In an op/ed in today’s Shanghai Daily, Wan Lixin laments that serious reading has gone the way of the dodo. He writes that, according to a recent survey by the Chinese Institute of Publishing Science, the number of Chinese reading books has decreased sharply since 1999.
Wan says that it is not only China that has been affected by this trend, as sales of books globally has diminshed in the past five or so years. The causes are many, according to Wan, and one is the rise of electronic media.
E-reading is now preferred for its advantages in instantaneous transmission and retrieval, whether on computer screens or hand-held reading devices. While some laud this as a revolution, there are also concerns. One apparent reason is that e-reading cannot evoke the kind of deep engagement possible with traditional reading. Another concern is that the quality of the content of e-media is not first-rate. As Andrew Keen observed in his “The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture,” “Millions and millions of exuberant monkeys … are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity.”
The internet has indeed changed the way the world processes information: blogs have spawned as if created by fission, media websites now outstrip their paper equivalents in terms of content and readership, email is doing away with the need to buy stamps.
But has the world really changed that much? Has modern life done away with the serious reader? Wan writes that the writer Zhi An divided the world’s readers into three categories: non-readers, utilitarian readers, and non-utilitarian readers. A utilitarian reader is one that, in the words of Virginia Wolfe, “reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.” But Wan argues that today most people do not read for their own pleasure.
But today people invariably read to be lectured, elevated, instructed, or improved. Or more exactly, they read to improve their employment prospects, to pass examinations, or just for ornamental purposes. These purpose are strictly functional. This is a process necessarily induced by the modernized way of life. It is true that science and technology enable humans to use the most efficient or cost-effective means to carry a process to extremes. But since technology tends to focus on the “hows” of an action, rather than the “whys,” we no longer care to reflect on the value of doing something. In our obsession with profit maximization, we are destroying everything not “functional,” such as drama and poetry.
This is a world stacked with self-help and DIY books, where self-congratulatory, singleminded opinion merchants reign supreme. Wan believes China (and perhaps the rest of the world) is transforming into a culture that only tries to amuse itself, going so far as to quote George Orwell – what we hate will ruin us – and Aldous Huxley – what we love will ruin us.
But this overlooks the gems, the blogs, magazine articles, books, poems, songs and all other manner of art that doesn’t follow into the two dystopian views held by Orwell and Huxley. And because of that, it misses the joy that can be had in discovering a new blog post by a favorite writer, reading an extended magazine article, or the pleasure found in simply reading (or writing) – part of the joy of reading someone like Gabriel Garcia Marquez comes from the very act itself.
So, able reader, continue to inundate yourself with RSS feeds and automated email updates. Never pass a table full of free magazines without stopping to grab a few for yourself. Amuse yourself, educate yourself, distract yourself. Words in all forms can be poetry, and they are everywhere to be found.
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I don’t buy that. I always have at least two books on the go – not just because I always get delayed at Chinese and Indian airports and need something to read to pass the time – but also because I enjoy it. A story unfolds so much better in print. What am I reading now ? Colin Thubrons “Shadow of the Silk Road” and William Dalrymple’s “The Last Mughal”. Neither of which are available online. Plus you can put a book down to look at a pretty girl in a departure lounge or hotel atrium. You don’t do that with a computer in a business centre. Books = Romantic, pleasurable. Online = Business, work. Anyone who can’t see the distinction isn’t egtting out enough. (says he, writing online !)
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