Sunday Salon: Reading–The Superior Hobby?

A few weeks ago, I went through a phase where all I wanted to do in the evenings was lie on the couch and watch TV. So I spent one evening watching nothing but favorite episodes of The X Files. (For fellow X-Philes, those episodes were “Bad Blood,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “The Unusual Suspects,” and “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.”) It was glorious and something I ought to do more often.

That last episode, “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man,” told the life story of the series villain, known to fans as the CSM or the “Cancer Man.” Early in the episode, he’s hanging out on his bunk in his army barracks reading a book. His friend (?) Bill Mulder shows up gives him grief for always reading and suggests that he go to the movies with some of the guys instead. Cancer Man (or Pre-cancer Man, as he hadn’t yet taken up smoking) looks at Mulder and says “I’d rather read the worst book ever written than watch the best movie ever made.” (This is, obviously, before he turned evil. How could an evil guy say that?)

Anyway, that line and the pleasant week of TV indulgence made me think about my own love of reading. While I don’t quite agree with the CSM’s sentiment (after all, even a bad movie wastes less time than a bad book), I’d rather read a good book than just about anything else. But does that make all other interests inferior to reading?

One of the things I’ve noticed in bookish culture is that there’s often an evangelical quality to our book talk. We say we want to share the joy of reading or grow a community of readers. I have nothing whatsoever against this impulse—and I’ve been known to share the “gospel of reading” myself—but I do wonder why we do this. We enjoy reading, yes, but why is it important that others do so?

Now before you slam your laptop shut and walk away, hear me out. I’m not talking here about efforts to teach kids to read or to expose them to good literature so they’ll have the chance to become readers. I’m also not talking about efforts to bring books to people who don’t have them or to help adults achieve basic levels of literacy. What I’m talking about are efforts to get people who are perfectly capable of reading but who have chosen other hobbies—music, pottery, gardening, running, skateboarding, cake decorating, whatever—to become avid readers.

I’ve heard tons of arguments in favor of promoting reading over other interests. Reading builds sustained focus and concentration. Reading teaches us about other people and helps us see other points of view. Reading is a refuge from the noise of modern life. All good points, and true. But is reading the only thing that does these things? Can a person be focused, compassionate, open-minded, and balanced without being a reader? Might there even be other activities that build these and other capacities as well as—or even better than—reading does?

Going back to the CSM’s remark about films vs. books, I can think of many films that require a level of concentration that is beyond me a lot of the time. A couple of weeks ago, I watched the movie Red Beard directed by Akira Kurosawa. I am a big Kurosawa fan, having loved Ran, Throne of Blood, and Ikiru. (The Seven Samurai was too long for me to cope with when I saw it. Maybe I’ll revisit it one day.) Red Beard is a wonderful film, but I couldn’t watch all of it in one sitting. The long periods of silence and slow storyline required a level of sustained concentration that I couldn’t manage all at once. I had to split my viewing into two nights. I find it far easier to concentrate on a slow-moving book for long periods than I do a slow-moving film.

The film, incidentally, was all about the power of compassion and the importance of seeing the humanity in even the lowliest of people, so that puts to bed the argument that books teach better, more life-affirming lessons than films. It just depends on the book, and on the film.

But film and television are passive entertainments, you may be thinking. Reading forces you to use your brain, to engage with the story, to follow the characters. Well, going back to my days of reading, and very occasionally posting on, X-Phile discussion boards and Buffy the Vampire Slayer e-mail lists, I can tell you that I was far less passive about my television in those days than I was about most of my reading. Many of the books I read just went in through my eyes and out of my brain. But through television, I was picking apart complex stories, analyzing three-dimensional characters, speculating about their long histories and uncertain futures. Could any television show support this level of engagement? Probably not, but then neither could just any book.

I’ve mostly talked here about story-based entertainments, but other hobbies, like baking, gaming, and running, also offer benefits that reading may or may not provide. Many hobbies require sustained attention and  persistence if you’re going to get good. Some build creativity in a way reading might not. Certainly, running or cycling build physical endurance, and reading does not. (If you’re me, it works against it, as I’d rather read a book than work out. I make myself walk to the library because that turns books into an incentive to exercise.)

These days, it seems like literary culture is under threat, what with all the library and bookstore closings we hear about and the gleeful proclamations of the death of the book. I’m sure that some of the impulse we have to create new readers is born out of a desire to ensure that there will always be books available for those who want them and a market for those who write them. This is understandable and laudable. It truly is. But we ought to be careful in sharing our love of reading that we not, in our enthusiasm, be scornful of those who are choosing other avenues to growth or other pleasures to pursue. Reading is a good way to spend time, but not reading need not be a character flaw.

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42 Responses to Sunday Salon: Reading–The Superior Hobby?

  1. Harriet says:

    Interesting post. I do think it is perfectly possible to be ‘focused, compassionate, open-minded, and balanced without being a reader’ but when you love books you naturally want other people to love them too.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s absolutely natural to want to share the love. I want to for sure! I think I’m just bothered my the sometime undercurrent of superiority I see when people are trying to promote reading.

  2. Deb says:

    A few years ago there was a bit of a bru-ha-ha in the British press when Victoria Beckham (aka “Posh Spice”) made the comment that she hadn’t read a book since high school. I read a very good editorial (I wish I could remember where–probably the Guardian, my favorite British on-line paper) supporting Beckham’s choice, saying that if she didn’t want to read, that was her decision and she was not responsible for ensuring that other people read. The writer of the editorial said her own mother had been a non-reader and yet she (the writer) had been a reader from an early age and her mother had made it possible for her to get the books she wanted even though her mother was not interested in reading. Speaking for myself, I know that if everyone was based on their fashion sense or ability to do math or participation in sports, I’d be the “loser.” Thank God we can each enjoy our own hobbies and passtimes.

    • Teresa says:

      That is interesting, especially given that despite having just written this post my visceral response to Beckham’s statement was to be scandalized! How could she not have read anything since high school?! But maybe it has to do with my not valuing the kinds of things she is known for doing. But I can think of many people who don’t read who spend their time doing things I do value or whose work and family life leave them little intellectual energy to spare for reading, and they’d rather relax with a movie or gardening or whatever.

  3. I always have to remind myself to be respectful of other people’s choices, including their choice to pursue something else than reading. There’s only so many hours in a day, after all. But I’ve never meet people who don’t read—only people who don’t read as much as me, and that’s rarely feasible for people who don’t want to end up working in the publishing industry. We have to find a way to encourage reading without being dismissive of other pursuits, I think.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know very many people who don’t read at all, but I know lots of people who read very little—maybe one or two books a year. Some of them even say that they like reading, but they like other things more. When I think of all the things I enjoy but that I don’t make time for (like playing music or photography), it becomes easier for me to understand.

      And yes, it’s the dismissiveness of other pursuits that bothers me more than the encouragement of reading.

  4. Lisa says:

    This post initially made me uncomfortable, and I had to think about why. I do have that evangelical tendency, on two levels. One is the “I just read this really great book” feeling, which is one main reasons I started blogging, and feels like preaching to the choir anyway. The other is what you describe above as “efforts to get people who are perfectly capable of reading but who have chosen other hobbies—music, pottery, gardening, running, skateboarding, cake decorating, whatever—to become avid readers.” I can’t imagine a life without books, but I too need to remind myself – and more often – to respect other people’s choices, if possible without indulging in the smug feeling that I have chosen the better part.

    • Teresa says:

      I have that evangelical tendency too sometimes. I really do think it’s natural to want to share the things we love. When some of my less than voracious reader friends ask me for a suggestion of something to read, it’s hard for me not to give them a list of about a million books because I’m so excited. But then I ask myself how I would feel if my running friends were always trying to get me to be a runner. Even if I were interested in running (which I’m not), I don’t really have space in my life right now for taking it up seriously.

  5. Jenny says:

    I wasn’t allowed to watch TV much as a kid, or very many movies, which meant I didn’t know what people were talking about when they talked about film snad TV. This was embarrassing to little me so I compensated by being quite snooty about liking to read. As a grown-up I’m sorry I was such a crank! Television is brilliant and does things books don’t do AND they have that same quality of shareability that I love so much in books.

    Reading is incredibly important to me, so I am of course still biased in its favor. And I do still think that a love of reading is valuable to kids and creates a lot of opportunities etc etc. If you read a lot, you write better, and that’s never not handy. However, I think once that skill set has been acquired, there’s nothing about reading that makes it particularly better than other hobbies. I just want more people to read so we can all talk about books and recommend books to each other.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t have cable anymore, and can only pick up a couple of channels so I hardly ever watch TV, and I often wonder if people think I’m snooty when I say that. But the problem is that I LOVE TV and end up spending all my time on that and forget to read. I can parcel out my TV better if I use Netflix, so I get to enjoy both of the things I love.

      And yes, the main reason I like for people to read is so we can talk about books, not because reading makes them better people.

  6. Bookish Hobbit says:

    I have The X-Files on the instant Netflix just waiting for a marathon viewing. Ah, good times!

    Anyway love the topic of this week’s post. I often find myself a bit zealous to spread the gospel of reading. Some books I find so amazing or definitely to someone’s tastes that I can be a bit overwhelming in my enthusiasm.

    • Teresa says:

      It had been years since I watched The X-Files, and it was such fun to revisit. I was obsessed with that show when it was on. (A few of my friends even called me Scully.)

  7. Chris Harris says:

    I have found that over the years (and its many of ’em now!) that my attitude about this has changed. I used to be fairly evangelical in promoting reading (and my favorite books) and judgmental and dismissive of those who didn’t read. Simply put, I am not any longer. Reading, like any past-time, is something very personal, and some like it and some don’t. We have four adult children, and two of them are voracious readers like us, and the other two rarely pick up a newspaper, if that. Go figure? The older I become, the more of a “live, and let live” attitude I embrace. All I can really do is sing the praises of the good stuff I’m reading to like-minded individuals like all of you, and I do that through my Goodreads account, blogging about books, and reading all of your wonderful blogs. Excellent posting–one of those that makes you stop and ponder things for a few minutes. Cheers! Chris

    • Teresa says:

      I think it’s talking with some non-reading friends that has caused me to shift my own views. I have several friends who are really smart and interested in lots of things, but reading just isn’t a priority for them. It might be that they like reading but like other things more and don’t have time for both. Or it might be that they don’t like reading so much. So often, they seem apologetic about it, and I don’t think they need to be. As you say, personal pastimes are all about personal choice. I’d rather they do something they enjoy with their time.

  8. christina says:

    I absolutely adore your analogy, comparing avid readers to evangelist. So. Very. True. And it made me sorta shudder thinking in those terms because I tell you what, I go ballistic over anyone getting preachy. So, I thought a bit about what that means to me, as a bookworm evangelist.

    First, I have to admit, I’m devoted to giving the kudos to books, especially since I teach middle school and lordy knows most of them would rather be playing video games or texting rather than reading. I then went on to ask myself if I get preachy about how cool reading is to my adult friends, and I don’t know if I do. I mean, sure, I THINK to myself how I wish my partner was a reader. Or heck, how cool it would be if I had any group of readers around me. But, I’m pretty understanding in knowing most of my group are non-readers.

    I guess bottom line is I sorta separate my people (heh) into two groups: those doing and those thinking. And not to say that the thinkers don’t do or the doers don’t think…but that we tend to extend ourselves one way or the other. I want to sit and discuss and EXAMINE life and our choices. Others create THINGS. They build.

    Are most readers thinkers and less doers?

    • Teresa says:

      Now that’s an interesting question. I’d say I’m definitely more of a thinker than a doer. Part of it is that I get worn out when I’m out doing, doing, doing all the time, and I do like to mull things over and try to look at issues from several angles. But I consider blogging something of a creative act, albeit a creative act that requires thinking.

      And I think teachers absolutely ought to be book evangelists, especially when so many kids aren’t exposed to books they’ll like. They can’t know whether they’ll love reading if they don’t give it a fair chance. I hate volleyball and tennis, but I’m still glad teachers made me try it (well, sort of glad, not mad anyway).

  9. Aarti says:

    What a great topic for a post! Hmm, I don’t know how I feel. I think what I love about reading is being able to discuss a great book with a friend and really talk about it and learn more about other cultures and people, expand my vocabulary, etc. But that doesn’t mean that other activities don’t provide people with the same opportunity. People can dissect sports to no end. Same with a lot of TV shows (the Wire, in particular, seems to get a LOT of fans, and Lost). I think there’s something in us that says reading = intelligence, and maybe that’s the wrong connection. I feel like book blogosphere has plenty of people who read a ton but maybe don’t know much about what’s going on in current events -is that better? I am not sure. And, in our overweight world, is reading better than exercising? And, in a society where we spend so much time indoors at a desk, is reading better than taking a walk outside and enjoying the scenery? I don’t know.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, it’s the reading = intelligence thing that strikes me as flawed. Lots of smart people don’t read any more than they have to, and plenty of big readers aren’t so bright. It just depends. I suspect you’ll find a greater proportion of smart people among readers than among nonreaders, but that may just be bias on my part.

  10. Gavin says:

    Most of my friends are avid readers and there is nothing better than sharing my excitement about a book I just read with a fellow reader. I do feel a bit awkward when people are discussing the latest popular TV show, I don’t watch TV, but do watch DVDs, X-Files and Fringe being favorites. I do think that how we get our entertainment is a personal choice. Thanks for starting another great conversation!

    • Teresa says:

      Most of my close friends read at least a little, but our tastes aren’t always the same, and really only a few are avid readers, so I don’t talk books with too many people I know IRL. It’s one of the reasons I love blogging. I have the same problem with the latest TV shows. I wait for DVD, so I’m always behind even on the shows I do watch!

  11. Vasilly says:

    Teresa, what a great post. I agree that those of us who read often can be a bit harsh on people who have other interests. I’m not harsh on those people but I can be on people who refuse to read at all and sadly they’re the majority of people I meet. I don’t know many people who aren’t educators or work outside of libraries and bookstores who read even a book or two a year. . .

    • Teresa says:

      Vasilly, I think I’m somewhere between you and Chris when it comes to the number of readers in my life. Most people I know do seem to read at least a few books a year and some a lot more. I have lots of friends who always have some book on the go. But I also know several people who don’t read at all or who read very little outside of online articles or things they have to read for work. Probably most common in my life are people who only read the blockbusters, like Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. As I think about it, there’s a lot of variety in reading habits among people I know.

  12. Chris Harris says:

    Vasilly’s comment intrigues me, as it is largely completely opposite of my observations and experiences over the past few decades. Sure, I do know a few people who don’t read even one or two books a year (my oldest son being one of them), but the strong majority of folks I know–even casual acquaintances–do read books, magazines, short stories, and so forth, and they are not bookstore employees, librarians, or educators. I ride a high-speed commuter train to work each day, and loads of folks read, probably in excess of 75%. I commonly exchange reading recommendations and book titles with coworkers and commuters all of the time. I guess I should consider myself very, very lucky that I don’t know any “…people who refuse to read at all…”

  13. Jenny says:

    I wonder if there are just some hobbies or pursuits that lend themselves to evangelism, possibly because of the effect they have on the brain or something. Endorphins? Because I have *never* met someone who was all up in my face, going “You have GOT to try knitting, you are going to LOVE it, GET yourself to your local yarn store, girl, where have you BEEN,” whereas I have met lots of people who were like that about books, TV, movies, and various forms of sports and working out. I have a sudden-onset hypothesis (call Dr. House!) that when an activity does whatever it is to your brain, you have the need to share it with others. I know that there is nothing like the happy, excited feeling you get when you’re reading a fantastic book or watching a truly awesome movie. (I wouldn’t honestly know about running a half-marathon or whatever.) It’s probably brain chemistry, essential to the survival of the species. You may mail the Nobel directly to my home.

    • Teresa says:

      Now that is an interesting theory because you’re quite right that it does seem like people evangelize for certain activities more than others. There’s bound to be some kind of reason.

  14. It has been a while since I have just had an evening (or afternoon) of pure TV…. it sounds wonderful.

  15. litlove says:

    I’ve got a son who doesn’t read, so I KNOW for sure that evangelism just doesn’t work. After all, I get put off by people trying to force me to do things, so why would I force others? It’s a natural human instinct to resist. I’d much rather find a choir to preach to – guaranteed better results! ;)

  16. Steph says:

    I think you’re right to question the benefits of being so passionate about one interest… it really is rather myopic, and while I’m sure everyone assumes that whatever they are most passionate about is de facto the best hobby/interest there is, that’s obviously not true! I often lament that the thing I love most is to read, because like you, I’d rather do it than most anything else, ESPECIALLY working out… and yes, I can try to read on the treadmill or whatever, but it’s never as good as just being sedentary and reading! There are days when I really wish that I was someone who loved to be active and for whom running is a joy, but I don’t seem to be built that way! I do have other interests apart from reading, and I do get that not everyone is going to love to read as much as I do, but I will say that when I meet people who read just one or two books a year (or maybe not even that), I feel sad and also a little suspicious. And it’s not that I don’t think there are other ways that you can enjoy good storytelling or give your brain a work out, I know there are, but to me, a life without reading seems like a really barren prospect!

    • Teresa says:

      I do wish I could look forward to working out as much as I look forward to reading but alas, it is not to be. There are things I love to do as much as I love to read, but I realized a while back that I’m happier focusing on a few interests than trying to dabble in everything, so I focus on my reading more than other potential hobbies I could enjoy just as much. I agree that life without reading seems awfully barren, although I know it isn’t that way for everyone.

  17. I agree with litlove – it’s a lot more fun to preach to the choir! When I get excited about a book, I want to share it with people I know will enjoy it as well. I suppose it comes with having grown up without knowing anyone who read the same books that I read. No one in my family is a reader, and I spent my childhood bursting with book talk and no one to share it with.

    And even now that I work at a library, I find that there still isn’t anyone around who shares my book tastes. And I would argue that it’s even harder to convince a reader whose library consists solely of politician memoirs and espionage thrillers to read, say, a fantasy book than a non-reader tween.

    Love The X-Files, by the way. “Go ahead, Scully. Tell him your ‘theory.’ “

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I’d much rather share my reading and book talk in general with people who share my enthusiasm and tastes.

      “And it’s not that Mexican goat sucker” ;-)

  18. amymckie says:

    Personally I read and do hardly anything else and would rather talk with readers about books, even books I didn’t like, than with others who share my taste but not my passion (as others have mentioned above!). That being said, I don’t think other hobbies are bad / worse / etc either. I always point out that TV and movies can be just as informative as books – with any form it depends what you watch or read!

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, it really does depend a lot on what books, movies, TV shows you’re consuming. I’ve gone through several periods where I watch a lot of documentaries, and I learn so much that way.

  19. Stefanie says:

    That is one of my favorite X-Files lines! As for book evangelism, I genreally don’t engage in it. People will read if they want to and find value in it not because I badger them into it. My dad is a non-reader. The only thing I have ever seen him read is a newspaper but if you need your car repaired or almost anything else fixed, he’s your man. So I learned quite early that reading does not make you better or smarter than other people and that someone who doesn’t read can have a perfectly happy and fulfilling life.

    • Teresa says:

      My dad is much the same. He can do quick calculations and fix just about anything, but he’s never been a big reader outside of newspapers and magazines.

  20. Honestly, even as a teacher, I’ve never been overly bothered by people who don’t read. Because I do. I love it. Not everyone will. I think, yes, certain activities are kind of mind numbing – video games (mainly).

    But you’re right – other hobbies have value too. Some people spend the bulk of their time volunteering or doing work as an activist. There’s quite a lot of value in that.

    I personally have plenty of things outside reading I enjoy. I love to make things and love to decorate my house. It brings me pleasure. Classic films are my favorite to watch, and many are very artistic.

    Do I wish more people saw value in reading? Yes. But if someone really, truly doesn’t like doing it, it doesn’t bother me. There are plenty of readers in this world, and thankfully, my family and friends all read.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve thought the same about video games, until I start talking to people who are involved in some of the more story-based or problem-solving games, and then I can see how engaging (in a good way) that can be. So sometimes the things we don’t value can have value we don’t see. I think a lot of the time, the problem is that we don’t see what value others have in the things we don’t personally enjoy.

      That said, there are plenty of things I consider a waste of time, but more often than not, they’re things that I do myself and then feel bad about the time I wasted doing it. (Watching crappy TV, noodling around online for hours, etc.)

  21. Eva says:

    One of the bits I loved most from The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is when the author points out that the book-obsessed lovers of reading have always been a minority of the population and always will be, and that that’s ok. Most of the people in my non-internet life aren’t huge readers (my mom being the big exception), and I’ve never felt the need to convert them.

    That being said, I’m crossing my fingers that my niece (now 5) got the reading gene: I think being such a voracious reader helped me tremendously in school on everything from standardised tests (hello SAT) to just doing my homework because there’s so much reading and writing involved. Not to mention the pure joy it would bring to her life! ;)

    I do think that television/dvds can be excellent and thought-provoking (and in the case of travel documentaries, I think it’s generally superior to book travelogues), but I also find that television is much more product-driven than books. After all, the book need only sell itself, while a tv show has to sell commericials…especially with the recent rise in product placement, I’m troubled by the level of consumerism that’s being incorporated into it.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the big reasons I quit watching TV except on DVDs/Netflix streaming was the level of advertising. Commercial breaks seemed to get longer and longer and shows got shorter and shorter, and then little promos started showing up at the bottom of the screen during shows. Hate that! Of course, product placement is still an issue with TV through other means, but at least the commercials are gone. I don’t seem to see the product placement as much (if at all) on BBC shows, which is what I mostly watch these days.

      • Eva says:

        I agree re: why I don’t watch much ‘live’ TV! The BBC is government funded, so they don’t need product placement, which is nice. We need a stronger PBS! :)

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