The Case for Reading Real Books

Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

Last fall, I attended the 50th Annual Big Book Sale at the Fort Mason Center, and I realized why I’ve always been drawn to libraries and bookstores more than online writing.

First, the content contained between book or magazine covers is finite. We’re a captive audience in those pages and must move through the material in the image of the author’s intent rather than hopping between hyperlinks.

Second, there’s a significant cost to producing a book. While there are good books and not-so-good ones (e.g., Hillary Clinton’s recent autobiography), we can rest assured that some thought and meticulous editing went into the pieces due to the barriers to publication. There are exceptions, but I believe that most internet content is soulless pulp designed to garner attention. And by the way, the irony of presenting this argument online isn’t lost on me.

It costs virtually nothing to broadcast one’s thoughts across the web, and even though the ease of publication can hasten the spread of important news and assist social activism, it also enables people to publish a lot of crap at very little cost. It fits what George Saunders calls the “Braindead Microphone:” the meaner, louder, better-advertised material will make it to readers, regardless of the quality. Hence the success of sensationalist click-bait and listicles. Of course, hyperbolical headlines existed before the internet, but competition for people’s 140-character attention spans has made entertainment—rather than informing people—the primary objective in today’s media climate. There are entire companies that traffic in “content creation,” employing non-experts to chew up and spit out information from other sources, finally stamping the resulting detritus with a click-worthy title. These companies value efficiency, quantity, and readability above well-researched arguments or intellectual integrity. Believe me, I’ve worked for one of these companies.

Lastly, what better fodder for conversation than a beautiful, tangible collection of ideas through the ages? When I enter someone’s house, I’m immediately drawn to their bookshelves, which often tell more about a person’s constitution than an evening of conversation.

It is with these thoughts that I enjoyed perusing the scores of used books that were once loved by people, many likely had been lying fallow in garages for decades. I bought several 19th and 20th century classics, some editions published before the birth of my parents.

One gem I picked up for $3 was “Adventures of the Mind” from 1959. It contains several essays from the Saturday Evening Post by renowned thinkers such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Aldous Huxley, Edith Hamilton, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Bertrand Russell. You might think that these ideas were dated, but I was struck by the timelessness of their arguments and how concepts I’d once considered to be modern phenomena were the talk of the day fifty-six years ago.

For example, anthropologist Dr. Loren Eiseley wrote an essay titled “An Evolutionist Looks at Modern Man.” He discussed people’s obsession with technological progress at the expense of our humanity:

There are times when it appears man is so occupied with the world he is now creating that he has already lost a sense for what may be missing in his society.

In the 1950s, he expressed a sentiment which pervades our current fear of the diminishing human connection that accompanies sweeping technological change, particularly in the Bay Area.

In a similar vein, people today bemoan the loss of the humanities. Dr. Eiseley, again, had already taken note (and he likely wasn’t the first):

The humane tradition—arts, letters, philosophy, the social sciences—threatens to be ignored as unrealistic in what has become a technological race for survival.

I had believed naively that the erosion of the “humane tradition” was ushered in by computers more than anything else.

I wouldn’t have stumbled across this essay if I hadn’t gone to that Annual Big Book Sale. I propose that everyone give books and print media a shot. It’s easy to succumb to the allure of digital distractions, but there’s a comfort between the covers of a tried-and-true, physical read. All indicators show that reading actual books is on the decline, but then again, we’ve always been “in crisis” according to intelligent essayists throughout the ages. It’s appropriate to close with what I considered to be Dr. Eiseley’s most profound statement:

For a society without deep historical memory, the future ceases to exist and the present becomes a meaningless cacophony.

Doesn’t that mimic the frenetic feeling of our tech-driven lives echoed throughout countless modern publications? It certainly does for me.

Welcome, fans and hecklers!