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Creative Commons 2.5

Language: Why Should I Read?

What is the value of reading?

The Internet increases both the quantity of potential reading material available to us as well as the speed at which text-based material can be produced and published. A wide range of questions emerge that invite discussion about both the quantity and pace of reading:

  • Do the linking abilities of the Internet really change the nature of reading?
  • How do we deal with the increasing amounts of reading material available?
  • Can we accelerate our reading habits to effectively cope with the accelerated production of text?
  • Are the tools we are using facilitate the production of text facilitating or denigrating the experience of reading?
  • Are there other technological tools we can develop in order to better sort through oceans of text in order to bring us only the most potentially relevant information we seek?
  • If we change the media surround for text, do we assume we also able to change and update our mental capacities for reading?

A great deal of commentary about new forms of text-based communication focus on questions of what to do and how to do it. While there is value in pursuing these questions, the most important question each of us can ask ourselves with respect to reading is, "Why should I read?" This question helps us to step outside of the what and how of new tools in order to provide a foundation for integrating reading into our lives...

Text: The Amplification of Weight and Pace

There are two important effects that the Internet has on our reading capacity:

  1. Quantity: The Internet has increased the quantity of reading material available to us.
    • Scanning: Since we cannot hope to read everything that is available (nor would we want to) the idea of scanning text-based communications intensifies. The underlying assumption is that we need to scan for surface features as an antidote to the sheer quantity of text we face. This assumption, however, may not be an effective one.
    • Selecting: Through scanning we are able to select items that may require a more detailed reading. We collect the things we will read from our initial scanning activities and organize them for further investigation.
    • Mindful Reading: A deeper reading means that we must give more time to lesser amounts of text. Through scanning and selecting we put ourselves in a position to slow down and think about reading material that may be relevant to us.

  2. Acceleration: The pace at which text moves has dramatically increased. We can now bring reading material to our eyes at a faster pace than ever before.
    • Awareness: Our attention has been challenged by the pace at which text travels. However, our ability to cope with the new speed of text has not matched that pace - nor does it need to.
    • Attention: Our ability to attend to reading material has a different character. We are driven to consume more and more text. The pace of acceleration of text reduces time for reflection. It is our ability to reflect that is our most important capability in reading.
    • Fragmentation: While some decree an age of connections and linkages, we are also in an age of accelerated fragmentation. A great deal of text-based communication across weblogs has taken on the character of the 30-second commercial, or the two-minute radio pop song. Text has been married to consumerism.

A common assumption regarding the problem of quantity and acceleration is that we need to find "new" ways of dealing with the amount and pace of text. Behind this is assumption that we need to do this and would want to do this. The typical manner this is presented is to promote the idea of new ways to scan the information glut in order to select and identify specific items for a deeper and more personalized reading. In the sense that each of us has a maximum capacity for reading effectively, it is of course obvious to say that we must find ways to reduce the quantity and slow the pace of text. This process is commonly promoted by people in areas of expertise where it has become impossible to keep pace with the quantity of available material on their topic of interest.

The danger is that we become more and more obsessive with the scanning and selection process, and fail to spend enough time in deeper more reflective kinds of thought about what we are reading. To my thinking, it has been the deeper and more reflective kinds of thought that has always been the main concern in reading. It does not matter how well we scan or select material in the absence of reflective thought, unless we subscribe to writing as a commercial.

RSS is fundamentally a scanning and selection environment for reading. It provides a means to select a wide variety "feeds" from other sites and collect those feeds through a single software application. The assumption is that in doing so we increase the probability of collecting timely and relevant information. Much of this is dependent upon the titles we read - if the title attracts us we may open the article, if not we will pass it by. However, even the sheer quantity of titles we face in a feed aggregator can become debilitating. And there is certainly no guarantee that the meaning we associate with a certain title will be the same meaning found in the entry. We quickly realize that words can be quite mercurial as we stare at the long lists of entry titles in our feed aggregators or patterns across some kind of cluster or cloud. We might identify a word or phrase in the title of an entry and decide to click on it and discover something useful and interesting. We can also open entries only to find that what we thought was might be there is something quite different. The potential for wasting time is quite dramatic in these environments.

To seek a way out of this conundrum we must stop asking ourselves the what and how questions of reading, and instead focus on why we would want to read in the first place. Unless each of us can state why reading is of value in each of our lives, the questions about what and how to read cannot be effectively answered in any sensible way. To be certain, the media environment for text via the Internet is significantly different from that presented in a book, but I would also suggest that the basic human capacity for reading is not fundamentally different. We still need to seek fluency from symbol to experience and back again. The purpose of reading still emerges from deep within each individual - their own quest for identity, their own situations and circumstances, and their own experiences in life. Without this fluency, reading is mere intellect - a self-fulfilling game we play in our own minds.

The Value of Books

When I think about the value of reading in my own life I immediately turn toward a select group of books that have occupied my bookshelf for several years. Books I hhave no intention of re-reading are donated to the local library. Even though I remain relatively active in digital environments, books are still my first thought when I think of what I have read that I value the most.

The books I consider to be of greatest value are:

  1. Books that I tend to read quite slowly;
  2. Books that cause me to pause and reflect on my own experiences in life;
  3. Books that require that I re-read them at various points in my life in order to understand them in a different way;
  4. Books that offer ways out of the confines of my own knowledge and expertise; and
  5. Books that inspire new directions in my own life in concrete and practical ways.

Books and Personalized Meta-data: The books that I value the most are populated with all kinds of personal notes, highlights, arrows, lines, cross-references, extensions out to other books that I have made. These markings represent my own internal dialogue with the author at a specific point in time. This dialogue will be re-visited over time and the nature of the conversation changes.

The RSS Table of Contents: The table of contents for a book is its main RSS feed. Here we find the main sections and chapters and can choose to read them sequentially or in any other order we choose. Of course, the RSS in a book is static. It is the reader that must make the chapters in a book dynamic.

The Index as Tagging Mechanism: The index of any book is a system of tagging. While we cannot click words on paper, we can easily flip to the various pages tagged by the author to seek patterns and connections that are not made in written sequence. In addition, we can also create our own customized indexing of the book using keywords and phrases. This is a kind of tagging done by the reader.

Books as Non-linear Environment: We can choose to read a book in its given sequence, or in any other sequence we choose. There is no need to always read a book directly from front to back with each word remaining in its precise order. A sense of hypertext is invoked by the reader of a book through cross-referencing one section of a book to another. Specific patterns of thought can be tracked in a non-linear manner just as easily in a book as in a digital environment.

Re-reading a Book: We can never return to a book in exactly the same way. While the text in the book may be static and unchanging, our thoughts and feelings are not. This means that our comprehension of a book will never be exactly the same as it was in a past moment. Our own experiences in life directly influence the meaning we create from what we read. Re-reading a book is never an act of repetition; it is always a new discovery.

Clouds and Clusters on the Bookshelf: I do not organize my books on my bookshelf alphabetically or by topic. I see no advantage in this. For a long time now I have grouped books that I think in some manner "speak" to each other. It does not matter what category or discipline they are categorized by. Within the mark-ups of these books are pointers to other books, usually specific sections of other books. When I look at my bookshelf I attempt to see connections and associations across these groupings. If someone were to see my bookshelf, it would likely appear to be disorganized.

Popular Trends: The popular trends of our day usually have little to do with finding books of greatest value - at least for me. There is a tendency to think that we must stay current and that staying current means we are reading the most recent material by a popular author. While we certainly can discover important books in the swamp of popularity, it is a mistake to equate notions of most recent and popular with current and up to date. A book published fifty years ago can be just as current and up to date as a book published yesterday. Deciding what is current and up to date is done solely by the reader, not a marketing department.

Flow: An author of a book sets out to write something that has a sense of unity about it and attempts to present that sense of unity in compelling ways. The author of a book is not really concerned with providing bits and bytes of information; their concern is to reveal a coherent system of thought expressed with the greatest amount of clarity possible. In this way, a book invites a deeper sense of reflection and a greater potential for dialogue. We are presented with something that is intended to be whole and coherent, rather than fragmented and isolated.

Fiction or Non-Fiction: Whether we choose to read fiction or non-fiction is a moot point. A great deal of non-fiction often reveals an incredible breadth of unintended fiction. And fiction often reaches into non-fiction in important ways. Value can be found in either context.

What is the Value of Reading?

In focusing on an old technology, am I revealing that I am out of synch with recent technological developments? Actually, I would consider this to be an advantage since the last thing I want is to be completely "in synch" with technological developments. Am I unable to mentally negotiate the vast digital hypertext terrain that links text together in new ways? The answer to that question is that in some ways I am completely unable to mentally negotiate it, and often glad that I am. While there are many linkages of interest on the Internet, there is also a vast ocean of linkages that serve only to link the repetitious to the redundant.

The issue here is not that books are in some manner "better" than the Internet. This is mere debate. However, I am suggesting that: 1) the benefits we sometimes ascribe to Internet technologies are often superficial; 2) the benefits in older technologies such as books often lie hidden.

If, during my own lifetime, it is not possible to read everything in the world there is to read, then how do I select what I should read? This question demands an exploration of personal identity. We identify reading material of value when it somehow informs our own unique quest for identity. This orientation to reading is different from pursuing reading as a means to become more informed about an area of expertise. Reading the things we value the most is about personal identity, not information.

If we are to read to seek value then the origin of the urge to read comes from within. We are not so much seeking relevant text as we are the thoughts and ideas of other people that can inform our own lives. Our goal is to reach beyond the intellectual challenge of the symbols on the page. Somewhere behind the text is a person - another individual with a unique set of experiences in life. The presentation of these experiences via text is a symbolic gesture and my task is to transform those symbols into meaning and action in my own life, not to merely comprehend what has been written.

Literacy is simply a basic skill that allows for comprehension of the text, however being literate in no way means that people will generate personal meaning from it. It is entirely possible to read and comprehend something, and do nothing of value with it in life. It seems to me that this is where most discussions about reading and literacy tend to get stuck. In other words, we sense there is something beyond literacy but can't quite imagine what it might be so we use literacy and the comprehension of text as an end unto itself.

In other words, literacy is simply a means to de-code symbols, not create meaning. Literacy invites comprehension and is often tested through our ability to recall what has been read. The assumption here is that if an individual can recall and restate what they have read in various ways, then they must in some manner understand it. Of course, this proposition is not completely true. We can understand something without creating meaning from it. We can also understand something without doing anything about it.

Literacy is not encouraged by seeking literacy; literacy is encouraged by seeking meaning.

When we read the things we value most, there is a sense of fluency across the symbols our eyes see and the experiences we are having in life. The symbols and experiences seem to flow together. This flowing together, or confluence, of symbol and personal identity, is at the heart of value. What we value may be quite different from someone else, but that means there is an opportunity for discovery. The central importance of personal identity is reading is not one of selfishness; it is about self-preservation, individual creativity and personal growth.

The idea of fluency brings us into close proximity with perception. In this sense, the act of reading is an Art, not a defined set of rules and procedures. To be a fluent reader means that we use our perceptual acuity to bring our own thoughts, ideas, experiences, behaviours, actions and feelings into close contact with the symbols of the alphabet presented by someone else. Fluency demands imagination and we set off on a voyage to imagine and re-imagine who we are and what we are doing with our lives. Fluency brings value into the flow of personal experience as we re-negotiate our own identity, our relationships with others, and our place in the world. Reading the things we value the most demands that we reach out into the world by provoking a greater sense of mindfulness in our own interior world.


  • In The Fog by Chris Bailey

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Hi Pearl,

You said it quite nicely, "It is a function of the choices of the reader, more than of what is read." This provides a nice summation of what I was getting at in the entry. The choice we make with reading isn't really about tools and how to use them, it is about our minds and hearts and the directions we choose to take them in. Reading if it is to be meaningful demands inner reflection and invites new kinds of action in our everyday life. There is a flow from the symbols on the page through to the experiences we have in life.

There's quite a lot to absorb there.Index is tagging. I agree books and print are non-linear as online. Deep readers especially may read in a hyperlinked sort of way between various reference books.

A quote I recently read comes to mind

The flood of print has turned reading into a process of gulping rather than savoring

And I tend to disagreee. On the face of it, a sort of romanticism says we have more to access in this world than ever before but a person in any age can only take into the brain a small finite amount. Access to the entire history of knowledge is moot really.

In any age, with any medium there can be fragmentation, scanning rather than reflection. It is a function of the choices of the reader, more than of what is read.

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