If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember a post I wrote back in 2018 called Five Guys Read Hemingway: My Reading Experiment, in which I gave five volunteers the same short story and interviewed each of them about the experience they had reading it. The idea of the survey was to gauge the relationship young (millennial) men had with books. To check the pulse and make some kind of educated- but nonetheless still speculative- guesses about the role literature can play in the lives of 20-something men in an increasingly digital world. Not every response was the same, of course, but I felt that I could relate to each one. At some point in my reading history, I had felt what they felt reading that Hemingway short story. I could see myself in each of their answers.
At the time I had planned on doing a follow-up post which would essentially be an extended conclusion. I felt there was more that could be interpreted from the answers. I wanted to dig deeper and try to speculate on what they might say- about books, about the education system, about gender, and about the impact of modern technology. However, I never got around to it. Part of it was my jumping in and out of a revolving door of temp jobs at the time, part of it was running away to Texas for the summer, and part of it was a lack of confidence I had in my ability to write anything worthwhile about the survey. To do so might have been to stray too far from the data and into realms of speculation I simply wasn’t qualified to articulate. Better to just leave the results where they were and let them speak for themselves. After all, I didn’t want to make a statement with the survey- I wanted it to serve as a jumping-off point for further discussion. I wanted to start a conversation with the wider world and learn from others.
I haven’t remained disconnected from the subject however. Privately I’ve tried to research changing attitudes to reading in the 2010s, as well as testing my own habits as best I can. There are some interesting videos out there about the struggle to read in the face of digital media (games, social media, YouTube, Netflix, cell phones, et cetera) and the angst people feel about losing touch with books. I’ve met a lot of people that say they don’t read, but few people who claim they don’t want to.
One of the most interesting answers I got from my survey was a volunteer who said that he couldn’t take in what the story was trying to tell him. He was reading the words but he couldn’t seem to engage with the story. I realized that I’ve felt this way about certain texts in the past, especially with books I had to read at school. I knew intimately the struggle he was having with the Hemingway short, and I think it can be attributed to three factors.
- Firstly, I think the right text needs to be paired with the right reader, and in this case the two simply weren’t a match. Some books, songs, paintings, movies, poems, et cetera will strike a deep connection with certain people while alienating others.
- The second reason is context. In this case the volunteer knew he was taking part in- for lack of a better word- an experiment, and wasn’t reading it out of a natural habit. What he didn’t realize was that he reads all the time unconsciously. We all read text in various forms every day- be it in emails, forms, greeting cards, instructions, menus, social media posts, et cetera. We read in a thousand different ways but we don’t necessarily think of many of them as “reading” in the sense of a concerted activity- the way we do with books. At the end of the day, they’re both arrangements of words and sentences. But we approach a book differently. We agonize over it. We’re conscious of what we’re doing. In school I couldn’t concentrate on Of Mice and Men. Years later, as an adult, I read it of my own free will and absolutely adored it. When I get sucked down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and find myself reading about the lives of Gustavus Adolphus or Mithradates VI, I blast through the text with ease. But when faced with boring financial paperwork I can hardly finish a sentence. I’ll sign a contract without reading it.
- Thirdly, I think that reading is a muscle that needs to be whipped up into shape in order to be effective. It’s not an innate ability- it’s something anyone can get pretty good at simply by practicing consistently. When I hit a bad reading slump a few years ago, I got back into shape by starting out with short books with short chapters and a decent-sized font. I opted for plot-driven books and gradually-weened myself onto books that were character-driven or concept-driven. Faulkner and co. will always be there.
As you can see, this stuff has been on my mind for a while. I think people want to read more. I’ve seen quite a few videos and articles crop up in recent years aimed at helping people rediscover the joy of literature. After doing a little research, I decided to offer my own take on the subject not too long ago. I published an article in a magazine called The Ascent, which I was pretty stoked about because this particular magazine had rejected other submissions of mine on five separate occasions. It felt good to finally break through. The article is aimed at helping people read more- whether they’re already reading or not reading at all. If you’re interested, you can find it here: https://medium.com/the-ascent/why-you-arent-reading-as-much-as-you-want-to-be-220c654ed092