Do we really need to read books anymore?

image from: https://hankgarner.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/reading-books.jpg

The other day, I was talking to one of my younger cousins about his aspiration to become a writer in film. A friend of his parents, who has become something of a non-blood related uncle, had apparently told him that in order to succeed in the screenwriting industry, it’s important to get into the habit of writing regularly — becoming prolific from an early age can be beneficial in the same way that starting to save money from a young age can produce a large pool of savings in the future.

I totally agree with this sentiment; although I’m certainly not the best example of a prolific aspiring writer working towards her future, I’ve certainly been made well aware of the importance of writing every day in order to improve.

But what I found interesting in following up with my cousin about his aspirations to be a writer was his insistence that reading as frequently as he writes is not really important in helping him develop in his writing. I definitely didn’t agree with this, I mean after all, Stephen King, in his 20 Rules for Writers, claims that one becomes a writer “simply by reading and writing”, and who has been more prolific through a lifetime of writing than Stephen King, right? But hearing a seventeen-year-old’s idea that watching film is more important to developing as a screenwriter made me stop and think for a second — my cousin kind of had a point. It probably does feel more beneficial for him to watch films if he aspires to write them than to engage with the exhausting tirade of classic literature thrown at him in his high school English classes. When I was a sophomore in high school, I distinctly remember nursing an online blog with regular posts inspired by randomly Googled writing exercises, and writing what I thought to be the next great American novel during lectures in English class.

But that didn’t stop me from reading the books that were assigned to me. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a story about a young vicar sent to work in a parish in an Aboriginal community in British Columbia, was one of my favorite books we read that year. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden struck me as self-absorbed and less than compelling. But I still read it all the way through. When I thought I might succeed as an English major in college, I suffered through almost every section of Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, though I only gained a C+ in the class for my efforts. I’ve always loved to read, and even when the material was dry and uninviting and required for school, I was usually more than willing to give it a chance.

So to hear my cousin’s distaste for reading books struck me as strange — why would someone who feels inspired to write, like me, not feel the same pull toward reading? How else other than reading can you familiarize yourself with the tiny nuances of grammar, the fragility and importance of dialogue and scene description?

In answer to my cousin’s insistence that he doesn’t need to like reading books, I suggested first that he simply hasn’t arrived at the right book yet. But secondarily, I proposed that maybe it would be helpful for him to read screenplays, rather than just watching the finished product. He’s already way ahead of me and had previously considered this. But it was the best idea I could think of, as I’d long ago learned that trying to get people to read books when they don’t want to is a useless and frustrating battle.

This conversation with my aspiring-screenwriter cousin has only been one in many recent conversations I have had about reading. More specifically, reading books. But it came at a good time for my own personal reflection — these conversations beg a larger question for me: in an age of endless articles and visual media, exactly how important is reading books anyway?

Obviously, as someone who loves reading books, I would argue, very important. But as sad as it makes me to admit this, I can see the point of those who claim there isn’t time or they don’t have energy to devote their time to reading anything longer than a New York Times article. And so much is happening day-to-day in this country, shouldn’t we devote our reading time to keeping up with the daily news? With what is happening in the new presidency, and all the sexual assault scandals and the world of Elon Musk and ever-changing technology, shouldn’t we pay more attention to the newsletters and Yahoo! daily news stories that flood our email inboxes?

Ugh. Yes, we should pay attention to these things. But at the same time, I think it’s important to remember that in history, the media has always been something with which we should be careful — we should take news with a grain of salt. Not to say that every book ever published has been fact-checked and filled with the sanctity of truth. Books are technically media anyway, right? But they’re a completely different type of media.

I’ve recently been on this kick for sociological journalism-type books. Things like Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones, and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, and it’s been in a few days of rocketing my way through these hundreds of pages that I’ve found much of the solace and stimulation I remember feeling when reading books in my childhood. Reading a book is just so different of an experience than reading an article online or in a magazine or newspaper. It’s for this reason that I’ve had such different experiences reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and his two most famous Atlantic articles.

A few days ago, while reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander at work, a girl walked up to me and, (a little drunkenly) said “Oh! I just bought that book, I’m so excited to read it, do you like it?” Wary, I answered that I did, qualifying my answer by explaining I was on this sociology book kick lately. Then she asked me if I liked Ta-Nehisi Coates, and went on to explain that she had just moved to California from Kansas City, where she had worked as an English teacher in an inner-city school where she had taught Between the World and Me for several years in a row. I was thrilled by the connection — look at what simply bringing a book to my job and reading it in sight of other people had allowed to happen! Books are super interesting, and I clearly wasn’t the only one in the bar to think so.

I want to be a writer. Although I don’t always know how to answer the question of exactly what writer I would like to be. Leaving college and entering into the “real world” has been hard, especially since it’s been confusing to for the first time not have assigned reading anymore.

I hope for my aspiring writer cousin that he finds a form of reading that inspires him, even if it isn’t books (for now). But I won’t stop insisting that he simply hasn’t found the right book yet.