Why Read Books?

The current age is that of technology—but more importantly, that of the Internet. We thrive on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. We watch movies on flat screens, post pictures on Tumblr, and text instead of talk. Our world is instantaneous, filled with fast-paced sound bites and  bold colors to catch our fleeting attention. We get frustrated if a webpage takes more than one second to load.

In this kind of world, books seem boring—an outdated method of receiving information or entertainment. Unless they’re e-books, they’re not eco-friendly, take up space, and require time and patience.

So, why read books? Here are four good reasons:

1. Words are the medium of ideas. Whether spoken or written, we use words to communicate with each other—to facilitate relationships, hash out ideas, and express emotions and needs. Without words, we would be reduced to little more than animals. Think of Helen Keller. Before she learned how to use sign language, she was impossibly lost in  isolation, with no language to communicate. When Anne Sullivan  gave her the gift of words, Helen was finally able to share her thoughts and ideas with others.

For millennia, books have served as the medium for preserving ideas. Whether the idea is a mathematical theory, cooking recipe, or family history, books allow us to entrust wisdom to others. I can pick up a copy of Plato’s Republic and hear the ideas that founded Western culture—ideas which are still relevant and discussed globally.

2. Reading is good for the brain. I’m not talking about reading dense philosophy or science books. The very act of reading—even a fun novel—stimulates the functioning of the brain. Research at Emory College has found that reading makes the brain more receptive to language, and increases the connectivity of neurons. These changes last for up to five days after a reader has finished a novel. Reading is an active engagement of the brain to the material on the page.

3. Books give us perspective. By myself, I can’t understand what others have suffered, or what it means to be part of another culture. But I can learn so much with a book. Reading Gone With the Wind helped me understand a period of US history from the losing side. The Secret Life of Bees and To Kill a Mockingbird showed me what it was like to live on the wrong end of racial prejudice. Books take us outside ourselves and teach us to see through the eyes of other people. Hopefully, we can learn to be more understanding and avoid the mistakes of older generations.

4. Books require imagination. One of my rules of life is to never watch a film adaptation before I’ve read its book. Starting with the movie ruins the book for me, because I’m left with the actors’ faces in my mind, instead of using the author’s words to invent my own picture. Books are grand in a way films can never be, because books allow us to imagine. The mind is a wonderful place to wander, and books help us find our way there.

I’m not saying  we should forsake technology in favor of printed material. Other mediums can certainly engage in the same ideas as books. For example, the movie Dead Poets Society has helped me think through the narrow-mindedness of certain social expectations, just as reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice did. Video games teach problem-solving and strategy skills; blogs provide immediate interaction with ideas. These mediums are valuable in their own right.

But for me, there is nothing better than printed words on a solid page. Books are worth reading.

Because it’s too Hot for Heavy Reading

In our Summer Reading Symposium, I recommended three books for summer reading. I love these books too much to leave it at a mere ‘name dropping’. Let me try to convince you, using the opening line, my thoughts and an excerpt from each, that the three books I mentioned are really and truly worth your time this summer.
1. There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

There is a people-pleasing, ego-centric bug named Humbug. A watchdog named Tock with a complex because his watch-body goes “tick.” Dictionopolis, where words grow on trees, since we all know money won’t. Alex, a boy who is growing down, instead of growing up, (his feet might still be dangling, poor kid). The Terrible Dyne, who can’t stand anything harmonic. And a boy named Milo, whose existential crisis sends him in fantastic lands where he meets all of these characters, and a whole lot more.

Juster fills every page with word plays, imagination, poignancy and all-around incredible wit. A light and fun read, especially if you can read it to someone out-loud.


“Pardon me,” said Milo to the first man who happened by; “can you tell me where I am?”

“To be sure,” said Canby; “you’re on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You’re apt to be here for some time.”
“But how did we get here?” asked Milo, who was still a bit puzzled by being there at all.
“You jumped, of course,” explained Canby. “That’s the way most everyone gets here. It’s really quite simple: every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It’s such an easy trip to make that I’ve been here hundreds of times.”
“But this is such an unpleasant-looking place,” Milo remarked.
“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Canby; “it does look much better from a distance.”

As he spoke, at least eight or nine more people sailed onto the island from every direction possible.

“Well, I’m going to jump right back,” announced the Humbug, who took two or three practice bends, leaped as far as he could, and landed in a heap two feet away.

“That won’t do at all,” scolded Canby, helping him to his feet. “You can never jump away from Conclusions. Getting back is not so easy. That’s why we’re so terribly crowded here.”

2. Papa is in his easy chair, reading the Sunday sports page.

The Brothers K by James Duncan

645 pages—right. I have time to read that…  well, I made time. Or, more, Duncan’s  book made me make time—I couldn’t put it  down. Why have more people not read or  heard of this book? It is a largely  unrecognized gem of 20th American l  literature that, categories aside, might just  give Doestoevsky a run for his money.  Duncan’s intricate story takes the reader  into the world of a family of eight: an  aloof, baseball-playing father, the intense,  religious mother, and four brothers and  two twin girls.

From Indian trains, to Vietnam, to a  backyard makeshift bullpen, Duncan seamlessly carries the reader through people and places, emotions and theories. In a single page, I would hit sections where I verged on tears and then, farther down, burst into laughter. Even though he switches through a variety of narrators, Duncan always maintains both consistency and creativity in tone. The book is honest—sometimes painfully so—but also gracious, convicting and entrancing. In both content and length, definitely an epic.

“Mama is a Seventh Day Adventist. She doesn’t make Papa go to church because she can’t figure out how to, and she doesn’t make Irwin to because he loves church and would go no matter what. But Everett, Peter, the twins and me she makes go every Sabbath unless we’re sick. And today is Sabbath. And I’m not sick. And the sun is already so hot outside that everything all bleached and wobbly-looking, as if the whole world was just an overexposed home movie God was showing Jesus up on the livingroom wall. And whenever it’s really hot, Elder Babcock’s sermon—even if it starts out being about some nice quiet thing like the poor or meek or weak—will sooner or later twist like a snake with its head run over to the unquiet subject of heaven and hell, and who all is going to which, and how long you’ll have to stay, and what all will happen to you when you get there, and he goes on so loud and long and the air gets so used up and awful that bit by bit you lose track of any difference between his heaven and his hell and would gladly pick either over church.”

3. I don’t know whether my life has been a success or a failure.

Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber

In every Marx Brothers act & film, Harpo never says a word. But he has a lot to say—nearly 500 pages worth, in fact. But I never would have guessed that like The Brothers K, I could not put down Harpo Speaks. Harpo takes the reader through through his childhood home, Brooklyn’s Jewish ghetto, through life on the road, Hollywood, vaudeville stages and celebrity mansions and private islands. Harpo is an entertainer, and that remains true in his writing. The book is filled with hilarious stories, bizarre people and the behind-the-scenes lives of the Marx brothers.

For example, Harpo tells the story of when his parents wanted to get Chico (one of his brothers) piano lessons in New York. The cheapest teacher was a lady who only knew how to play with her right hand—so Chico was formally taught only how to play right hand. Watch him play closely in the films, and you’ll notice that his left hand tends to only play basic chords and rhythm, while his right hand spins insanely across the ivories.

…or the story of how Harpo was—literally—thrown out of his elementary school window by Italian bullies, and never again returned to formal education.

Snappy writing, fascinating characters, quirky stories and one heck of a man. Even if you don’t get around to it this summer, Harpo Speaks  is a must read, especially for any fan of the Marx Brothers.

“I was looking forward to a solid weekend of practice, without interruptions, when my new neighbor started to bang away. I couldn’t hear anything below a forte on the harp. There were no signs the piano banging was going to stop. It only got more overpowering…

I went to the office to register a complaint. One of us had to go, I said, and it wasn’t going to be me because I was there first. But the management didn’t see it my way. The new guest, whose playing was driving me nuts, was Sergei Rachmaninoff. They were not about to ask him to move.

I was flattered to have such a distinguished neighbor, but I still had to practice. So I got rid of him my own way.

I opened the door and all the windows in my place and began to play the first four bars of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, over and over, fortissimo. Two hours later my fingers were getting numb. But I didn’t let up, not until I heard a thunderous crash of notes from across the way, like the keyboard had been attacked with a pair of sledge hammers. Then there was silence.”

Move these three books to the top of your queue–you won’t regret it. They are the epitome of summer reading. All you need is some iced tea, a lounge chair and big sunglasses. Or, if you live in Seattle, coffee and an umbrella. If you have extra time, check out what my colleagues recommended too (but :coughminearethebestcough:).

That’s Why They Call Them Browsers

By Ken Myers
Lately, a lot of what I’m reading has been concerned with how I’m reading, with whether other people are reading, and with how reading influences our inner lives, both our brains and our souls. Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (July/August 2008) is an elegant exploration of some of the themes explored by media ecologists. Carr has the feeling, he confesses, that the way he thinks has been changing. It’s increasingly hard for him to concentrate on extended arguments presented in books for any sustained period. “I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.” He reports that many friends and colleagues report the same sensation, and he’s convinced that the cause behind this effect is all the time he spends online.
As Carr describes it, the way knowledge is organized and acquired online encourages certain mental habits while discouraging others. And it reinforces a specific model of human knowing, “a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed.”

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