I detect a slight flaw in your logic

From a blog called Intellectual Takeout, this perhaps predictable diatribe:

Do America’s Reading Habits Explain Today’s Lack of Clear Thinking?

Ah! It’s a lovely Friday evening. You’ve had a successful work week and now it’s time to have some quiet relaxation. You have a book on the coffee table you’ve been wanting to delve into – but first, a quick glance at social media is in order.

Several hours and several videos later, you realize it’s time to head for bed, which you do, hating yourself all the way for having wasted the little time you had to exercise your mind through reading….

Okay, now. This is where I lose sympathy with the author:

hating yourself all the way for having wasted the little time you had to exercise your mind through reading

I don’t know about the author, Annie Holmquist, but —

(a) I definitely do not read in order to exercise my mind. This is true even if I’m reading nonfiction about, oh, the development of language or the social behavior of eusocial insects or whatever. I read for enjoyment and I read nonfiction because I find the topic interesting. I can’t imagine stretching and yawning and glancing at the clock and thinking, “Oh, an hour till bedtime, let me find a book so I can exercise my mind.” Who, other than the author, I guess, could possibly have that thought as bedtime approaches? Even if you are into reading for its capacity to exercise your mind, wouldn’t you prefer to do that when you’re more awake?


(b) I certainly don’t “hate myself” for reading social media instead of a book, even though it’s true that I can tell that the internet and social media have cut into my reading time, at least a little. This is because it’s much easier to STOP looking at social media than to stop reading a book. Being able to stop makes a big difference for my ability to turn the lights out at bedtime, and also to shut off the internet and turn on my computer during the day.

It’s also because I’m not in the habit of hating myself for my choices of leisure activity, nor do I see why Holmquist is special enough to judge other people’s leisure activities.

I get that Holmquist is trying to make a point, but over-the-top rhetoric does not appeal to me in this sort of context. People who routinely write sentences like “hating yourself all the way for blah blah blah” really need to lighten up.

This is not to say that Holmquist’s article is not worth reading, so let’s go on and see what else she says. Here is an interesting tidbit:

Overall, Americans only spend 17 minutes per day in reading activities. As The Washington Post explains, this number has dropped six minutes since 2004. Broken down by age range, those in the millennial generation read the least, averaging seven minutes a day. Those in the 75 and older age range average 51 minutes per day.

I don’t find this too overwhelmingly negative. Of course the oldest people read the most. They are retired, and they don’t have young children to raise. If they’re 75 or older, they don’t even have young grandchildren anymore. Comparing other groups to them isn’t really fair.

And, for all one hears about the millenials, you do realize that everyone born after 1997 is post-millenial, right? So if millenials are reading the very least, that means that first, young people who are still in school are reading more, hardly a revelation, but they may also be reading more on their free time as well. Also, that millenials — the young adults who are most involved with jobs and young children — are reading the least is not in any way astonishing.

Of course 17 minutes a day is a gosh-wow statistic, and a decline in that number is interesting, but I am not inclined to be too concerned so far, given that I have already seen polls that suggest that more than a quarter of all Americans don’t read books at all. Exclude those and then I wonder what the average number of minutes would be?

One more detail from this ending of this post:

[Benjamin] Franklin was an impressive man. But how much of his ingenuity would have been stifled and hidden from himself and the world if he had been less devoted to his reading and thinking?

On the contrary, one has to wonder how much genius and creativity today’s population is denying itself by its lack of reading. By avoiding reading, do we push ourselves into a state of mindlessness, unable to think, reason, and create in ways which sustain a future, flourishing society?

I don’t wonder about this at all. Do you REALLY THINK that a guy like Ben Franklin — or Alexander Hamilton, or Isaac Newton, or any other serious workaholic or philosopher or whatever — would sit on their butts and watch tv for hours a day rather than picking up a book or penning Poor Richard’s Almanac? Even if a tv was right there from childhood? Because I seriously, seriously doubt it. There have ALWAYS been plenty of ways to waste time and veg out; for example, going out to the public baths to chat with friends (if you’re a Roman during the Classical period) or the local pub to play darts (if you’re an Englishman of a more modern era). The difference is that today people have a lot more leisure time to indulge in whatever leisure activity they like. If clear thinking is in shorter supply today than it used to be, I expect (in common with most INTJ’s I bet) that it’s more because of the regrettably hyper-emotionalized level of argument today. Which you could argue is exacerbated by social media — but that is not the argument Holmquist is making.

Well, well … I admit I read the whole thing with a more negative, fault-finding eye after that hating yourself all the way line. Perhaps the post isn’t quite as annoying as I made it out to be. Click through and read the whole thing if you’re so inclined.

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5 thoughts on “I detect a slight flaw in your logic”

  1. Ironically, it’s pretty much ONLY books that results in me staying up until 2am because I just have to see how it ends. If I’m watching episodes or a movie I keep a much better eye on the time, and typically it’s much easier to stop.

    And the whole reason I read is for fun. Stories that feel the need to be otherwise quickly find themselves off my pile.

  2. I feel like the author thinks we should all be reading classical philosophy texts or treatises on the latest scientific findings about whatever. It seems to me she would think you were wasting your time reading novels, which would hardly stretch your mind compared to REAL reading.

    But perhaps my take on her attitude is uncharitable.

  3. Allan Shampine

    I agree. There are only so many hours in the day, and you have to pick what you’re going to do with your leisure time. Someone could make the same arguments about how gardening has tragically fallen into disrepute. The average number of minutes a person spends gardening in the U.S. must be well below 17. We are losing connection with the soil and with nature! Our ancestors were so much more connected, and so much more knowledgeable about crops and seasons and the cycle of life.

    How about the oral tradition of story-telling? When we read Homer rather than hearing it recited from memory, we lose the richness of the story-teller interacting directly with us, the theatre of the experience! Having the story change over time is part of its glory, as it is altered to meet the age.

    Seriously, though, books, television, movies, audio-books, manga, comics, plays, and even a lot of music are all telling stories. People love stories. We choose to consume them in different ways. I don’t see why one particular method is better than another. I love books, but I also love computer games that tell a good story, and the occasional movie and television show.

  4. In my experience, scrolling through social media can encourage more critical thinking, and thus does more to “exercise my mind”, than reading a book might. Social media can be a space for sharing: links to articles; informative and thoughtful videos; analysis; and thought-provoking discussions. And books can be fluffy and escapist!

    But all that and other defenses of social media aside, I’m not interested in judging people based on how they spend their leisure time. Especially not when it comes to how they relax on a Friday evening…

  5. Good point about social media, Herenya. I hope that’s true.

    And yes, anybody who feels a desire to make snarky judgmental comments about other people’s leisure activities should sit down and read a nice romance novel or play World of Warcraft or color in an adult coloring book till they get over it.

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