Why I Don't Read Books Much Anymore

By Freedman, Morris | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Why I Don't Read Books Much Anymore


Freedman, Morris, The Virginia Quarterly Review


For several years now I've been reading fewer books, from start to finish, that is. Not that my reading has diminished. If anything, I'm reading more now, more words certainly, every day, every week, daily and Sunday newspapers, weeklies, fortnightlies, monthlies, book reviews, quarterlies, portions of books, encyclopedia articles, professional publications, computer manuals and magazines, student papers. I used to spend much of my time reading books in their entirety, for pleasure, study, and work: fiction, plays, poetry, essays, criticism, biography, scholarship, reportage, reference sources.

I'm not alone in this shift. There must be millions by now who have all but abandoned books to keep up with breaking and broken news, speculation about news to come, and with their professions, hobbies, and daily living. Newsstands and periodical rooms in libraries today carry dozens of titles on recreation, cooking, finance, remodelling, gardening, home furnishing, politics, computers, consumer products, sports, cars, publishing, photography, new art, games, show business, fashion, architecture, gender concerns, raising children, old age, adolescence, pets, weddings and marriage. Some may consist of pictures mainly; others are made up of dense text with recondite vocabulary and allusions. They appeal to cherished interests and all sorts of private skills and preoccupations.

I didn't have to put books aside. As a friend and colleague did, I could have cancelled magazine and newspaper subscriptions, given up impulse buying of specialized newspapers and journals, to find time for books. I still read a best seller or classic or specialized title as impulse, nostalgia, or need directs; I reread classics for the one course I still teach. I've come to accept as substitutes for some books the summaries, sometimes approaching condensations, that accompany essay length discussions in The New York Review of Books and in other unabashedly intellectual publications.

I am confident that I cover a wider, more diverse, and even a more nourishing intellectual landscape at this point in my life by grazing widely, occasionally pausing to linger over an appetizing patch, rather than feeding narrowly and deeply all the time.

There is no harm here I am convinced. Lamentation over the decline of reading must go back to the sacking of the libraries at Alexandria. Through the centuries, the appearances of periodicals, the phonograph, radio, film, television, computers have commanded more and more discretionary time of those enjoying the luxuries of literacy and leisure. Each new development produced its own Luddites bewailing and resisting change in the production, character, and consumption of reading matter. Printing generated regret over the disappearance of hand copying; the typewriter, of penmanship; the computer, of both handwriting and typing. We heard snobbish sniffing when esoteric out-of-print titles began appearing in inexpensive paperback editions, in spite of the clear gain for large classes of readers.

Writing and reading, essentially unweakened, have survived each onslaught and subversion. They have simply changed character. Under the relentlessly multiplying pressures of modern living, readers have learned to appreciate shorter forms and writers to write more economically. If less can't always be more, it can often be nearly as much-at times better.

We have learned to find some of the pleasures of reading in other media. Computers themselves are supplementing and stimulating reading as web sites display cyberspace magazines (like Slate and Salon), selected contents of newspapers and magazines, and chapters of books. Some students now find their reading assignments on their computer monitors, whole books, in perfectly acceptable, if optically tiring, form. …

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