It might seem a tad off for a book blog to suggest that, in addition to many benefits, books also have limits. But, here I am and here you are so let’s go down this rabbit trail.
So what’s the big deal with books? I mean, really, who needs books when you can google something, get a bazillion answers in a hot second and pick and choose the articles to read? Isn’t that essentially what a library is for? It just trades in giant tomes of knowledge instead of succinct info-bites. And in this day and age, who has time to read? Efficiency is Master. Get it done yesterday. Work smarter, not harder. Do more—be more.
What Books CAN Do
Reading allows you the possibility of hearing other conversations, other versions of history, other insights into the past and imaginations into the future. Reading a book takes you deeper, farther, faster.
This seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t it natural to assume that reading a blurb on the internet will get you there faster? Sure. It will get you to the end of the article faster.
It may give you a nugget to chew on, but a book will give you a feast. A book will give you nuance, it will give you other books to think about and explore, it will give you dimension, it will give you process.
A book will show you, if nothing else, that there are rarely two identical perspectives on any one issue. It will show you how to recognize, relate, and reconcile myriad identities and insights.
In short, an article will give you one answer. A book will give you a tangle of answers and rarely an easy solution. Whether that falls in the benefits or limits category for reading books depends on your reason for reading in the first place.
In any case, a book challenges you to go farther—it empowers you. What you do with that power is up to you.
You think you can understand racism by reading 1,000 words on the subject in an article or watching a two-hour special on television? Nope. You can start there, but chances are you need a lot more to get a fuller, informed picture. You can read books of fiction, non-fiction, racism around the world, racism locally, history, memoir, poetry, and on and on and on.
How about war? Want to understand any one war in a television mini-series or a film drama? Good start, maybe, but then follow it with books on the leaders, the people, the history, the context. You won’t get a sound-byte or inspirational quote from one moment in their involvement; instead you’ll get their frustrations, their limitations, their lucky breaks, their support system, their health, their unchecked thoughts and initial reactions.
Check out poetry of the time.
Look into books on economic indicators. Consider books written by authors from that time period – what issues were squashed under the headline of “war?” What ideas were incubating until something resembling peace was restored? How did that work out?
Been stuck on a Disney rerun of all the Princess shows and wonder if there are love stories for adults that have stood the test of time? Wonder if there are stories that explore emotions other than love? Stuck in a rut of superheroes vs. villains? Any stories of people achieving something extraordinary without superpowers involved? Could you?
Find yourself flipping through channels and numbed to everything available? Despairing of another day exactly the same as the one before?
Books can do something about that.
What Books CanNOT Do
But books can’t do everything. Their benefits are considerable, but books also have limits to their impact.
There are times when you don’t need to know everything about all things. Or don’t want to know all those things. Magazine articles, newspaper articles, online articles, tweets, status updates, blog posts, and Snapple lids are useful. And they’re good. They give you a teaser, a taste. They present you with an issue or focus or new idea and let you nibble that bit for a while.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observes that each medium of entertainment comes with a built-in set of values that lead to advantages and limitations for using it.
Postman analyzes the telegraph by saying, among other things, “The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it.”
He discusses photography: “It’s vocabulary of images is limited to concrete representation…the photograph presents the world as object; language, the world as idea.”
And then it was television, he argues, that brought “the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection.”
So what other modes of entertainment and information do we choose? What about social media? For me, Pinterest and Instagram are fun ways to collect information (used to have Facebook and Twitter, but I haven’t missed them). They are platforms for exchanging information.
On the other hand, social media is not useful for engaging in deep or significant conversations.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Reading
In all of our options, taking benefits and limits into account, there are advantages and disadvantages. None of them can be all things to everyone at all times. Reading included.
We watch television and movies and read books for myriad reasons. What those decisions contribute to our lives is different because of how the medium itself is shaped and used.
I do recommend starting a conversation (depending on the age range) with, “YouTube or Netflix?” I do not recommend starting a conversation at a party with “So yesterday I was reading a book of essays examining the Christian response to violence.”
Reading is a solitary event that prepares you to think broadly and deeply. Television and movies prepare you to connect easily and casually with a wide range of people.
Television—and social media—brings an immediacy to information. Reading requires us to consider something slowly.
Television urges a reaction. Reading invites considered response.
Television and social media outlets can be useful for crisis management and immediate dissemination. They can be sources of shared entertainment for a group of people. Reading is necessary for long-term engagement and understanding. It can be discussed as a group, but the reader is responsible for engaging with it first, alone.
Television is consumed. Reading must be pursued.
Television is passive. Reading is active.
Television brings people together. Reading leaves us alone with our thoughts.
Biggest Challenge for Reading
But here’s the biggest distinction for reading, and it is critical to this discussion: literacy.
Reading is a skill. Whether you are reading a book or are engaging with social media, knowing how to read is necessary.
Television can open worlds to people who cannot or do not have books in libraries or on personal shelves, and it can provide news, entertainment, and ideas to those who would not have access otherwise. Reading must have literacy.
You have to know how to read in order to access its potential. And then, you have to have books and content to read. This is not an unsolvable problem, but it does require a long-term, ongoing effort. Let us, speaking to U.S. American readers, not forget this or take for granted our privilege of reading and our access to robust libraries (both physical and online).
Reading a book is not a war against other forms of entertainment and information dissemination. There are places that reading overlaps with other forms and there are areas where reading stands apart. You have to know where and when and how your preferred medium performs well and where it shrinks.
How do you think about reading in relationship to the time you spend with other activities? Are there other benefits or limits to reading books?