The Case for Reading Books
I recently engaged in a lively discussion with several high-profile EAs wherein they voiced their indifference, or even distaste, towards reading books. Having assumed that those who prioritize rigorous epistemics would be avid book-readers, this took me by surprise. They argued that unlike a podcast, which one can listen to at double speed while doing other things, reading doesn’t optimize for information absorption. While some conceded the value of reading nonfiction or condensed summaries of academic articles, few “wasted” their time on literature. While optimization has its utility, I would echo Owen Cotton-Barratt’s claim that there are cases where it misses the mark. When it comes to reading books (or not reading them as the case may be), over-optimization discounts several key human values.
Aristotle’s Ethics offers us a great starting point to better understand these values. He begins: “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good. Hence the good has been rightly defined as ‘that at which all things aim.’ For our purposes here, arguing for the “good” derived from reading fiction is rather bootless unless one agrees with the premise; humans strive toward the good, and the good is attained through a plurality of pursuits. Aristotle goes on to claim “that the supreme good is obviously something final…Now we call an object pursued for its own sake more final than one pursued because of something else…Well, happiness more than anything else is thought to be just such an end…” I argue that reading books engenders this happiness, propelling us towards a multitude of intrinsic goods. Given this, reading books for the sake of reading books, more than for the sake of acquiring knowledge or synthesizing facts is precisely what must be defended.
THE CULTURAL AND INTELLECTUAL MILIEU
My first argument in favor of reading fiction is to better understand its capacity to influence worldviews and shift values. Books such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther defined whole movements, inspiring objectivists and romantics to find their exemplars and cultivate their own unique aesthetics. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm mobilized readers against totalitarianism and coined lasting prescient phrases, such as “Big Brother is watching you.” Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality has attracted numerous people to the EA and the rationality community. Yudkowsky teaches readers how to think more rationally through entertainment and memorable characterization, effects that employ far more emotional power and resonance than reading them in a nonfiction context would. While not every movement looks to the literary canon, there are myriad examples that show how fiction communicates ideas powerfully and persuasively. Reading books allows us to uncover and explore the ideas, assumptions, and hypotheses that inform humanity's past and present and, quite possibly, its future.
Another argument in favor of reading fiction would be its world-building. A good novel creates a believable alternate reality. While many people may have heard the adage about how fiction forces readers to suspend their disbelief, I am far more partial to the idea that good fiction generates belief in proportion to its skill at world-building. This may be a trip back in time to a well-documented historical period, a visit to a foreign country or a different city, or a journey to a utopia or imagined future. We inhabit these worlds utterly alongside their residents in a far different way than when we are shooting the shit over the dinner table about what life was like in 18th century Great Britain or what it might be like to live in some future space colony. While some might see this as mere escapism, I argue that we gain a broader perspective on humanity and a deeper capacity for caring. A skilled writer gives us the smells, sounds, textures, and events of each environment. We don’t just lose ourselves in their fictive world; we co-create it. Unlike in a movie or video game in which others have done world-building for us, we must engage our imaginations to supply the physical spaces and the sensory details.
IMPROVED THEORY OF MIND
This imagination activation helps explain the various studies that have shown that reading literary fiction improves Theory of Mind, that is, the capacity to infer the thoughts and emotions of others. The results of these studies indicate that literary fiction uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences. Insofar as EAs value moral circle expansion, ideological pluralism, and ethical uncertainty, improving one's capacity to experience the world of the other is positively valenced.
Via the characters, we have the pleasure or the revulsion of being someone who we might not be. We can inhabit another gender or age. We experience different lusts and goals, different fears and hatreds. Our pace and our risk tolerance might be different. An only child can grow up with siblings. One from a large family can experience loneliness. The single can marry, the faithful commit adultery, and the atheist speaks in tongues. The healthy can wither away from illness, succumb to drink, be tortured by mania, be tortured by torturers, and close the covers and survive. This fictive exploration liberates us from our narrow existence in our literal body, which is not only useful for policymakers and scientists, but for neighbors, colleagues, parents, coworkers, and lovers as well.
This empathy-building becomes more important as we struggle to engage with those unlike ourselves. In his preface to Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Michael Hofmann comments: “What we like is 'relatable,' whatever that means, while what we dislike or makes us uncomfortable is 'depressing.' What hope is there for our species if narcissism governs us even when we are reading?” Hofmann’s indignation reflects the fundamental expectation that reading provides a way out of our echo chamber through sustained and immersive reimagining.
Reading brings us a greater variety of voices than we usually encounter in the echo chamber of our confreres. We can immerse ourselves in the clause-rich sentences of Herman Melville. We can visit the regional idioms of Edward P. Jones. Or we can choose the caffeinated staccato of Lawrence Sterne. Additionally, while reading, we learn style from stylists. We apprentice ourselves to linguistic virtuosity that can inform our own forms of communication. They demonstrate how a beautiful or potent sentence is made. Witnessing eloquence—whether in a market fight conducted in Pidgin or an imagined sermon or battlefield exhortation—gives profound pleasure while enhancing our own ability to craft sentences. Fine writing echoes the excellence demonstrated by athletes, musicians, and artists. We improve thereby, or—dare I say—we maximize.
RICH AND DIVERSE QUALIA
The act of reading also provides physical stimulation and pleasure. A pleasure that often goes beyond the arousal produced by the plot. A book is an object every bit as enjoyable as a tungsten cube or a MacBook and reading them expands our qualia both tactically and intellectually. With high-end books, we can run our hands over smooth, creamy pages and enjoy a large, readable font—perhaps even letter-pressed or illuminated. We can delight in stitched bindings that last for generations or from the silky bookmarks sewn into them. Vegans might eschew leather bindings, but cloth bindings or marbled boards serve just as well, creating objects that are luxurious and aesthetically pleasing.
Additionally, the very layout of physical books invites closer reading. Via the printed page, we take in a broader section of the text at a glance. We can mark notable lines and pages with bits of scrap paper until our books bristle like a porcupine. We can tuck in paraphernalia, such as relevant photographs, news clippings, pressed plants, and poetry—perhaps even an author’s reply to a fan letter. The book becomes a physical version of hypertext. Margin notes remind us of who we were or what we were looking for when we read them. We can look at our shelves and see at a glance which books have offered the richest mining.
THE CASE AGAINST READING BOOKS
The objections of my friends that prefer to speed read, scan summaries, and listen to podcasts at warp speed often sound similar; why read hundreds of pages on a topic when you could simply gloss or be supplied with the book’s major points? There is certainly something to this argument. When I finish reading a book, even one that I have loved, I often struggle to recall more than the major ideas. To the extent that six hours of reading boils down to a few memorable points, why not spend a more concentrated amount of time absorbing those major claims from the onset? For me, even if I cannot remember the concentric rings of plot thickening and information augmentation that happen within a longer work, I am left with an impression that remains well after the book’s finer points have escaped me. The experience I gain from the act of reading deepens the information I do come away with, and the extra hours spent circling the dominant claims provide an emotional substratum upon which the information rests.
Book reading skeptics may insist: why come away with an “impression” when information-gathering is the principal objective of reading? This is a reasonable objection for those who primarily care about the content gained from non-fiction. For those who value efficiency and succinctness, why aim for emotional resonance at the risk of repetition? Time is exceedingly valuable.
Other arguments against the value of reading books may simply indicate a difference in subjective pleasures. Maybe for one, high-thread-count sheets against bare legs are more luxurious than the feeling of velvety paper against the fingertips. Perhaps alliteration, word-play, and dialect do not delight them as thoroughly as they do me. Pleasures and preferences are deeply subjective and the truth is that there are a plurality of ways to absorb information, engage the imagination, and indulge in curiosity about others’ range of experiences.
Although I too am a voracious consumer of podcasts and audiobooks, I maintain that reading books stands apart from these other modalities from which we consume content. Reading literature encourages immersion, focus, and empathy expansion while offering aesthetic and tactile pleasure. And even if reading books doesn’t necessarily make one more moral or kind, it is something to celebrate, especially as we continue to tout literacy rates as one of the most obvious metrics of human progress. In addition to this, reading helps develop the slower, more effortful system-two thinking that encourages rational decision-making and logical judgments. It expands our worlds and connects us to a timeless genius. So while I support frenzied listening and economical summation, there remains a robust case for reading on the grounds of pleasure, preference, and patience.