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The Importance of Being Reading

October 19, 2010

So the other day I read this post which got me thinking about the whole thing with reading and its importance. That post is mostly about people reading fewer books, but these here ramblings have a more general approach; is the ability to read important? And not just concerning books, but at all? If so, why?

My angle is a pragmatic one; the question as I see it is about transferral of information, not artistic value. (In this discussion, poetry and prose are also under the information umbrella).

In most people’s minds there exists a clear connection between reading/writing and knowledge. Why? Well, since the invention of written language, it has been a very central part of much education. And for good reason – texts do away with many “costs” associated with spoken language.

Many of these costs have been mended with various technologies, but when writing first occurred, those were still far off into the future.

When it was first used, spoken transferral of information required the speaker and the listener(s) to be at the same place at the same time. This time/space locality criterion has since been lifted with inventions such as the telephone and sound recordings. Hell, with video we can even see the body language of the speaker. However, if we’re listening to a recording of someone talking, we’re still semi-bound to their pace. Of course we can play the tape faster or fast-forward through parts we want to skip. It’s not as easy and fast to do so as with text, though. A text we can skim and jump around in at our leisure.

A recording with good metadata and a clever playback system might alleviate some of these things, of course. The problems are mostly technological. That doesn’t make them smaller, however; a written text is by its nature random-access, while sound/video recordings must be made into such.

So that was the revolution written language brought; the non-locality (in both space and time) of the creator and the receiver of the information. A text written thousands of years ago can still be read, even if the author is long dead. This brings about the even bigger strength of writing/reading; the survival of information outside a sentient carrier. Without the ability to write things down, information that was not spoken and memorized was lost forever. Write it down, and the information is around until all copies of the text are destroyed.

This is the key concept of written language; that information is decoupled from its creator. That we can transfer knowledge much faster than before. That we can learn from teachers long dead and teach students in the far-off future. It’s a time travel of the mind.

The great thing about written language is not the specifics about it, but what it allows us to do (decouple information from person and yadda yadda). Many other technologies allow the same thing, albeit in a clunkier way. And as I said, it’s mostly a technological issue. There might come a time when the technology reaches the point where we can absorb information as easy and intuitively from videos or sound recordings as from text. It might even become easier and faster.

And that’s not even considering some yet-to-be-invented way of conveying information.

What I’m ramblingly trying to say is that it’s not the how of the matter that is important but the what. Shifting one’s thinking about it from “people writing stuff” to “entities storing information on external media” makes for further-reaching implications, which is always nice. (Plus it sounds all scientific.)

That said, I don’t think people will stop reading and writing. If anything, people write more now than before the internet. Text will probably not disappear as a medium for a long, long time, mostly because other ways of storing data are inefficient and expensive, and the retrieval is equally cumbersome.

A point to all this? You expect far too much from me, O Imaginary Reader.


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