Benefits of reading

There are those who worry that our worst technological invention will be the creation of a runaway, artificially intelligent supercomputer. While it’s a valid concern, my greatest fear is that we may have already created the scourge of our generation – the internet. Watching The Social Dilemma certainly didn’t ease my fear.

On the other hand, the internet could also be considered the greatest invention of our time. It’s the collective hive. I use it to learn how to fix things around the house, to make all sorts of baked goods, and to program, which is essential to my career. I also discover intriguing content on it. For example, one of my favorite bloggers posted the link to a speech that I would have never found, heard about, or otherwise read.

You can read the full text of the speech by clicking here. It’s a long read, but well worth it. The speech, delivered to the plebe class at The United States Military Academy at West Point by William Deresiewicz in October 2009, is about the relationship between solitude and leadership.

So how is this related to a post about the benefits of reading?

It turns out it has a lot to do with it. It made me think about why I read, what the benefits of reading are, and why I encourage others to read.

When I refer to reading, I’m talking about reading books, or what you call long form reading. Long form reading is the opposite of how we are fed by social media, internet news, and mainstream media. These outlets feed us information in short bursts. They act to distract us, to entertain us, to control us, and to shape the way we think. These outlets aren’t in the business of informing us. They don’t encourage us to think for ourselves. Instead, they bombard us with finely tuned, algorithm driven content that is meant to command our attention so they can monetize it. They’re not encouraging us to think for ourselves nor engaging us in deep thought.

Long form reading, on the other hand, is a different species. It requires concentration and focus to read a book. Good books are immersive. They make you think. They expand your mind and grow your understanding of the world. A good book will help you understand who you are and what you stand for. It allows you to know your true self.

Personally, I love how reading exposes me to new ideas. It requires me to use my imagination. It makes me reconsider what is and what isn’t possible.

Even more valuable, it allows me to see the world from another person’s perspective. For example, when I read the The Stone Man, it was interesting to see the world perspective from a British author. Even more intriguing was seeing how a Chinese author viewed the world in the book The Three Body Problem. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own culture and way of thinking. Books present things from a different point of view. You get to view the world through a different lens. Reading authors from different countries is just one perspective. You can get different views by reading authors from different eras, different races, different levels of society, or any background different from your own.

Perhaps more important is the point Deresiewicz’s speech makes regarding books. In his view, a book encourages one to think for one’s self. A book can disrupt our habits of thought. It requires concentration. Because it is more in-depth than a sound byte, tweet or Facebook post, it requires solitude and introspection, which are keys in learning about one’s self. And throughout our lives, we are going to be put into situations, some small, others of enormous importance where knowing our self, being comfortable with our self, and being confident in our self will matter, a lot. To be able to handle these situations, we need to be prepared in advance. Deresiewicz puts it best:

The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself—morality, mortality, honor—so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe.

I encourage those around me to put down and walk away from the constant distractions and messaging that the media and internet is bombarding us with. I encourage those around me to read, to find solitude. I encourage you to do the same. The more we do, the more time we spend focusing and concentrating on what matters to us, the more we can think for our self, the more we know ourselves, and the better prepared we will be for what comes at us in life, both small and large.

So yes, reading is a form of entertainment. More importantly though, it’s a way to expand your mind, to grow your understanding of the world, to know who you are and what you stand for, to become a better person, and most important, to make the world a better place for all.