I don’t think reading books is likely to make a person smarter, happier, or more economically productive

Last night, I told an acquaintance of mine that I don’t really think there are any writers which I would call a “must-read” for anyone, because I do not believe that is particularly good for a person. I clarified by saying that: a) I think that reading books yields few practical benefits; and b) reading books does not tend to make people happier.

(At this point I feel the need for a clarification. Clearly books are really useful things that collectively contain pretty much all of mankind’s knowledge to-date and alot of that knowledge can definitely make you happier and lead to some pretty awesome practical benefits. What I am talking about when I say ‘reading’ refers to literature: mostly fiction, but also any nonfiction works that people read primarily for their literary value like, for instance, St. Augustine’s or Rousseau’s Confessions. )

The first of these points is the one I have believed in for the longest time: probably since high school English class. In every English class I took , the teacher would attempt to convince their students that reading and discussing great works of literature would improve their ability to think. This seemed kind of specious to me. Most of the thinking a person needs to do in life involves solving fairly concrete problems: How can I program a computer to perform this task? How can I convince this person to sleep with me? How can I score some cocaine at 3 AM? How can I get my boss to promote me? How can I get my teacher to give me a good grade?

How does discussing books help with this kind of thinking? How does it make me better at solving these problems? At the time, I didn’t think that my English teachers had actually managed to make the case that finding examples of foreshadowing in The Great Gatsby would ever help me do anything.

However, I will admit that it is possible that doing the kind of critical analysis involved in certain kinds of reading could make a person into a “better thinker” through some non-intuitive channel: maybe the same intellectual muscles are involved in both kinds of thinking.

But in my observations, I have not found that to be true. I have found that people who read a lot, and read deeply, and think about what they read (the best kinds of readers, in other words) tend to be very articulate. They tend to be good at putting words together in a way that sounds good. Often, they’re even pretty good at constructing arguments.

But, professionally speaking, they do not seem to be significantly better at their chosen fields than people who do not read very much. They do not seem to be blowing anyone’s minds with the strength and originality of their thinking. While we can all think of good readers who are also doing well professionally, we can probably think of many more good readers who are underemployed (they’re bartenders, waiters, clerks, etc.). And we can also think of many people who seem to be doing very well in their profession, but who do not read very much at all.

Of course, this is absolutely anecdotal. I have no proof that reading doesn’t improve a person’s thinking. It is possible that all the good readers I know would be significantly less intellectually fertile if they did not read. And it is possible that all the successful non-readers would be much better off if they did read.

But to me it seems like that whole renaissance-man ideal – that notion that excellence requires a mind well-versed in many things – is not how we think about intellectual productivity nowadays.

Nowadays, we are all about specialization. We are about 10,000 hours of practice. We are about working for something for five hours a day from the age of 11 onwards. We’re about genius being the result of hard work. And to my eyes the most successful people I know – the most economically productive people I know – are the ones who spare the least time for cultivation of artistic sensibilities…because they spend all their time working in their chosen field.

This is in no way a bullet-proof argument. It’s merely the way the world seems to me. I’d be interested in knowing whether it looks the same way to other people: do you think that being a good reader (or an appreciator of art in general) makes a person better at solving the intellectual problems they will encounter? Does it make them more creative in non-artistic field of endeavor?  Does it make them more economically productive? To me the answer to all these questions seems to be no.

Okay, so that’s the part about whether reading (and remember, I am talking even about being a ‘good reader’: someone who savors every word of Proust and heavily annotates his Joyce) will be practically beneficial. But we all know about Wilde’s aphorism that all art is quite useless. Who cares about that practical stuff? What about the spiritual effects of reading?

First of all, I’d like to say that I think that what a human being aims at is to be happy. Of course, there’s all kinds of kinks involved in this objective – the hedonic paradox and all that – and who even knows what happiness is, right? Maybe happiness is not the real goal after all, but it’s just the currency our bodies and souls are paid in whenever we do the right thing. Okay, but in that case, happiness is still meaningful somehow. It’s still how we know what we want to do.

So, does being a ‘good reader’ make people happy? Well…in my talk with my acquaintance, we thought about a few different aspects of this.

If the acquisition of knowledge is something you value, then reading a lot (and reading ‘well’) will make you happy. I think that is true, and it’s part of the reason why I read. But, on the other hand, all that knowledge is just knowledge of books. Many of those books are novels which don’t contain much knowledge about the real world. Viewed this way, reading is a somewhat arbitrary game. I think that a person would derive much the same sort of pleasure from having a knowledge of chess strategies, or of fishing techniques, or of great bars in cities around the world, or of innovative international development programs. Connoisseurship is a real pleasure: but I think that the pleasure is the same no matter what one is a connoisseur of.

And finally, there is the simple pleasure of reading. Reading itself is a lot of fun.

But there are a lot of things that are fun. Is reading more fun than walking through the woods? Is it more fun than watching TV? Is it more fun than imagining oneself as Emperor of the Universe? For me the answer to all these questions is “sometimes”.

Sometimes, for me, reading is the most fun thing I can do. But other times it isn’t. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s the last thing I want to do. And I find it very easy to imagine a person for whom that ‘sometimes’ is ‘most of the time’ or ‘all the time’.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. People are different from each other. If a person doesn’t derive pleasure from reading then I would advise them not to read.

There are so many people in the world who feel so guilty about being poorly read, or about not having read enough, or not reading at all. Sometimes I think that the unhappiness resulting from these insecurities (as well as the sheer drudgery of hundreds of millions of children being forced to grapple with ‘classic’ novels whose consumption will lead to no spiritual or intellectual benefit) exceeds the gross total of pleasure that people get from reading, and that the result is that this pastime actually increases the net amount of misery in the world (as opposed to pastimes that, I think, cause more widespread pleasure and carry less cultural baggage, like popular music or television).

But the question was whether reading makes people (who like to read) happier. And I don’t even know if that is the case. It doesn’t appear to me that good readers are happier people than non-readers. I am not even sure why they would be. Readers don’t seem more subtle. Their taste for pleasure does not seem more refined. They do not seem to fall in love more easily or stay in love for longer. They do not seem more compassionate or more moral. I am often unable to tell whether a person reads frequently or not at all. There doesn’t seem to me to be any difference in the characters of readers and non-readers. Readers, if anything, often seem somewhat gloomier and less content than non-readers. So then what is the spiritual benefit?

Again, this is a totally open-ended question. It is just the way things seem to me. How do they seem to you? What attributes can you see in good readers? Do they seem happier to you than non-readers do?

The most I am willing to commit myself to on the question of the spiritual benefits of reading is that a certain kind of person can derive a lot of pleasure from it. But, again, I am not sure that this pleasure either leads to greater happiness or that it is a greater (or even a particularly different pleasure) from that which other people derive from walks in the forest or from watching TV.

All of this philosophizing about the role of reading is something I am free to do, of course, because it has very little practical effect for me. I decided a long time ago that I was going to devote a significant portion of my time to writing fiction. The decision was not one that was made on a wholly rational basis, but it is a decision that I have not questioned. And one of the things that reading definitely does do is improve one’s writing, so whether or not reading is a good idea for y’all…it’s definitely a good idea for me.

And I do also think that reading is fun. It’s a very complex, very immersive game: something that is much better than World of Warcraft in terms of quality but not morally superior to it. Reading involves entering into thousands of fantasy-lands that are connected in very strange and subtle ways and then navigating those fantasy lands using a variety of techniques: different reading styles, different modes of thought, different moods and viewpoints.

For me there is nothing in reading that is particularly like the real world. The emotions I feel while reading don’t seem to me to be particularly like the ones I feel when something happens to me in my own life. The joy I get at reading about a courtship is not at all like the joy of witnessing the courtships of my friends, for instance.

But I’ve come to see that fiction is not really about the real world. It’s not really about psychology, or extrapolation, or how things would play out in reality. It’s about something else. It’s a kind of learned commentary on the real world. It bears more resemblance to our inner landscapes than to the outer landscapes. I can’t be more specific than that, because…well…this is a blog post. You’re not going to get all the answers here.

Anyway, I think I’ve made my viewpoint pretty clear. But how do you all feel about reading? Would you consider yourself a good reader? Do you have reading-related insecurities? Has reading made you happier? Do you think that the lives of non-readers would be improved if they started reading?

4 Comments on “I don’t think reading books is likely to make a person smarter, happier, or more economically productive

  1. You make an interesting argument. My own experience is that the most voracious fiction readers have not been the most successful. Which seems pretty odd, because if you do what the heroes in novels do, you should be successful. Of course novels leave out all the drudgery and intellectual difficulties (though not the moral difficulties).

    There may be a counter point to your argument. How do you compare tv watchers to readers? Are big readers more or less successful or happy than big tv watchers? Are tv watchers less healthy, more unhappy, less successful? we do call big tv watchers couch potatoes after all.

    Perhaps instead of looking at the top of society (the successful and happy) we could look at the bottom (the miserable and destitute).

    Readers will engage in different kinds of reading associated activity than tv watchers. Readers look for books in libraries, book stores, etc. Readers evaluate books when choosing them. Readers look for good books and good writing. These extra-reading activities also lead readers into new areas of reading.

    I believe a reading life tends to engender some basic study skills and it also tends to engender more curiosity. Greater study skills and curiosity are advantages in the pursuit of success and happiness.

    What happens with the voracious TV watcher? Certainly a lot of repeats, seeing the same shows again and again. And probably the TV watcher has watched some Judge Judy and Jerry Springer. Maybe a lot of Judge Judy and Jerry Springer. The big TV watcher has seen thousands upon thousands of commercials, the same ones, over and over and over again.

    I don’t believe time spent watching commercials is advantageous to success and happiness. Especially hundreds of hours of commercials.

    Reading is certainly not the magic key to rising to heights of success and happiness. Although it probably is necessary to keep you out of the depths of a passive reactionary life.

    All this aside, it’s not reading that makes a success, so much as study. How many studious people do you know and how do they measure up in a success and happiness comparison?

    Study of course requires reading. The more reading the better. Study requires action. It requires engagement, and exploration, and facing challenges. In many ways, studying is the opposite of tv watching.

    • Study definitely does seem correlated with successfulness. And people who study well and learn well seem to do pretty well in life. Maybe that is a linkage of sorts. It doesn’t seem at all implausible to me that being a good reader might beef up a person’s study skills.

      It is hard to see the benefit to commercials, since people don’t even enjoy watching them: they don’t even the minimum threshold (of just being entertaining) that we expect out of even very socially unacceptable pastimes.

      But big TV watchers do track their favorite shows. They talk about movies. They follow the lives of movie stars and television stars (which I kind of do too…) and they go (usually in groups) to movie theaters. It seems like there is, if anything, more of a social / adventurous component to television than there is to movies. I don’t spend very much time talking about books with people, except when I post on this blog.

      But I do think you have a good point that reading might make the miserable and destitute more happy. I don’t know anything about that first-hand, of course, but I do remember that there is something lonesome and heroic about a reading lifestyle. Our society valorizes reading so much (and it is such a solitary and endless activity) that it is very easy to feel like one is engaged in a tremendous adventure when one is reading. Sometimes I think that reading can be very lonely, in comparison to watching television (which I find very comforting, and social, even when I am watching alone), but I think that there are times in one’s life when one does not want to be part of a herd…and reading is very good at making a person feel like her or she is unique and alone. Although so is music, I think.

  2. This is why I read:

    “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is nothing we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”
    R.D. Laing

    Reading opens my mind about what kinds of people there can be in the world, and what kinds of lives they have. When I encounter such stories, about things I had never before thought of, I can feel liberated and/or empowered. E.g. reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might make me feel empowered or inspired to resist authority structures that I resent. Or, I might read a nonfiction account of someone’s life that makes me think “oh, wow, there are people in the world who actually do X. So I guess it’s ok for me to do X too.” Not that I cannot act without having an example to follow, but I do find it instructive to hear about what examples there are.

    Another reason is that it’s really nice to encounter authors who have put into words a thought or idea that you value. The above quote is a good example: I’ve had similar thoughts before, but to find a quote that puts it succinctly helps me crystallize my own idea, and gives me that nice feeling of having people to agree with.

    • Certainly, thoughts like that are the short-term hit that support the illusion that reading books is making you smarter, happier, and/or more economically productive. But just look at the world around you. Are heavy readers the smartest, happiest, and most economically productive people? No.

      Also, in terms of what you’re talking about (the way that books inform us about lifestyles, thoughts, people, etc, that are outside our own range of experience), for every bit of knowledge that books give us which can be used to map out the world more accurately, they also give us another bit of knowledge that’s false…that’s about an illusory made-up world.

      As Nabokov noted, all novels are fantasies. The world depicted in novels–even ostensibly realist novels–usually differs significantly from the real world in a variety of ways, the most significant being that the causality of narrative is different from the causality of reality. In the real world, there are no turning points, or climaxes. Events frequently happen for no discernible reason. And even when the reasons can be discerned, they are usually things far outside our control. But in our minds, we persist in using narrative logic to explain the real world. We’ll say, for instance, that failures in peoples’ lives are the result of their own decisions, or they’re the result of malevolence on someone else’s part. Insofar as this way of thinking is due to reading stories, it is making us stupider.

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