Have you ever stashed away a newspaper article promising yourself that you’ll savor it again another day? I did this with The Need to Read by Will Schwalbe in the Review section of the Wall Street Journal over the Thanksgiving weekend, and came across it again like a pleasant surprise this morning. The subtitle of the essay announces its intent: “Reading books remains one of the best ways to engage with the world, become a better person and understand life’s questions, big and small.”
Schwalbe offers many powerful lines as proof of an instinct, a way to coat ourselves with words that insulate without forcing us into a solitary confinement. While we may read in solitude, multiple voices interact through the cascade of saccades across the page. Excerpts from the essay support our need to read, and to be readers now more than ever.
We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions.
Connectivity is one of the great blessings of the internet era, and it makes extraordinary things possible. But constant connectivity can be a curse, encouraging the lesser angels of our nature. None of the nine Muses of classical times bore the names Impatience or Distraction.
Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page.
So I’m on a search—and have been, I now realize, all my life—to find books to help me make sense of the world, to help me become a better person, to help me get my head around the big questions that I have and answer some of the small ones while I’m at it.