Assessing the reasons why so many people fail to pick up the paper.
A heuristic worth living by: the greatest investment you can ever make is in yourself.
It stands today that the cheapest, most accessible, and least painful method for self-investing is through books. I invest in myself daily through reading, and I know I am primed to see sizeable returns on the time and money employed.
Yet many people do not read. They choose to deal in externalities and react to what life throws at them. To continue the investing parlance, these people lack the foresight to plan ahead, to lay the infrastructure, and to fund the R&D that will increase the odds of their own future success.
Why is this an issue? Why read at all? I believe in potential. Of people, companies, and countries. We should all try endeavour to be our best selves, and reading remains a prime method for an individual to do so. For those of us who do read, the benefits appear self-evident. Yet it is worth reflecting on them here.
In doing some research, one specious claim I encountered was that you are more likely to become financially successful if you read. One author interviewed 200+ ‘self-made’ millionaires and noted that 88% of them read for 30 minutes or more every day. The assumption heavily implied being that if you read more, you were more likely to be in this top percentile of earners.
While I am dubious of this statistic — a tiny sample as it is, not accounting for various biases, and not grappling with the correlation not equalling causation question — I appreciate the sentiment behind the argument. I would not be surprised to learn, if such a study were possible, that there are proportionally more millionaires, billionaires, and leaders in various respective fields that read than from the average population.
Why would this not surprise me? Because reading increases your human capital. By which I mean, it provides a host of benefits that make you more valuable and productive to the economy, both through your increased self-care/worth, and through the acquisition of functional skills and knowledge. All of which improves your competitive odds over your peers.
So what are the benefits? First, reading improves your memory, provides mental stimulation, and has been linked to the prevention of dementia, stemming in part from the mental workout your brain is given. This also serves to improve your concentration and focus, which is vital given the gradual decline of our attention spans across society over the last decade.
Second, it helps to increase your vocabulary, which contributes to your ability to tell stories and improves your overall self-expression. You learn to appreciate a well-crafted narrative, or a strongly reasoned argument, and this can begin to reflect in your own speaking. In effect, you become a more interesting person to be around, more able to hold a conversation across a variety of interesting topics with ease and confidence.
Another advantage so often overlooked is also the most fundamental. Books offer mentorship from some of the greatest minds human history has to offer. Often in their own words. They are the platforms that allow us to stand on the shoulders of giants.
Furthermore, you can find support and understanding with any problem or seemingly intractable issue that you face in life. To find evidence that you are not alone in your struggles can be of great comfort to many. So why not learn from others’ lessons, mistakes, and advice with your troubles? It seems obvious when spelled out as such. To quote a favourite line from Thoreau’s Walden:
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book? The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life.”
A final benefit is an improved emotional intelligence and an increased capacity for empathy. By stepping into the shoes of different characters and historical figures through books — actively using your imagination to position yourself in their situation and mindset — you learn to appreciate others’ viewpoints. Your world is no longer centred on your lived experience alone.
As Neil Gaiman says of the greatest fiction works available to us, they may well be lies, strictly speaking, but they are “lies that tell us true things over and over.”
As you learn to better understand others’ feelings, drives, and emotions, not only do you comprehend your own feelings better, but your judgement of character is honed. In short, you become a closer reader of people. In a social and professional scope, an increased capacity for appreciating a different view to yours, and being able to express your opinions more succinctly, persuasively, and clearly, is of great boon to those of us willing to put in the time to read.
Taken together, who on average will contribute more to our society? Those who can focus for longer than the average; those with an improved memory; those who can express themselves clearly and succinctly, crafting stronger arguments and better narratives; those with more empathy and emotional intelligence; those who remain curious and want to understand more of the world around them; or those who choose not to read? The answer is clear.
So why do people choose not to read? There are clear mental, social and professional benefits to the practice, genuine enjoyment notwithstanding. So what are the strongest arguments against picking up a book?
One line of reasoning goes that books are an outdated medium of information transfer. Whatever can be learned in a book will undoubtedly be available online. When there are pages of content, courses, videos, wikipedia entries, podcasts and online pdfs, the book no longer remains as infallible a touchstone as it once was. Even the language of the internet implies it is a successor to the book, with its innumerable web pages and our ability to bookmark favourite websites.
This argument has some merit. As repositories of information, absolutely the book was outdated. Hence the disappearance of Yellow Pages and Who’s Who books, and rightly so. Indeed, as a complement to reading, the internet and its various offspring are invaluable in the overall goal of learning and understanding the world around you. A podcast while you are driving, or a video after a long day of reading at your work is a combination of mediums that is greater than either option alone.
Where the danger lies in this argument however, is in dismissing books and reading entirely, as some are wont to do. I argue that the internet is too vast to replace the book. Describing the internet with the language of the book is to call the Grand Canyon a ditch. If you know where to look, the information is there. Yet therein lies the problem.
For better or worse, publishing a physical book has a much higher barrier to entry than creating a web-page or article online, which both limits the sheer volume of information and voices wanting to be heard, and which somewhat assures a certain level of quality for publication.
A book, unlike the internet, is a specific longform meditation on a narrow subject. The author, possibly an expert in their field, has already filtered, sorted, and amalgamated the key pieces of evidence and information in crafting their specific argument for that book.
You could, in theory, find every scrap of information online that the author used, and yet it would not draw and direct the information together into a reasoned and persuasive argument. I would rather have an expert guide me through the subject I wish to learn than simply being told to google the answer.
There is depth to a book, layers of reasoning and information that offers us a chance in practicing our critical evaluation — another skill that remains under utilised in all but the longest-form of articles online.
A book also provides a rare reprieve from more screen-time in our day. I would not recommend you spend all day reading a book, nor all day in front of a screen. Diversity of approach remains paramount. Furthermore, if your medium of consumption becomes a computer screen, you are both consciously and subconsciously less focused, just as a phone on the table offers a subtle option of distraction even if it remains untouched.
Other weaker arguments include:
- “It’s boring. It doesn’t interest me.”
- “I can’t stay focused on it. It’s too hard for me to just sit there.”
- “I would, but I don’t have the time.”
Let us quickly address these each in turn. The first, that reading is boring.
“It’s boring. It doesn’t interest me.”
This is such a common defense put up by the functionally illiterate. Yet are these same people not interested in sports? In tv shows? In music? In a famous person or an activity/hobby? A place? Everyone has interests, and everyone consumes information about matters they are interested in.
A book is simply a conduit of that information, a medium of transfer. It is not the subject matter of reading that is the problem then. Rather, it is the medium that is ‘boring’, the very act itself of reading.
To someone who does not read, watching someone else read is boring. All we do is sit and look at squiggles on paper. How dull. Yet the dismissive fail to appreciate the mental, rather than physical, stimulation provided by a book. So why do they have no interest in the practice? Part of the explanation is that they may not have ever read something they found personally appealing.
One issue with the education system is that many children are forced to read about subjects they don’t like. Following this, they are academically probed, prodded, and tested on their comprehension of subjects they have absolutely no interest in. All of which serves to create resentment and negative connections around the practice of reading.
Young voracious readers can be soon put off reading for decades because of the unnecessary needling of academia. Hence, these people do not give books the time of day. They are still those bored children forced to do something they don’t want to do.
This feeds into a second reason for their resistance. The adoption of this early-life prejudice against reading became entrenched by the social and cultural climate of a generation. Those who succeeded in school, who enjoyed academia, and who by correlation often enjoyed the practice of reading, were often shunned (both by others toward them, and by their own self-imposed lack of social aptitude.) Being labelled as a ‘teacher’s pet’ or a ‘nerd’ served to distance those who enjoyed reading as being different from the standard normal.
This was then further compounded by an unsympathetic tv/movie industry that exacerbated the perceived view of the ‘nerd’ stereotype, and thus the traits associated with being so, such as prioritising academic success, and reading, as people who are unpopular. To be seen as anti-social; losers; misfits. A group to be avoided and ostracised.
It is only in the last 10 years that this stereotype has started to be challenged and picked apart. We can now see ‘nerds’ as the protagonists in their own movies, such as in the highly acclaimed Booksmart that was released last year. Of popular classmates who are also smart and read. Of complex characters whose reading is not seen as an identifier of being outcast, but as simply something that can be commonly accepted. As a reader, it is a heartening trend I hope to see continued.
The second reason I believe people say reading is ‘boring’ is a way to dismiss something that on actual reflection, is too difficult and uncomfortable for them.
“I can’t stay focussed on it. It’s too hard for me to just sit there.”
This is as much the fault of expectation as any other. People get disheartened when they can’t focus on books for hours on end, even though they are capable of reading.
These same people would not judge someone able to cycle with not being able to compete in a bike race. Furthermore, those out of the habit of reading will find it hard to get started, just as the overweight person finds it so difficult to start exercising at the gym consistently.
Yet this comparison would likely fall on deaf ears. In fact, just like the dedicated gym-goer, the determined weight-loser, the more time and effort one puts into the habit, the easier it becomes, and the more one gets out of it. It holds to reason, and is oft argued on this site that you are what you do.
The final rampart stands flimsiest of all.
“I would, but I don’t have the time.”
This is a lie. Period.
Not having the time for something is saying that you would prefer to do something else instead. You prioritise watching tv over reading. You prioritise going on your phone, or your laptop, or talking to your friends, or going out, more than you value reading. You are perfectly within your rights to do so, but you should recognise your preferences for what they are.
Indeed, nobody argues there is no time to shower every day. Where there is a will, time is always found for such action. Many world leaders, often the people with the greatest pressures on their time, are voracious readers, and still find the time to open books when they can. Reassess your priorities. Own up to what you do in your time, and why you are doing it. Tell yourself the truth.
I am not saying reading has all the answers. It is not a panacea.
Reading is an opportunity. An opportunity to be inspired, and to find guidance and support. A chance to learn, grow, and develop into a better person than you were the day before. None of which may happen immediately. It might not happen at all. You might read one book, and feel no change. Two books. 10. 100.
No-one can say what changes reading might start in you, how many books it will take to affect that change, or how long the changes will take to become apparent. But provided you enshrine a consistent habit of reading in your life, the odds of gaining such benefits become increasingly weighted in your favour. Reading not only adds to your human capital — the tools and knowledge in your mind that make you more productive — but starts a compounding process on the knowledge you have.
We all place bets on our success every day. Consistent reading positively influences the odds you’re betting on. When will you feel confident enough to bet on yourself?