The pleasures of reading involve patience, solitude and contemplation, but we rush to consume content effortlessly
Andy Miller [The Guardian, 08.06.2014]
It has already been quite a year for lovers of book-blah. This spring, storm clouds have gathered and then broken over a succession of literary teacups. Does the publishing of gender-specific books demean our children? Should one build an English A-level around Russell Brandinterview excerpts and tweets from Caitlin Moran? Are creative writing courses a waste of time? Is Michael Gove right to have banished Of Mice and Men from the GCSE English syllabus, if indeed he has done?
The passage of these squalls is predictable. A report appears via a newspaper. Twitter goes into a frenzy of hashtags and indignation. Online petitions are launched. Philip Pullman issues a statement. Counterarguments are made. Someone denounces someone else on the Today programme. The story is updated to reflect the commotion. The clouds roll on.
I find these debates about reading as enjoyably incensing as anyone – and, just to be clear, I deplore the restrictions placed on prisoners' access to books, which seems less of a storm in a teacup and more of a violation of basic human rights. However, taken alongside the general hum of social networks, book groups, the media-shopping complex and the literary festival season now upon us, I mistrust my own eagerness to engage with this sort of stuff. It is a very good way not to get any reading done.
The fact is that when reading a book there is no substitute for reading a book. I have just written one about 50 "great" books, the research for which involved staring at lines of words on pages until first the lines, and subsequently the pages, ran out, and then thinking about them until I knew what I wanted to commit to paper. Some of the books are from the canon, and can be considered "classics" – Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Moby-Dick – and some are most certainly neither: The Da Vinci Code and, in the words of the Guardian's reviewer, "something called Krautrocksampler" by Julian Cope. The experience led me to conclude that although we love to argue about books, acquire them, express strong opinions about The Goldfinch, etc, etc, more than ever we seem to be losing the knack of reading them.
In a New York Times blog, Karl Taro Greenfield talked about "faking cultural literacy". "What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate," he writes. "What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content first-hand but simply knowing that it exists."
Greenfield is clearly on to something, but this is not an entirely new phenomenon. Book lovers habitually accumulate more than they can actually read. As Schopenhauer noted 150 years ago, "One usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents." And after drawing up a list of potential titles – which, incidentally, did not include To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men, because I was made to study them at school years ago – I realised I had inadvertently self-selected a series of books which, at various points in my life, I had lied about having read. A number of people have privately admitted to me they do the same.
Arguments over whether it's better to read, say, Dante's Inferno or Dan Brown's Inferno will always be with us. Just because a book is a bestseller does not automatically mean the book must be entirely without merit; equally, a book's inclusion in the canon should not exclude it from your Kindle. Indeed, the sudden mass availability of free ebooks via sites such as Project Gutenberg ought to bring "the classics" closer to all of us. But the innate human desire to make ourselves look cleverer than we are, combined with an overabundance of consumer choice and the intense cultural bombardment of the digital age, means we increasingly lack both the time and willpower to engage with anything longer than 140 characters or more demanding than Granta or Grazia. Better to speak volumes than to read them.
The traditional pleasures of reading are more complex than just enjoyment. They involve patience, solitude, contemplation. And therefore the books that are most at risk from our attention and integrity deficits are those that require a bit of effort. In a brilliant essay in New Zealand's Metro, the writer Eleanor Catton, winner of last year's Man Booker prize for The Luminaries – a remarkable and groundbreaking novel I haven't read yet – defines the incompatibility of art and the shopping cart. "Consumerism," she writes, "requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither." Books such as Middlemarch or Moby-Dick were never intended to be snapped up or whizzed through, or to be subject to one-star reviews on Amazon where that commendation has only been grudgingly awarded because "the book arrived well packed". Middlemarch was here before we arrived, and it will be here long after we've gone. Perhaps we should have the humility to say: OK, I didn't get it. What can I learn?
In this context, spats over whether a novel comes from Britain or America – and the subsequent spats over those spats – can seem both silly and somewhat decadent. Gove is an educated man and would surely acknowledge that the repurposing of art to reinforce notions of cultural identity is something beloved of, and practised by, political regimes on both the far left and far right. Yet it is hard to believe that the education secretary, like parents, teachers, writers, librarians, booksellers and readers everywhere, does not want our children to discover the rush of excitement and recognition that occurs when we look up from a great book and think: yes, the world is like that.
And for that to happen, we need to rediscover our commitment to staring at lines of words on pages until first the lines, and subsequently the pages, run out – and keeping our opinions to ourselves until we know what they are. The old "no talking" signs in libraries were there for a reason. It's not what we read that matters; it's how.
Reading is a broad church. But it is still a church. It might behove the congregation to bow its head occasionally in silent contemplation.
Andy Miller (2014). We are losing the art of reading. The Guardian. Disponível em: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/08/art-reading-pleasures-content-books?CMP=fb_gu (acedido a 8 de junho de 2014).