Reading and writing, springing though they do from the same source, are nevertheless unequal institutions. The first requires few qualifications for membership, other than a good level of reading ability, and some spare time on the weekends; the second often needs many years of practice and toil, as unrelenting as a blacksmith hammering away in his forge day and night.
To consume is a thousand times easier than to create—and that principle seems to apply to everything in life, from the food we eat to the gadgets we use; but, in particular, to books. For instance, as a reader, when you read a book, if it is a good one, your mind eventually falls into the story without paying much attention to the words and sentences themselves. Scenes play out to their conclusion in your mind’s eye, characters engage in dialogue and tussles and more, settings piece together, with the aid of good description, like rapid jigsaw puzzles. It is usually enjoyable, and easy.
Writing, however, provides an altogether different experience, and since it creates something from nothing, is far more difficult. Several tasks are entangled into one: the act of writing itself, the visual envisioning of the scene, the expression of the characters’ unique psychologies through their words, expressions and mannerisms, how different personalities interact to produce interesting interactions—all while keeping in mind the structure, the pace, and the flow of the story. A writer lives in a strange laboratory, where myriad flasks and tubes, brimming with brightly-coloured fluids, need to be mixed and heated and condensed and distilled, one after the other, to create a single, rich concoction. It is hard. And, just like in every laboratory, accidents occur. Flasks explode. Acidic substances spill on the floor to eat its way through the concrete. What you thought would create a nice heady brew instead makes a dark lump hard as a rock that blinks up at you with strange eyes. Retort stands fall, tubes crack, smoke billows. Chaos created in the hopes of scrabbling across some fragment of beauty in the madness.
Unequal, indeed. To read a sentence often takes only a second or so, less if it’s just a passing glance without absorption. Writing the same sentence, however, might have taken at least thirty seconds, with time taken to put the right words together, re-arrange them, to shave bits off and put other bits in. As a writer, there is something slightly horrific about the fact that a 700-page novel, which might have taken, at the very least, a year to write and edit before it was of publishable quality, can be finished by someone in a couple of days. There are some authors who spend ten years working on a single book, only for that book to be finished by people in a few sittings, before they yawn and stretch and get on with their lives. A writer’s oeuvre, spanning fifteen works, and which took an entire lifetime to create, can be devoured in half a month, if the reader is disciplined.
But there are thousands of other activities which require even less effort than reading, a thousand times less effort than writing. Food, for instance, though it does take time and effort to grow or prepare, often can be consumed very readily and easily. The act of eating is automatic, pleasurable: it doesn’t require any thought, or personal effort. Books, on the other hand, require the reader to mentally exert themselves, to employ their imagination to bring the words and sentences to life. Reading is not a passive activity—and in a world dominated by eating, shopping, watching and playing, books are at risk of being sidelined in favor of other, less taxing, forms of entertainment.
Today, it is far more common for people to put aside a book after a couple of pages, either because it was too tiresome to wade through the sentences, or the story began on a dull note. Books are getting shorter, the sentences more simple and understandable, especially in the realm of YA fiction. When once children’s books like The Secret Garden held pages and pages of words, we now have incredibly popular modern books like Coraline, around 30,000 words long, accompanied by pictures, each page sparsely covered in words. More people go to watch film adaptations of books than they read the actual books themselves—all following the principle that the easier it is to consume, the more there will be who consume it.
It’s worrisome. I worry whether the children of this generation, who grew up with smartphones and tablets, apps and games, would even want to read, and develop their imaginations and a love for reading. As technology advances, allowing for even greater immersion and enjoyment—the proliferation of virtual reality devices, for instance—without any effort on the consumer’s part, it is likely great swathes of humanity will no longer want to read, children in particular. There are just so many other “fun” things to do out there, Youtube videos to watch, social media sites like Tumblr and Instagram to browse, virtual realities to live in; and the books of old, which children once occupied themselves with when there was nothing else to do, might become obsolete.
Or they might not. Maybe the act of reading will just change, more E-books consumed rather than physical copies, less pictures, more words. Yet I can’t help but feel that libraries, especially the children’s sections, where, in my opinion, some of the best books exist, are not visited so often anymore, the books less well-worn, beautiful works languishing on in their multitudes on the shelves. One of the reasons why I make it a point to finish any book I come across, even if there are dull parts, and take time to marvel at the sentences and the imagery, is because I want give back, through my appreciation, some of the effort the author put in to write the book. Remember, behind all the hundreds and hundreds of books on the shelves in a library is a person, who most likely devoted months or years of their time, their blood and tears, to write it. Wouldn’t it be a pity for any of them to be unread, and unloved?
Of course, there exist too many books in the world for any of one of us to read them all in our lifetime, even if we did nothing but read. But that small fraction of the books of the world we can read and appreciate over the course of our short lives will shrink even further, if we don’t encourage reading in the first place, and short videos of men and women playing pranks on each other in the street supplant works of imagination, artistry and wit.