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The Wit's Guide to Reading
Or, do smartphones count?
Back when everyone commuted but no one had a smartphone, I’d occasionally find myself on a bus or subway with absolutely nothing to read. It was horrible. I’d look for discarded newspapers, or study the ads, or further memorize the intricacies of the TTC ByLaw No 1. In my defense, this was before meditation was a thing.
“I’d rather have a book but in a pinch I’d settle for a set of Water Pik instructions.”
— Anne Fadiman
Now that we all distractedly walk around with instant access to all of human knowledge, this drought of distraction is a distant memory. Today it’s the firehose of information we complain about.
What percentage of all modern reading happens on phones? 80%? 130%? I was going to Google it but then I got distracted by instant access to all of human knowledge.
“As writers become more numerous, it is natural for readers to become more indolent.”
— Oliver Goldsmith
Once upon a time, I was being interviewed for a job with a leading newspaper. (At this juncture, please picture Michael Keaton being interviewed by Spalding Gray in The Paper, a movie that was way too formative for me.) The editor-in-chief was opining about the difficulty of reading on a tablet, saying that it was like driving a Ferrari on a gravel road. At the same time, he never made eye contact because there was a flat-screen TV on the wall behind my head with CNN playing on mute. The lesson: Reading chyrons still counts as reading.
“People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”
— Logan Pearsall Smith
Reading, if you squint, can connect you in ways social media cannot. In How To Read And Why, Harold Bloom advocates for books as companions “because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.” The books-as-buddies analogy is also used by Clifton Fadiman, who prefaces his Lifetime Reading Plan with the advice that they “should not be read in a hurry, any more than friends are made in a hurry.”
“Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness.”
— Harold Bloom
Are there too many books? Definitely, though there probably always have been.
“Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense.”
— Benjamin Disraeli
What’s more astounding is that authors are still cranking books out, despite everything. The codex began as an ingenious way to disseminate information. Now, books almost seem the opposite. Disconnect from the world to put 100,000 words into a manuscript which, if published, will be hidden away in bookstores and pointedly ignored by the culture at large, and even if found will demand not only some non-trivial amount of money from a potential reader but many hours of their time. Capitalism means we exchange money for time, and here you’re demanding both! And I love it.
“No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.”
— Samuel Johnson
The other thing about reading now is that no one knows what you’re reading now. And so the social oneupmanship of bringing Nietzsche to the beachzsche is lost if you’ve got the epub of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
“There are only two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it, the other that you can boast about it.”
— Bertrand Russell
Imagine the days when an exhausted person would come home from work, flop down on a chesterfield, and open whatever printed material was close at hand. Since the phone is now in the hand, we can safely say those days are gone.
“There is a great deal of difference between the eager man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read.”
— G.K. Chesterton
I recently failed in a heroic attempt to buy a newspaper at the train station. Cannabis in all its forms was readily available; printed media not so much. I guess I needed the black market. Sure, I could download Notes from the Underground. But were my phone battery to die, I’d be back to the bad old days. In sum, every licensed pot shop should be required to stock an invigorating selection of fiction and non-fiction, and that goes double for the unlicensed ones.
“The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice.”
— Virginia Woolf
“A man seldom thinks with more earnestness of anything than he does of his dinner.”
— Samuel Johnson
Have you dined with us before? Let me explain how the menu works: You pick the dish, I cook it up, and you eat it. So in other words, it works like a menu. Oh, and Chef wants you to know that he eschews the definite article.
A book about squirrels
Reading the internet
That was the 171st issue of Get Wit Quick, your weekly refutation of nonsense. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting will show you how to use a Water Pik. I’ve yet to read The❤️ Is a Lonely Hunter, possibly because the title is too good.