The Importance of Reading

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The cultural critic and educator Neil Postman published in 1985 an important work that continues to have relevance, if not more of it, in fact, today. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business is an argument that our reliance on visual media at the expense of print has been to our detriment. Postman does not claim that this medium of communication is all harm and no benefit. Rather, the trade-off we make when we receive the bulk of information we obtain through the screen as opposed to through reading is one that has resulted in the deterioration of knowledge and discourse. Indeed, how we even define “knowledge” and what it means to be an intellectual has transformed in the age of television, a transformation that has taken a new dimension in the age of social media. Appealing visual aesthetics and the ability to speak in soundbites are rewarded with an elevated platform and status. Whether the individual engaging in this performance has substance or not is irrelevant, because the crowd wants a spectacle, and a spectacle is what they will get.

To demonstrate what we lose when we stop reading, Postman breaks down the mental processes that must be called upon in this increasingly discarded intellectual activity:

You are required, first of all, to remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time. If you cannot do this (with this or any other book), our culture may label you as anything from hyperkinetic to undisciplined; in any case, as suffering from some sort of intellectual deficiency. The printing press makes rather stringent demands on our bodies as well as our minds. Controlling your body is, however, only a minimal requirement. You must also have learned to pay no attention to the shapes of the letters on the page. You must see through them, so to speak, so that you can go directly to the meaning of the words they form. If you are preoccupied with the shapes of the letters, you will be an intolerably inefficient reader, likely to be thought stupid. If you have learned how to get to meanings without aesthetic distraction, you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and objectivity. This includes your bringing to the task what Bertrand Russell called an “immunity to eloquence,” meaning that you are able to distinguish between the sensuous pleasure, or charm, or ingratiating tone (if such there be) of the words, and the logic of their argument. But at the same time, you must be able to tell from the tone of the language what is the author’s attitude toward the subject and toward the reader. You must, in other words, know the difference between a joke and an argument. And in judging the quality of an argument, you must be able do several things at once, including delaying a verdict until the entire argument is finished, holding in mind questions until you have determined where, when or if the text answers them, and bringing to bear on the text all of your relevant experience as a counterargument to what is being proposed. You must also be able to withhold those parts of your knowledge and experience which, in fact, do not have a bearing on the argument. And in preparing yourself to do all of this, you must have divested yourself of the belief that words are magical and, above all, have learned to negotiate the world of abstraction, for there are very few phrases and sentences in this book that require you to call forth concrete images. In a print-culture, we are apt to say of people who are not intelligent that we must “draw them pictures” so that they may understand. Intelligence implies that one can dwell comfortably without pictures, in a field of concepts and generalizations.

To be able to do all of these things, and more, constitutes a primary definition of intelligence in a culture whose notions of truth are organized around the printed word.

It is interesting to note that the first verse revealed in the Quran was also a command to read. Based on what this activity entails, Islam is considered a religion that requires a believer to develop their intelligence as part of his or her religious and spiritual practice. Otherwise, as we see in this visual media-rooted culture that dominates our world today, the religion will turn into aesthetic displays and soundbites that will collapse at the first signs of what this world is created partly to be, a place of testing and tribulation.

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For in-depth discussions with Dr. Mohamed Ghilan on books and articles such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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