the rise and fall of reading culture

by Rithika Abraham

For a lot of us, books were an integral part of our childhood. Reading for pleasure was so ingrained in our day to day life that we’d fight to spend our lunch breaks devouring the last 30 pages of some sappy romance novel with a gut-wrenching, terminal illness related ending. I still remember being scolded for falling asleep with the lights on because I was up all night finishing the last installment of The Maze Runner. So you can imagine my surprise finding out my 13 year old brother has an almost aggressive disinterest in literature. I was stumped when demanded of a palatable yet adequately thorough response to “what does it matter if I don’t like to read?”. 

I guess, Neil, this is that response. 

To preface, I’d like to mention that my definition of “reading” isn’t by any means limited to hard-copy 300-page classic literature novels. I’m referring to anything that transcends the short-form content that has monopolized our time and by extension, our lives – and I’m no exception. It’s a conscious and almost calculated effort to pick up a book, read an Atlantic opinion piece or even an article on the Economist and fight the urge to succumb to the numbing echochamber that is our social media algorithm. But why exactly is it so difficult?

Ask anybody and they might offer the flippant excuse of the allure of digital distractions and instant gratification. Ask your parents and they might blame it on the anti-intellectualism that supposedly plagues our generation. And while these reasons aren’t entirely untrue, the issue extends beyond this. 

The internet is this supposed vast expanse of readily available information. An endless supply of content a couple of hyperlinks away. But when we look closely, it’s all a mere illusion. With the dawn of late-stage capitalism, we now know that what is valuable is expensive – even if it is knowledge. A prime example of this is the steady rise in paywalls. Some call them the digital counterpart to print subscriptions, however, paywalls differ themselves by offering an easier, arguably more appealing alternative to the trustworthy sites they block. While monetarily benefiting from those able to afford it (and willing to consume content now criticized for upholding ideals of elitism), the rest of us search elsewhere to find clickbait headlines, snappy articles reeking of misinformation and embellished with colorful advertisements and when all else fails, the ultimate cost-free option of social media. 

We can discuss for hours the resulting political consequences of short-form content churned out by tailored algorithms, such as polarization, but I want to focus on the importance of language.

I first read George Orwell’s 1984 a year back on a flight to Milan. A harrowing depiction of a society stripped entirely of individuality and agency, a concept that best captures what this article attempts to articulate is Newspeak; a highly condensed version of Standard English designed to replace it. While disguised as smart and efficient (which it undeniably is), Newspeak is a controlled language with the aim of limiting a person’s ability to critically think and communicate abstract concepts. In 1984, Newspeak is deployed as a political instrument. However, with the rise of short-form content and the general decline of reading culture, thoughts that are condensed into the 280 character confines of a tweet or a brief two minute video reflect a mildly similar (but capitalism-driven) phenomenon. 

Reading isn’t just informative or a tactical method of absorbing complex vocabulary – it’s a lesson in empathy building. Science has shown time and time again that we resonate more with stories than with facts and it’s because reading is enriching in a way that short-form content will always fail to be. Fiction is captivating and memorable because it is reality rewritten and tangled up in the art of writing. And as difficult as artistic expression can sometimes be to perceive, it is an incredibly powerful form of individuality and self-expression that Newspeak aims to suppress. It offers a wealth of experiences far beyond what short summaries of current affairs or a headline that caught your eye right before you headed off to your 8:30 class can provide. 

As of recent, we’ve seen reading culture inch its way back into mainstream media with the rise of Booktok; a subcommunity on Tiktok dedicated to sharing a love for books. Dubbed the world’s largest book club, the “tiktokification” of reading has received both praise and criticism. While credited for democratizing the publishing industry by providing a platform for authors that would otherwise go unnoticed, Booktok is criticized for aestheticizing reading rather than encouraging the act of reading itself. In other words, being seen on public transport dressed in a collared shirt and a beige sweater with a copy of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique is valued more than actually unpacking what the book has to say. While this criticism is somewhat valid, books have always been a symbol of status or material wealth; sometimes seen as an ornamental accessory rather than a learning opportunity. Take the 15th century painting “The Virgin Mary Reading” by Antonello da Messina for example. Even historically, the mere act of reading was regarded a symbol of cultural refinement – Virgin Mary could’ve been engrossed in a copy of Twilight for all anyone cared! 

The point being, the aestheticization of reading is nothing new. In a lot of cases, aestheticizing a hobby or a passion makes it a lot more appealing to the masses, which is the ultimate goal anyway. On a personal level, I’ve discovered some of my favorite novels via social media platforms; whether it’s indulging in trashy romance or delving into introspective feminist literature, a curated algorithm almost guarantees that you find novels catered to your taste. 

Thanks to the ubiquity of booktok, discussion surrounding books has once again entered mainstream discourse. Reading is once again cool and popular, even if it is tied with an aesthetic. 

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