The Reader’s Manifesto

Joan Westenberg
@westenberg
Published in
5 min readJun 13, 2024

We are a society rich in information, but poor in wisdom.

Social platforms blast out byte-sized nuggets 24/7, news networks shout over each other, and the foundational concept of “truth” seems to shift with the tides of public opinion.

With all the technological progress we’ve made in the 21st century, you’d be forgiven for thinking we should live in a golden age of enlightenment and understanding.

But as we look around at the silos that increasingly define our culture, a creeping fear has to be taking hold; we are losing our ability to think critically.

We have reached a point where dogma overrides logic and reason.

We have forgotten how to read — the written word, our cultural norms, the world around us, and each other.

The internet made knowledge more open and accessible than ever.

Access to information would no longer be limited by geography or socioeconomic status.

The accumulated knowledge of human civilisation would be available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. The internet’s early adopters imagined a borderless world, united by ideas rather than divided by national boundaries.

But a funny thing happened on the way to utopia.

Rather than opening our minds, the limitless buffet of online content narrowed them. Confirmation bias found fertile ground online.

The designers of social algorithms, attempting to maximise user engagement, quickly learned that emotional triggers generate more clicks and views than nuanced arguments. The online economy gradually incentivised provocation over substance and sensationalism over analysis.

The result: our society has never been more polarised.

We increasingly retreat into ideological bunkers, attacking any perceived challenge to our thinking. Objective truth is dismissed as a quaint notion of a bygone era.

Anyone with a smartphone can become a content publisher, and any clear lines between journalism, opinion, entertainment, propaganda and outright fiction have become almost hopelessly blurred.

We scroll through our curated newsfeeds — meticulously assembled to feed us more of what we already believe, with a generous serving of rage bait — and feel comforted that we’re on the “right” side.

How do we pull ourselves out of the partisan morass, rediscover our ability to think for ourselves and find common ground with those we may disagree with?

The answer: we read.

I’m not talking about skimming and scanning on our devices as we rapidly fire likes and shares that reinforce our worldview.

No, what we desperately need is to rediscover the lost art of deep reading — the type of engaged, focused reading that challenges us with complex ideas, transports us into others’ experiences and perspectives and demands our full intellectual engagement and concentration.

Step back from the online cacophony and immerse ourselves in content longer than 280 characters or a seven-second TikTok video.

Sit down with a book, magazine, or long-form article, block out distractions, and dedicate our minds to better ideas.

It’s an act of rebellious empathy.

There’s something uniquely powerful about the written word, consumed in a focused, uninterrupted session.

Studies have shown that readers of literary fiction demonstrate an enhanced ability to understand other’s mental states and beliefs, a crucial skill in navigating complex social situations.

Research out of The New School in New York City directly linked reading fiction to the improved theory of mind, the capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires different from one’s own. Extended immersion in text has also been shown to improve the ability to sustain attention, a facility under assault in our current climate of constant distraction.

Reading across a genres, subjects, and perspectives has the power to pop the filter bubbles that many of us increasingly find ourselves in, both online and off. It’s how we develop a healthy intellectual humility, where no single ideology or belief system monopolises truth.

Reading gives us the tools and the skills to disagree without demonising, secure in the knowledge that grappling with opposing viewpoints sharpens and tests our ideas.

I’m not advocating that we all curl up with War and Peace every night at bedtime (although that wouldn’t be the worst idea).

But we can consciously choose to carve out a chunk of our day for focused, uninterrupted engagement with the written word. It could be 45 minutes with a physical paper, a half-hour with a favourite blog that publishes in-depth analysis or reporting, or fifteen minutes with a collection of poetry or short stories.

The length and format matter less than the act itself, of fully immersing our attention in the text, grappling with the information and ideas presented, and reflecting on how each new input shapes, supports or challenges our existing knowledge and beliefs.

If this sounds like a lot of work compared to the easy dopamine hits of social media browsing or partisan news consumption, that’s because it fucking is.

Over evolutionary timescales, we have learned to favour novelty and quick payoffs over sustained effort and delayed gratification.

Reading a book or lengthy article offers few of the instant rewards that our primitive brains crave.

But in the same way that eating a nutritious meal provides our bodies with more sustenance than consuming junk food, reading in a slow, focused, critical manner nourishes our minds, cultivating the cognitive capabilities we need to be engaged, citizens and lifelong learners.

Consider this a manifesto, a call to arms for anyone who wants to reclaim the power to think and decide for themselves, a provocation to reshape our relationships with the glowing screens that are hijacking our attention.

It’s an invitation to rediscover the joys and the critical necessity of slow, focused engagement with the written word.

Will it single-handedly heal the divisions tearing at our social fabric or save us from descending into a post-truth world?

Probably not.

But when it’s all too easy to passively ingest a daily diet of infotainment and ideological comfort food, reading is a damn good start.

Change has to begin somewhere. Why shouldn’t it start between the pages of a book or within the paragraphs of a well-crafted essay?

Never underestimate the power of a single transformative idea, transmitted through language, to change the arc of a human life. Multiply that by millions of lives, each shaped by the revolutionary power of words, and the ripple effects could be staggering.

All of us — in our understandable desire for comfort, validation, and a feeling of control in an uncertain world — will continue to retreat at times into informational cul-de-sacs that tell us what we want to hear.

We’ll fall prey to provocations designed to stoke our outrage and sense of tribal belonging.

Myself included.

But the future of our discourse and ideas depends on our choice to turn away from the exhausting online circus. To find ourselves in a gripping novel, carefully researched history, or thought-provoking essay — content that transports, challenges, and brings us home to our shared humanity.

Realising that no single perspective can contain the whole truth, we can and should engage with an assortment of ideas, including and especially ones that differ from our own.

That may be the highest ideal of the written word in 2024 — to help us rediscover the common threads that unite us, the collective human story running deeper than any divisions, politics or belief.

Join thousands of other readers, creators and thinkers who subscribe to @Westenberg — where I write about tech, humans and philosophy.

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