"What Are You Reading?" Why Books Are As Important Today As Ever

We ask each other a lot of questions throughout the course of a day, many of them in an effort to better connect with each other. By far, one of the most frequently asked questions must be “What are you watching?”. Twenty years ago it was “What are you reading?”. I think it is about time again that “What are you reading?” takes its place again as one of the most frequently asked questions.

“What are you reading?”

Books, which are translated into every language, remind us all on a macro-level of our humanity, our commonalities and the struggle that each of us face daily. “What are you reading?” is a question that can change lives; these simple words can connect races and bridge nations.

When I was six years old, my parents moved our family from Connecticut to Idaho. As a six-year-old, I considered my best friend to be my uncle. He taught me how to hold my baseball glove properly, how to play Pepper, and how to keep track of baseball stats at Yankees’ games. His most important gift, however, came ten minutes before we began our cross-country trek. He ran out of my grandparents’ house with a bag holding his own copies of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

He told me to have my mother read us a chapter a night from the trilogy and at the end of each week, he would call to talk about it with me. All I cared about at the time was the fact that I was leaving my home and my best friend; in my mind it was the end of my relationship with him. But unbeknownst to me, The Lord of the Rings was the reason I could call him each week. We would cut through the superficialities of most phone conversations and have something exciting to discuss.

I will never forget the anticipation leading up to those Sunday calls. We would discuss the Fellowship and our favorite members of it, as well as their contributions and their struggles. Here we were, 20 years of age and 3,000 miles separating us, yet once a week we connected and engaged with each other on the most important questions that face humanity: survival, destruction, good, evil, friendship, love, and loyalty. We did not previously have much in common, besides being related; he was a 25-year-old MBA student and I was a six-year-old kid, but now we shared a fundamental bond and reading was our conduit. That simple gift changed my life and prepared me for the next 24 years of my life.

We need to read and we need to read often, now more than ever.

We live in an era of remarkable progress and innovation. Man and his insatiable appetite for progress and his quest for truth and meaning, has invented some marvels, none more so than the internet. Human beings are social creatures and yearn to be connected and the internet provides us with that connectivity that we crave.

But just as with anything else, there is a balance and this very blessing of connectivity can also be a curse. The internet gives us the ability to process billions of data points instantaneously. It enables us to know at all times what is happening absolutely everywhere. Therein lies the curse.

This need for connectivity and instantaneous information becomes a distraction and leads to impatience. With the emergence of social media, this connectivity allows us to casually share throughout the course of the day our most intimate moments of life with those thousands of miles away from us. Quality of life can be improved drastically as more and more employees work remotely and choose to live where they want, and for the first time in the history of civilization, man no longer is bound to build his life around where his job resides.

This hyper-connectivity is a double-edged sword. Coupled with the great advantages are the curses of depression and suicide, both at all-time highs, especially amongst teenagers. The teen years are difficult times no matter the era we live in. It is a time of growth, both physically and emotionally, and because everyone is just trying to figure out where they belong in this world, teens tend to criticize each other harshly.

Twenty years ago the home was the respite of the high school years. In the age of social media, the onslaught is endless. Yet no one puts down their devices to disconnect, not even the depressed teens. Why? Scientists tell us that the very nature of connectivity has also brought about the phenomenon that millennials call “FOMO” or “fear of missing out”. How can we disconnect when something exciting can be on the horizon or when someone might reach out and like something you said or posted? Scientists continue that “likes” actually produce the same levels of dopamine as any drug, cigarette, or drink does. Is it any wonder that our children, the first generation of connectivity, are depressed and suicidal at such alarming rates? They have been addicts since that first iPad was put on their laps.

Every app on our phone battles for our time, each one rewarding us with a dopamine high. We get our fix as soon as our eyes open, and studies show, on average, that we will chase that high once every 11 minutes, until our eyes close, no different than the heroin addict. The very engineers of this connectivity, in recognition of its curses, have created on those same devices, apps which allow people to disconnect and refocus, however to those recovering addicts it is like storing the heroin in the addict’s room.

So how can we recharge and refocus? How can we become less distracted and impatient, yet at the same time maintain our ability to connect with people? Well as you might have guessed, the answer is reading.

Books are an incredible technology in and of themselves. By their very nature, they force their reader to change the habits of daily life along with all of its hustle and bustle. A book can’t interrupt you. Only you have that power. Books must be read one at a time forcing the reader to be thoughtful and introspective. They are the perspective of an individual carefully and meticulously written out, word-by-word. As each word is consumed, the reader draws his own conclusions. This is in a stark contrast to the way our information is given and processed in this age of connectivity. Rather than one individual inputting and another processing, today the media uses “collective consciousness”. In a display of ultimate irony, in an age of individualism and individuals rights, the expression of individuals is slowly being eradicated.

Once the author puts the words into place and those words become a book, it cannot be changed. The idea, whatever it may be, is a part of society. When one reads the book there can be no rants or hashtags to affect change against it when you disagree. The words on the page will not be altered. When we read a book, we are truly forced to put aside our beliefs and ideologies for a brief period of time and listen to someone else’s perspective. Just maybe, this will allow the reader to evolve, grow, and improve himself for the better. There is much power indeed in a book. It is no coincidence that when dictators take over a government they immediately burn books and imprison writers. Books are the last great defense against tyranny; books are champions of freedom.

So if books are indeed stalwart bulwarks of free society, and if society is made up of individuals, then they must also be paramount to the individual and his quest for improvement. Socrates, upon hearing of his death sentence, said, “The unexamined life is a life not worth living”. Every religion, from Christianity to Buddhism, speaks of nightly examinations of conscience. But what good does it do to examine your life without anything against which to benchmark yourself? Books allow you to compare your choices to others’ across a chasm of time. They allow you to learn about yourself as an individual as well as the world around you, both past and present. Books can help make you a better person and then provide you the confidence necessary to enact those changes, because in reading you realize you are not alone. Through reading you can feel connected to others in ways you never imagined. Perhaps this is why bookworms are never lonely, for as C.S. Lewis says, “We read to know we are not alone”.

No book is more popular right now than the self-help book. After all, the purpose of a book is to examine ourselves and compare ourselves to others. What better way for social comparison and connectivity than reading the words of someone who has, for all intents and purposes, helped themselves become better?

People have been receiving life-changing guidance from novels long before the ascent of the self-help genre. In fact, novels and works of fiction can accomplish what even the best self-help books cannot. They can increase our ability to empathize because they force us to look at things from the perspectives of different characters, thereby engaging our imagination, and helping us see things differently.

The more one reads the more disciplined and focused they become. The capacity to process, store, and recall information becomes greater. Their command of language and how to construct it becomes stronger. And the knowledge they gather from the book never goes away, rather, as Warren Buffet says, it “builds up, like compound interest” guaranteed to grow over time. As one’s knowledge compounds, so does the ability to utilize language to communicate that knowledge and the empathy to wield it wisely. Confidence with one’s own ability increases, as well as the ability to learn new material and present it to anyone, which could help with those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts, in that it would create new ways of looking at the world.

So then does it truly matter what we read? Should all of our book choices be made with improvement in mind? I would say yes and no. Over time you want your book choices to reflect the growth you are seeking, but a balanced diet is the best diet, so too should your book lists be. It is better just to read—whatever catches the eye. There is always something that can be learned from any book. A wise person once told me that no book is so bad that you can’t find anything in it of interest, regardless how base you might think it to be. In fact, it is most often when reading for pure pleasure that we realize how the characters of those fictions have shaped us.

If someone asked my friends or family to describe me they would most likely say I am fiercely loyal and someone who strives always to see the humanity in people no matter how they might have treated me personally. It is unlikely that I was born with these traits. I had the fortune of being raised by incredible parents who fostered an environment of learning, one in which TV access was limited and constant reading encouraged. So I read and would often re-read the same books.

My two favorite books are The Lord of the Rings (counting the trilogy as one) and The Count of Monte Cristo. My favorite characters are Samwise and Edmund Dantes, respectively. Could it be mere coincidence that Samwise is fiercely loyal and dedicated to those close to him and Edmond Dantès, in spite of the great wrong brought against him, and his brief period of darkness, finally realized that it is only through love and loyalty to our family and friends that we can see the humanity in every person, including those who have wronged us? As I reflect on my past, I can see how these books shaped me.

In every stage of life, there are a genre of books for that period. Through the late 20s and into the early 30s of my life, I am focused on climbing the corporate ladder. What better way to learn than to read the biographies of the great men of civilization than to see firsthand how they rose to power and most importantly how they ultimately used that power for good and improvement? One could read Julius Caesar and be awed how one man could do all he did for Rome in such a brief period of time. Certainly conquering nations abroad and then conquering the senate couldn’t be any different than conquering the business world? One could also read a biography on the brilliant but troubled Richard Nixon and analyze his own meteoric rise to power, and at the same time, one can learn from his mistakes and avoid pitfalls of power that can plague every leader as their responsibility increases. Simply open up Carolina Maria de Jesus’s Child of the Dark and read her gut-wrenching account of life in the favelas of Brazil and as you take in the following excerpt, consider the horrors she must have endured living in a third-world country:

When I die I don’t want to be reborn. It is horrible, to put up with humanity, that has a noble appearance. That covers up its terrible qualities. I noted that humanity is perverse, is tyrannical, self-seeking egoists who handle things politely but all is hypocrisy.

One can suddenly find themselves much more empathetic to the plight of the refugees and immigrants, desperately trying to escape a world in which they see no goodness, eager and willing to do anything to improve the quality of life for their family. Certainly in the midst of #metoo campaign and conversations about gender roles, one could delve in to the crass, base, and vulgar book Diary of an Oxygen Thief which is narrated from the male perspective and takes a raw and uninhibited look at the complicated relationships between men and women through the eyes of an alcoholic misogynist who valued nothing but was still somehow loved by women.

A reporter once asked what the key to success as an investor was and CEO Warren Buffet simply pointed to a stack of books on his desk and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day, and you’ll see.” In his interview with Time Magazine, Bill Gates discussed his voracious appetite for reading and how those books influence his life and mind. He also said the book he re-reads the most is The Great Gatsby and that it is special to him now in a much different way than it was in high school. His favorite line from the book: “His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.” When asked why he incorporates fiction into his book lists he said, “Because a good fiction can take me out of my head for a moment and put me into someone else’s”.

Abraham Lincoln never had more than a few years formal schooling but he was an avid reader. He attributes his success to an insatiable desire to read anything that he could. Abe Lincoln’s books of choice: fiction and the bible. As one reads his speeches it is hard to believe he never had any formal education, yet as he said, “a capacity, and taste for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key to the already solved problem…and gives a relish and facility for successfully pursuing unsolved ones.” Bill Gates would much more simply say that reading keeps him young and curious.

We truly do live in a time of incredible invention and ingenuity. We are surrounded by devices smaller than the hand yet more powerful than anything the mind can comprehend. In the most dystopian of ways, the very technology we build to improve ourselves could be the cause of our undoing. Rest assured that the last line of defense lies in the oft-forgotten but nevertheless greatest technology and invention of all time: the printing press and therefore the book. Without books we are, as Lincoln says, “unconscious” and we are conditioned to think “our minds incapable of improvement”. Therefore we will look to our superiors, our media and politicians, “the educated and superior few”, while considering ourselves incapable of thinking on as individuals and enacting change. “Books”, Lincoln continues, “emancipate the mind from this falsehood and connect man where time and space would prohibit it.”

So the next time you go to ask someone what they are watching, think twice and maybe ask instead, “What are you reading?”. This could very well change your life.

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