Does Reading Do More Harm Than Good?

The phrase "only boring people are bored" scares the sh*t out of me.

I mention this because I often read for the express purpose of avoiding boredom. Isn't reading supposed to be one of life's simple pleasures, not a way to kill time?

The thing is that very rarely is boredom just boredom. It's actually the brain's way of pretending to be indifferent to fear. So reading could be a way to suppress fear. This sounds like a terrible coping mechanism.

It just happens, though, that a lot of the unpleasantness in life can be delightfully sidestepped or at least ignored via picking up a book. It can tell smelly people on the subway to leave you alone. It can tell your roommate to leave you alone. It can buy you time on your lunch break to be left alone. Sometimes a person just wants to be left alone! To me this is less a crutch and more a necessity of being alive.

Or maybe the problem isn't boredom so much but transitions.

I know I'm not alone here. Change is awful. But the worst part isn't the change itself, it's getting there. One of my favorite bloggers, Penelope Trunk, also wrote about she can't tolerate transitions (the difference here is that she has Asperger's and I do not). She eats to get through transitions. I read. And on the scale of vices, I have to conclude that that's pretty inoffensive. So let's also chalk this up to coping with life's insanity/inanity.

[I often wonder at how similar these words are. People often seem to say that their schedules are "insane" and I'm often sure that they mean that their lives are cluttered up with inane details. I digress.]

To top off my fears that reading might be bad for me, The Book Bench seems to think I'm wasting my life by reading about it instead of experiencing it, though perhaps the injury is lessened if I'm reading literature as opposed to self-help books? I agree that books should not be lenses through which to experience reality in a simplistic and appropriated way. They should not be crutches. They should not be addictions. They should not be a replacement for living your life.

I'm starting to paint reading like it's akin to an internet addiction where you never leave your room and start peeing in a cup and eating chips from a 20lb bag while you're murmuring sweet nothings to your wicked gaming system. Nah.

But I agree with one thing, sometimes being immersed in books can feel an awful lot like avoiding making choices. And that's one worry I think I'll heed.

7 comments:

John Mutford said...

A couple points:

1. To me, killing time is one one of life's simple pleasures, so reading fits both bills

2. the statement that "I'm wasting my life by reading about it instead of experiencing it" is silly. Reading is a part of life. Couldn't you make that argument about anything? You're wasting your time eating gourmet food, when you should be out experiencing life. You're wasting your time traveling the globe when you should be experiencing life. "Experiencing life" is such a subjective concept. The "wasting my life" comment simply suggests that the person doesn't value reading and considers it a chore. To each her own. Of course, as your peeing in a cup comment suggests, everything is best done in moderation.

B.Kienapple said...

Ha. John thank you for your response to my slightly inane quibbles.

I think reading is a bit different than eating gourmet food though because reading gives the illusion of a breadth of experience that eating does not. Although I guess you could say of either a paperback or a delicious meal that you're really "living it up" when in fact your life is going down the toilet.

But so true, "experiencing life" is completely subjective. And asking oneself constantly, I'm reading a great book but am I really experiencing life can be crippling.

Heather said...

I learn a lot by reading. Thats not wasting time.

I also read to help deal with other life pressures. I will chose escapist books (for me thats a juicy romance or a vampire book) and that takes me away from what is causing me stress and when I am refreshed I can handle it better. Last time took 2 of the Sookie Stackhouse books in a weekend.

Lindsey said...

Reading to avoid making choices....Well I don't know about that but I do know that I use reading as an excuse not to do my dishes, clean the toilet, make dinner, etc.

Reading expands your vocabulary, develops imagination, and is an excellent form of entertainment. Where else can I be a boy wizard, a sex crazed vampire, a bad assed witch, or a demon hunter? ;)

Anything in to much excess is unhealthy especially if its at the expense of other things (such as socializing, working, *cough* cleaning) may not be a good idea but its my one vice....ok so its maybe just my biggest vice lol. Great post!

Hubert O'Hearn said...

, The Book Bench seems to think I'm wasting my life by reading about it instead of experiencing it...

How incredibly wrong, and really rather rude of The Book Bench to say that about you. I've known several pieces of furniture in my life and not a one of them has ever questioned my philosophy or habits. The armoire has never been particularly fond of my Chicken Kiev, but what do you expect? You know, the French.

But the fact of the matter is, literature is life's menu. I'd never had much interest in visiting the sub-continent until I recently reviewed Dahanu Road. And I want to follow Will Ferguson's walk around Ulster.

Similarly, literature enhances the experiences we already live in by pointing out all the obvious things we hadn't noticed. You look t a book like Curiosity - the best I've read this year - and not only can I re-live that piece of English coast, but dinosaurs and fossils and people spending decades whisking away little bits of dust and sand with miniature brooms all of a sudden is something filled with ... passion? Those people will no longer just be geeks in pith helmets and jodhpurs.

So The Book Bench may take its place in my cluttered basement; and you Bronwyn can keep reading long, reading proud, reading brave. Besides, who would you rather talk to - people who read stacks of books or people who happen to check into lots of hotels and call that 'experiencing life'? Cheers.

B.Kienapple said...

Dear Heather, Lindsey and Hubert: I was really playing devil's advocate in this post. Apologies for being so inflammatory but it's been worth it to get so many testimonials to the restorative power of reading! I really like in particular what you said about literature wetting your curiosity about life and introducing you to facets of it that you might otherwise remain ignorant of. Having a thirst for life could take the form of hiking the world's great trails or chasing the next powerful read. I'm finally seeing a correlation here thanks to you guys!

Hubert O'Hearn said...

And thank you for stimulating a spirited defence of little black squiggles lined up on white paper surfaces. It's a good thing to have a steaming outrage now and then - it cleans out the pores and leaves one refreshed and supple. Keep the great posts coming! I've recommended your blog to everyone I know and will continue to do so.

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