In this modern world there are more and more calls on our finite and disparate store of attention than ever before. Our concentration is relentlessly pushed and pulled from one subject to another with ever-increasing alacrity and frequency. Slowly, in a grind that stretches over days, weeks, months and years, our awareness is continually and repeatedly fractured, resulting in our ability to focus being rendered less and less cohesive.
In this accelerating and perpetually amplified widescreen landscape of information, reading can seem at first glance like an ill-afforded luxury, a chore, or simply a waste of time. If you are already straining at the outer boundaries of information overload wont reading just push you over the edge? Why would you actively choose to shove yet more information into a skull-space that already feels like it is a balloon, filled to bursting?
This is a very good and important question. Here, are 7 answers:
#1 You should read because: It gives you more lives than a bag full of cats.
We only have one life that we are aware of. But if you read you are granted access to an infinite amount of experiences, a countless number of lives. Thru the act of reading one book you can absorb and process someones entire journey in one sitting. Every single lesson, every single mistake, and every single scrap of their hard-won knowledge is offered up to you, for the price of a paperback and a few hours of your time.
#2 You should read because: There are no new problems.
There are only a handful of real human problems. It just seems like there are more because they can appear in a myriad of forms. The fact of the matter is: if you have a problem in the present you can be pretty sure that, at some point over the last 3000 years, someone a lot smarter than you has: wrestled with, solved handily, and recorded the solution to said problem in a book which has now been passed thru the Darwinian filter of time and has become readily available for your perusal.
#3 You should read because: It makes you a better writer.
When you read a lot you become better a better writer (and thinker) by osmosis. It happens automatically. What’s that? You don’t consider yourself a writer? Well, just stop and consider how many times a day you: send an email, type a text, or scrawl a note to someone you love. Whether you identify as one or not, the fact of the matter is, that: in today’s world everyone is a writer and being able to express yourself in this form with clarity and brevity is no longer simply preferable, it has become essential.
#4 You should read because: It can shortcut evolution.
I have observed that when I study something (a book, a set of ideas, a piece of writing) intensely and in depth, my behaviour invariably changes without any conscious effort on my part. Why this happens I do not fully know, but the fact remains that it does. When you commit to studying something deeply, if it is something that you truly desire to learn, the very act of studying will cause it to become embodied within you.
#5 You should read because: It strengthens the creative faculty of Imagination.
If you watch a film, or a piece of video, absolutely everything is presented to you. It is all there on the screen. You can just sit back and enjoy the ride. When you read however, you are the one generating: scenes, backdrops, dialogue, and entire worlds. You are both the creator, and the perceiver of a waking dream. The faculty that Einstein said was more important than knowledge, the faculty of imagination, is like a muscle and reading is the greatest gym in the world.
#6 And of course: It is a beautiful, boundless, and infinitely pleasurable.
Reading is incredible. To be fully absorbed in a book or piece of writing is to be somewhere other than this world. Somewhere outside of time. It is one of life’s true joys. From the outside it looks as if nothing is happening. But inside, inside, you can be transported thru time and space to any place, real or imagined.
You can experience devastating heartbreak, the darkest melancholy, or the deepest and most trenchant rapture. You can spend time in the filthy trenches of the first world war, choking on the aroma of the dead, or listen to waves as they lap peacefully on the white shores of some faraway beach. You can witness the whole of life from the perspective of the tiniest insect, or roll ecstatically on the ground while the heavens split open and God herself reaches her blistered arms thru to lay waste to the earth with flame, brimstone, salt and black ash.
All this and more; from a warm armchair; simply thru the act of cracking open a book and reading.
#7 But even after all that, at the end of the day perhaps the most important thing that you gain from reading is: The ability to effortlessly sustain, an unbroken stream of attention. Otherwise known as: the ability to concentrate. Reading can literally be an antidote to the growing malady that is: our perpetually fractured, anxiety-inducing, and increasingly fragmentary awareness.
Because it is actually not the increasing amounts of information which are causing the sensation of overload; it is the reactive and frenetic bouncing of our attention. It is the way that the ubiquitous and screaming inputs of modern life condition our minds to hop from place to place with greater and greater speed; like a frog jacked up on amphetamine pills playing hallucinatory lily pad hopscotch whilst on fire.
In this ever vibrating landscape, in this ever accelerating time, and with these increasing and competing demands for our attention, the ability to sustain your concentration in a focused and unbroken stream for any significant duration of time is a rare and beautiful thing.
In fact, some would say that it is somewhat akin to a Superpower.
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If you enjoyed this you may also like: my love letter to the mountains of Scotland, my essay about one of the best books of advice ever written, or my recent post on how things can be even more beautiful for having been broken.
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