There’s a famous Twilight Zone episode about a man who loves to read, and who, upon finding himself the only survivor of a nuclear war, begins gathering all the books from the ruins of the library, eager to spend the remainder of his life reading without interruption. Then he falls and his glasses break, and he finds himself with plenty of time to read, but unable to do so.
It’s dark, it’s ironic, and it evokes Cold War fears of annihilation, so small wonder it’s practically the quintessential Twilight Zone episode.
But here’s an even darker proposition for you: what if we forget that we can read?
I don’t mean forgetting the basic act of reading written symbols and associating them with meanings; we can still do that. No, I’m talking about something more insidious than that.
I used to say I didn’t read as much as I wanted to because I didn’t have time. But then I thought about it, and I realized that wasn’t completely true. What about the time I spend watching TV? Or playing video games? Or—and this was by far the biggest time-sink—mindlessly scrolling through the internet, watching videos or looking at the latest news.
I decided to make a conscious effort to spend that time reading instead. And I mean seriously reading, as in focusing on a novel and getting absorbed in it, not the “reading-lite” that is skimming social media or most websites.
It’s important to remember that, not that long ago in generational terms, reading was one of our best forms of entertainment. As recently as the early 1900s, there was no TV. Netflix and Xbox and Twitter were unfathomable. The only remotely comparable entertainment was the theater, and that was largely for the upper-class. For most people, entertainment was reading, telling stories, and maybe playing some music.
I read that, when he was a boy, Isaac Asimov would loaf around reading pulp science fiction novels, which he justified to his disapproving father by saying that they had the word “science” in the name. This tells you a lot about how the world has changed—nowadays a parent would probably be thrilled if their child, especially their son, was reading anything.
It’s well-known that reading is very different than watching television in that it involves imagination to a greater extent. The less serious reading you do, the more your skills at translating written words into complex thoughts will begin to atrophy.
Put simply, reading is harder than watching TV or surfing the web. (I’m less sure about how it stacks up vs. gaming, but at the very least it seems safe to say it engages different parts of the brain.) It requires an active effort to put the mind in serious reading mode, although once you do it’s also much more rewarding. There is an obvious analogy with exercise here: it takes more of an effort to lift weights or go jogging than to sit on the couch doing nothing, but you feel better afterward.
I’m not saying that television or movies or scrolling through your timeline are inherently bad, by the way. What I’m saying is, these are the things we gravitate toward doing automatically, unless we make an effort to check ourselves. Until recently, I never consciously thought, Would I rather look at the trending hashtags right now or read a novel? The hashtag thing came easier, and so that was just what I naturally did without stopping to wonder if there could be a better use of my time.
It took consciously reminding myself I could be reading right now to change this. I’m still very much a work in progress in this regard; I skim the political news more than I probably should. But at least I’m now in the habit of considering the fact that there is a trade-off.
When I tell people I write books, they often shrug and say, “Nobody reads anymore.” While obviously an exaggeration, the underlying point is true: most people are spending their leisure time watching YouTube or Netflix or looking at Instagram, not reading novels.
I’m not here to judge anyone else for what they’re doing. But as the proverb says, “Physician, heal thyself.” So I’m trying to make sure that I, at least, frequently ask whether what I’m currently doing is more valuable than reading. After all, if we learn nothing else from the Twilight Zone, it’s that just having the time isn’t enough—you also need to be able to use it effectively.