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Reading in 2020

French Breakfast Radishes

If daily life took its course without our engagement we would be reading more words and fewer books.

With the rise of social media a lot more words are being published and many readers get “glued to their phones” as they take in all the words and video they can within a circle of friends and followers.

Long form reading in books is an essential part of staying informed. It took a conscious effort to stop my entropic slide to reading no books each year to include long-form reading in daily life. Ironically this began by using the social media tool Goodreads. By setting a low annual goal of 16 books per year in 2018 I surpassed it and have increased my book reading every year since. In the first five months of 2020 I read 26 books.

Reading short pieces, newspaper and magazine articles, and social media posts is an important part of securing new information about our lives in society. At the same time erosion of book reading leaves us the less.

The current book on my night stand is Save the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl who spent ten years as editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. An intellectual masterwork? No. I found Reichl’s reference to William Carlos Williams annoying, yet the pace is quick, the chapters short, and the language a straightforward narrative. It’s how a person with a specific experience wrote autobiography. The more experiences of writing styles we have, the better writers we can be. If you forced me to put this book in a category, it is summer reading and a part of a broader universe of reading material.

We seek in reading, in any format, an understanding of the person behind the writing. When I review my social media feeds, some people I know personally and have done things with. Others I know by their writing. There’s a reason it’s called “social media.” There are people behind the posts or at least that’s what we hope.

That is less true of book reading where the author may be present in every page yet strive to minimize their personality or presence in the words. Can a book stand separately from it’s creator as a work of art? I don’t see how it’s possible to separate the work from the author’s social context. In that regard, historians are the worst. There is an ideology of history writing and to attempt to hide or diminish it is a disservice to the reader (Oscar Handlin). There is a politics and poetry of writing history. There are books on those subjects. It is possible, and I’d argue necessary, to both adore historians (Robert Caro) and despise them (Doris Kearns Goodwin) that has nothing to do with the information presented on a book’s pages.

I look at reading the way I view being a food consumer: I seek to know the face of the farmer and in the case of reading, the face of the author. That’s true of any reading I do. I am more likely to trust, read and comment on something an acquaintance posts because we physically met and I’ve followed them in social media long enough to understand something about their social context. The same is true for writers in mass media. I want to know who they are and what their history is rather than read a single sensational story. As a reader and human, I’m in it for the broader picture.

The rise of artificial intelligence is producing computer generated writing. I think we need to inoculate ourselves against this fake writing by spending time learning about authors and reading their published work. As the noted philosopher Taylor Swift wrote, “the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake.” We need to be able to shake them off. That requires us to be informed readers.

If we are going to read more at least some part of our lives should be engaging the authors of those words. Obviously it’s less possible for dead writers. Yet we are living now and should be spending part of our time reading full-length books both as a supplement to short form reading and as escape from it. Entropic decline in long form reading is something we must address in our lives. That is, unless we accept the mutation of humans will eventually include genes for mobile phone adaption.