person" and radio spots encouraging listeners to "Read a book, save a life." I understand her malcontent. I am not quite sure how reading a book can save a life, and whose life does it save, my own or someone else's? And what does reading a book save a life from? Nehring argues, and I must agree, that reading in and of itself is not a particularly virtuous endeavor. Says Nehring,

By filling yourself up with too much of other folks' thought, you can lose the capacity and incentive to think for yourself. We all know people who have read everything and have nothing to say. We all know people who use a text the way others use Muzak: to stave off the silence of their minds. These people may have a comic book in the bathroom, a newspaper on the breakfast table, a novel over lunch, a magazine in the dentist's office, a biography on the kitchen counter, a political expose in bed, a paperback on every surface of their home and a weekly in their back pocket lest they ever have an empty moment. Some will be geniuses; others will be simple text grazers: always nibbling, never digesting -- ever consuming, never creating.
I don't think there is anything wrong with "these people" as long as there is no sanctimonious snobbery from them regarding their reading. When readers cease to digest what they have read and accept everything in print at face value, then, as with anything, there is a problem. Just because books aren't TV doesn't automatically make them better. "The point is this: There are two very different ways to use books. One is to provoke our own judgments, and the other, by far the more common, is to make such conclusions unnecessary." I offer that there are more than two ways to use books. Books can be a pleasurable escape and resources of information. They can be a way to learn about the world and the people and places in it and a way to reinforce whatever opinions and beliefs a person already holds. The use of books is almost as numerous as the books themselves. The mistake, the issue, is not with the books or really even the people that read them, it's the marketing of them. It's the advertising executives who think that the slogan "Read a book, save a life" is a winner. It's the fact that books are being marketed like air freshener or shampoo, the answer to all of life's pesky little problems. Books, unfortunately, are not exempt from commercial consumerism. And as much as I worship them, books are not sacred objects and readers are no better or worse than anyone else in the world.