Do we need to read more books?

Do we need to read more books?

When books first came on the human scene they were always read out loud. We might think that a bit strange today because a book is the epitome of private learning, experience and joy. As a British Prime Minister used to say “Nothing I like more than settling down with a little Trollope”. He meant the author Anthony Trollope, of course, not a lady of easy virtue.

The reason books were originally read out loud was because all communication was verbal until we had ways of writing words. The brain adapts to verbal communications in a quite different way from how it deals with the written word. Go even further back than that and you will see that the human brain was quite a fragmented organ. The world was an even more dangerous place then than it is now and the threats were immediate – predators and enemies ready to pounce. If you were not alert you were eaten.

Reading – and a less immediately threatening world – changed all that. The book conveyed a lot of information, provoked deep thought and demanded focus. You could not absorb a book if you were constantly looking over your shoulder to see where the tigers were. The process of reading and thinking began to change the brain. Indeed, I suspect that writing was possibly the most important influence in developing the human brain. We now know that our behaviour trains the brain, not the other way round. Thinking formed a new intellect.

For many centuries the pace of life remained much the same. Books became the source of knowledge and belief even to the point where Good Books dominated many people’s lives. “If it is printed it must be true.” Time to absorb the written word was revered. You had – still have – to observe silence in libraries lest a sound should disturb the concentration needed to understand the wisdom and discovery contained in books.

Enter the digital age. Technology permits us to get things done faster, in effect to extend our lives by reducing time spent on tasks, by multi-tasking and by communicating in sound-bites. As we have adopted this way of working our brains have, once again, followed our lead and started to operate like fire-crackers not like the slow-burning log fires of 100 years ago.

Is this a good thing, a bad thing or merely another stage in human development?

Let’s examine what changed when we started reading. We learnt more about what we were capable of. We began to examine our potential. We thought about the higher things of life, beauty, relationships, character, aspiration, being better humans. We started to appreciate subtleties, wit became refined and less sledge-hammer. Vocabulary developed to allow us to express a wider variety of sentiments. In a nutshell, we became more civilised.

This was not the case for everyone. The educated and better off could make use of these new-found freedoms. The poor remained at the mercy of the gin bottle. Society was palpably unfair. So democracy was introduced in an attempt to lift the destitute out of their misery and give them a better life. Technology promised to be a major contributor to enhancing the lives of the majority. We welcomed it for that reason. Education spread like a wild fire.

But deep thought and the advance of intellect remained the province of a few. People gave up reading books in favour of sound-bites and YouTube. And this is odd because books are more easily and cheaply available than ever before, knowledge is universal and opportunity limited only by creative imagination. We are changing our brains back to fight and flight and losing something precious in the process.

We do need to read more books.