The world changed in 1436.
Thanks to the brilliance of a German engineer, the long-held belief that knowledge was reserved for the upper echelon of society was shattered thanks to the printing press. Knowledge now belonged to the common man. Entertainment was available to the miner's wife, the corn farmer, and just about everyone else.
The world changed in the 1920s.
Combining magnets and wires in an unusual way, people discovered they could send voices and music across the plains. Radio shows became something people looked forward to. The sound of banjoes and twang reverberated through the South, saxophones, and trumpets in the North. The news was available almost instantaneously. Radio was born.
The world changed again in the 1950s.
Sound was now accompanied by moving pictures on a little box. The news was delivered even faster. People started to fall in love with actors.
Again the world changed during the 1990s with the adoption of the internet and yet again in the 2000s with social media.
It's changing still today with artificial intelligence and virtual reality. But with all these changes, did things actually get better? Did we become smarter? Are we able to solve problems more intelligently? Probably. But what have we lost in all of this?
Under the conditions of 24/7 news cycles, dopamine-inducing videos, and an infinite amount of information available at the end of your fingertips, reading a complex book and engaging with it intelligently is now an act of defiance. People are amazed when they hear that I buy two or three books per week but seem to think it's normal to binge entire seasons of Grey's Anatomy in a single day.
The technical revolution has inhibited us from maintaining deep literacy.
Deep literacy, as defined by Adam Garfinkle is '[engaging with] an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author's direction and meaning.' Henry Kissinger, writing about the attributes of deep literacy in Leadership, puts it best when he writes:
To the politically concerned, deep literacy supplies the quality Max Weber called 'proportion,' or 'the ability to allow realities to impinge on you while maintaining an inner calm and composure. Intense reading can help leaders cultivate the mental distance from external stimuli and personalities that sustains a sense of proportion. When combined with reflection and the training of memory, it also provides a storehouse of detailed and granular knowledge from which leaders can reason analogically...Books record the deeds of leaders who once dared greatly, as well as those who dared too much, as a warning.
When you read about the tragedies experienced during the World Wars, your daily problems are put into perspective. Having a delay at the subway doesn't seem to be the end of the world when in the 1900s there were people your age being shipped off to sea to fight for freedom or starving and freezing in concentration camps. Taking a vaccine or having to take a sick day doesn't seem to be quite the inconvenience when you know hundreds of thousands of people--sometimes even whole towns--were killed off due to the epidemic of different cases of the flu.
When you read philosophy written in AD 150 that seems to resonate just as accurate now as it did then, you understand your problems aren't as unique as you might think. People have been struggling to get out of a warm bed for 2000 years (and probably even longer than that). Humans have always struggled with maintaining their composure under stress, regulating their emotions when they want to strike revenge, or dealing with heartbreak from jealousy or death. When you read, your eyes are opened to the truth that there really is nothing new under the sun.
Or at least, that's why I read.
I read because nowhere else can you learn the inner workings of the human psyche quite like reading a great novel. I read because nowhere else are the thoughts of the UK Prime Minister during World War 2 recalled than in his six-volume set of memoirs.
I read because it connects me with someone who once lived before teaching me how to live now.
Why do you read?