Ready Player One, and How I Fell in Love with Reading Again
I struggled with books. Don’t get me wrong: I read a ton. I read articles, blog posts, the Economist and the occasional guilty pleasure dive into a random subreddit. But somehow, books were different. I’ll routinely pick up a highly-recommended tome, make it about a third of the way through, lose interest, then decide I’ve gotten the point and pick up the next one. I have no idea what’s contained in back half of many books I’ve “read”. Because of that, I focus on books I think will be useful, so I can get as much value as possible before putting it down. For that reason, I haven’t picked up a novel for some time.
But then on a whim, I Amazon one-click-ordered Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a sci-fi novel that a friend said I just had to read if I wanted to understand the future of virtual reality. I get recommendations like that all the time, and sometimes I’ll just buy the book even if I won’t read it right away. Sometimes I’ll never read it. The book sat dormant in my Kindle library for a couple of months while I tried to finish Andy Grove’s legendary High Output Management, one of the most useful and information-dense — but driest — books I’ve come across. It’s great for bedtime reading: 20 minutes in I’m guaranteed to be asleep. At a chapter break, I convinced myself that I deserved a break from book boredom. I flipped through my library and tapped Ready Player One, having mostly forgotten why I bought it in the first place.
Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.
The next thing I know, it’s 2 in the morning, four hours later. The Kindle progress indicator said I had read 30% of the book, and the battery on my iPad was about to die.
What the hell just happened?
It had been a long time since I’d been sucked into a book like that. I used to read John Grisham and J.R.R. Tolkien novels when I was in high school, but I don’t really remember what that experience was like. But even so, it felt like this was different.
I think there’s a mental muscle, a piece of the imagination that allows the words to jump of the page of any book, creating a world that immerses the reader. Like any muscle, if gone unused it goes dormant. In all of the business books and non-fiction that I’ve read, I’d lost the ability to not just read and understand, but to truly imagine the contents of the pages. It’s one thing to comprehend what an author is saying, it’s quite another to see the words through their eyes, to immerse yourself in the world inside the pages. I think I needed a book so vivid, so mesmerizing, so completely relatable that it could touch that muscle again.
I ripped through the rest of the book that weekend. I thought that once I got back to more substantial books, the vigor I felt for the words would fade. I was afraid to jump back into High Output Management, fearing that the boredom would return just as quickly as it had left. I moved on to Moonwalking with Einstein, a true story about our ability to memorize things. Ripped through that one too. Then Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Then more meaty stuff: I picked up Superintelligence, a denser read about AI. By the time I re-tackled High Output Management, I felt that I could bury myself in any book with a fervor that I always wanted before but never could quite get. I felt myself soaking in the pages and imagining the world differently than I had before. Sure, the book was still dense and still pretty dry, but my experience with it was totally different.
I had fallen in love with reading again.
When we watch a video, all the imagining is done for us. We don’t have to visualize words, because someone else has already done that. When we read, we’re forced to visualize the words, to wrap meaning around the concepts that are being communicated. While I could understand what any author was saying, I had lost the ability to experience a book. It took a sci-fi adventure book to snap me out of that, to tickle the synapses in my head that can see a different world without putting a picture on a screen.
Ready Player One is about to become a movie, directed by Steven Spielberg. I’m going to go see it, but only out of curiosity. The world of that book — and many others — is already in my head.