Monday, January 30, 2012

Gourlay on the Land of the Non-Reader

Jonathan Gourlay of The Bygone Bureau talks about the time he allowed video games and Star Trek spinoffs to seduce him away from his favorite pasttime of reading. Excerpts:
Back when I was a reader, it often troubled me when friends claimed that they had no time to read. Was it possible that their lives were so full of wonders that they could not spend five minutes here or there to read? How was it that my life, in comparison, seemed to offer so many chunks of reading time throughout the day? A train ride, a late-night break, and an office wait. Through marriage, babies, graduate schools, and new jobs, I always found time to read for pleasure. ...

Then I opened Skyrim and saw the following message: "48 hours played. Last played today."

I must have some free time. Perhaps the "I don’t have time to read" line is just a cover. A way that people excuse themselves from the uncomfortable truth that they do, in fact, have time but that they would rather do something other than read with that time (such as pretending to be a wood-elf). We exalt reading as "good" like exercise and vegetables and so we are always making excuses as to why we avoid it.

After I saw that message I knew that I had taken up residence in the swamp of the non-reader. Here is what life is like in that swamp ...
Read the whole thing. I often run into people who ask, "Why in the world do you bother with reading?" They aren’t trying to be cruel or condescending. They simply don’t see the utility in it. Yet Gourlay does. With penetrating insight (and a fair amount of healthy self-loathing), he skewers the deficiencies that have sprung up due to his non-reading life. Tenuous concentration. Difficulty in engaging new ideas. An inability to make mental associations. An aversion to complexity. For myself, I’d like to add another point: Reading is worthwhile because it is beautiful, and while beauty might not reside on quite the same plane as truth or usefulness, it’s still worth seeking for its own sake.

(Picture: CC 2011 by brianjmatis; Hat Tip: Brandywine Books)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I am beginning, slowly, to come to a blance-is-good view. I have to experience "candy"--books only a couple steps away from his Voyager episodes, video games, generic TV shows--if only because I sometimes drown in contemporary philosophy and medieval history. These superficial entertainments serve as a signal to my body saying "stop thinking."

(Or at least they do so until I start thinking of 24 as a mixture of soap opera and action movie forms expressing middle-aged male anxieties, or Flashpoint as a celebration of those men who choose to stand in the gaps between America's legal systems and the morality that underwrites them, or Twilight as, er, Twilight.)

But I think anyone who surveys America can figure out that an excess of thoughtfulness isn't our nation's main problem. We still need to read more--or do more math, or study logic, or history, or poetry, or physics. Otherwise our brains become as flubby on predigested entertainment as our stomachs do on Big Macs.

Loren Eaton said...

I agree with you. A bit of non-demanding pulp is good -- within moderation. The problem comes when we have a hard time implementing that. For example, I'd have no problem watching Voyager here and there, but I wouldn't touch Skyrim with the proverbial ten-foot pole. Seems I can't do video games in moderation, so I don't do them at all.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Skyrim, like an MMO, is terrifying. I play long RPG's (rather slowly), but at least they have ends, and reasonably small quest lists.

Loren Eaton said...

That makes this quote from the article apropos: "My Skyrim character now has a longer to-do list than my red-flagged Outlook task-list at work. My days at work and home consist of quests and side-quests leading to more quests and side-quests."

Scattercat said...

Given how compulsively I read (I have and probably will continue to lose entire nights of sleep because of books), I find it kind of odd how little I am drawn into video games. I played ten-ish hours of Skyrim, got bored, and wandered off. I had similar reactions to WoW, actually.

I don't think this is some virtue in me. I think it's like my aversion to cigarettes (asthma) and alcohol (tastes like poo and makes my jaw ache): I "won" some kind of genetic lottery that makes me resistant to the crap.

Now, I can waste untold amounts of time farting around on the Internet, but that's usually me bouncing from page to page to page reading news and snippets and playing flash games for five minutes. (I *am* massively prone to ADD behaviors. Probably undiagnosed, in all honesty; I was super hyper as a little kid, too.)

Loren Eaton said...

I "won" some kind of genetic lottery that makes me resistant to the crap.

Interestingly enough, when I was a kid I learned that I was allergic to tobacco. Back in the day, they used to inject a bit of it into your skin as an allergy test, and I rashed up when exposed. I can say I've never once tried a cigarette. I enjoy alcohol and caffiene in moderation. Like you, though, my real vice is Web surfing. And I can't blame ADD for it!