Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Benefits and Joys of Reading

My dad once told me that if I wanted to be smart, then I should read. At the time, I didn't take his advice to heart, but some years later I decided that it was a goal in my life to try and learn as much about the world as I could for my own benefit.

I truly believe that if each person in this country dedicated themselves to doubling the number of books they read each year, the world would be a better place. I am always saddened when I see news reports about falling literacy rates, for reading is one of the simplest, cheapest and most fulfilling forms of entertainment and education available.

I think many people refrain from reading for a couple of different reasons:

1) They're too proud. I would put my former self into this category. These people are of the "if I wanted to read, I'd go to school" persuasion. They claim that lack of interest is their reason for reading, but I really think that deep down, they're embarrassed at the thought of being caught reading a book.

2) People aren't aware of the wide variety of interesting books that are available. This might seem like a shallow reason, but some people have very particular tastes and either aren't aware that there are probably lots of books that will appeal to them, or are not sure how to find out about them and where to get them. Again, seems faulty to say that, but some people just don't understand how to research. Without the internet, I probably wouldn't know how to find out about a lot of things I now consider to be a normal part of my life.

3) They're disinterested in reading. This, I feel is a combination of the previous two problems. These people say that reading bores them, puts them to sleep, or doesn't have any appeal because of the lack of interaction. Many of these people associate reading with school and as such, see it as a forced activity. This is a valid, but easily remediable problem. In college, I started to believe that I had no attention span and didn't care for reading because everything I read put me to sleep. This is what happens when what you're trying to read is disinteresting. Everybody has a topic about which they'd like to know more. It's just a matter of finding an engaging presentation of information. Reading as a whole isn't disinteresting, but what a person reads can be.

Reading doesn't mean that you have to sit down for long stretches and dive into a lengthy novel about Victorian England. Comic books, magazines, newspapers, and non-fiction books are all things that can be read with positive benefits. There are no rules for being engaged by words and the benefit is that you almost always come away entertained, informed or inspired.

One of the most irritating things I've encountered is people who claim that you are being condescending to them because they don't understand what you've said or written because you've chosen to use "big" words. Granted, you should always consider your audience, but I think this lacking in communications skills is fundamentally a result of people's reluctance to work with words. I think it's imperative that people make a concerted effort to understand each other and learn more about the world at large. People are threatened by language they don't understand and they are irritated when confronted with such language, because they perceive it as an intentional reminder that they don't possess the faculty to understand such language. This is a fallacy of the highest order. If you're a fully functioning adult with a high school diploma, most common language is well within your reach to comprehend. Ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity and one should never use their own ignorance as an excuse to further it.

I have been guilty of all of the above indiscretions at one time or another. I used to believe that only certain kinds of people did certain kinds of things like listened to specific music or read specific books. It wasn't until I was confronted with the kind of diversity that only a large city can provide that I finally changed my perspective.

In this regard, one specific memory stands out. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I worked as a freelance production assistant on a commercial. There was a grip (basically a laborer, but skilled, highly payed and unionized) that I was helping unload a truck. He asked me what I liked to do. I responded that lately I liked to read. He then began quizzing me about which of the classics I'd read. Based on what I told him, he recommended all kinds of interesting books. It was amazing to me: here was this dread-locked, working class laborer schooling me about the classical canon. It opened my eyes and made me realize that one doesn't have to allow oneself to be placed in a box by others. It is our responsibility as individuals to diversify and not perpetuate the kind ignorance that I had practiced before that exchange.

Reading can do that. If you only give it a chance.

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