To Read, Or Watch A Youtube Video, That Is the Question

books

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.

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4 thoughts on “To Read, Or Watch A Youtube Video, That Is the Question

  1. Dear Anne,
    If you are, you have every right to worry about this generation’s kids. Here’s why.
    When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I used to live in Lebanon. (I’m not Lebanese, it was just for my dad’s work) I got admitted into the hospital for a few days. There was a TV, but it was small and I found the cartoons either disgusting or boring (boring because the main language there was Arabic, which I could speak but had a little bit more of a difficult time understanding). So, naturally, I did what I liked best; that is, read. Later, I found out that the nurses were actually surprised!!! They had a little more of a right because in Middle Eastern countries kids barely read outside of school, but still.
    Everywhere you go you will find children playing on their parents phones, and on their own iPads. Some children as young as 6 might even have their own smartphone. Reading is a difficult activity reserved for school.
    It’s terrible. I hate it.
    Writers can spend hours toiling on YA and children’s books, but good luck to you if it’s not fantasy. Anything that is not copying Harry Potter has little chance of being read. Because it’s not interesting anymore, apparently.
    We should work for children to enjoy more complicated, beautiful meaningful books. It works wonders. I couldn’t write the way I do today if my mother hadn’t trained me to read from a very young age.
    Thanks for writing this post. It’s a truly important topic.
    Love,
    Khadija

    • Hi Khadija,
      I am saddened to hear that was the case where you lived–the same phenomenon, I think, is occurring the world over. I’m so glad your mother encouraged you to read. I think I had to stumble into a library myself, and, metaphorically, I have never left since. And, yes, you’re right: it’s very hard for any books to get any attention unless they’re fantasy, and often even then only if they’re easy to read, or are backed by a movie franchise. We must not lose hope, however; the publishing industry is still going strong, and there are millions of those like you and me who still enjoy a good book or two when we have the time. The problem these days, in a world so saturated with content, is originality, in that everything seems boring, and “done before”. As writers, the best thing we can do is try and discover what uniquely excites us, and create artworks that come from the heart, in order to make our original stamp on the world.

  2. In my experience, creating anything worthwhile is excruciating. When you write, you pour your heart and soul into your work, your letters are soaked in sweat and blood. People who are foremost consumers cannot fully appreciate or understand what it takes(!) to create something truly beautiful, a piece of art. And to fail. Miserably. On the contrary, your typical hollywood TV or movie production portrays condensed, action-packed scenes in which creation happens instantly (such as writing a novel in one sitting or finding a cure for virus X). To me this is particularly annoying since most consumers expect you to be a miracle worker.

    It is very unfortunate that the mainstream of computing has become about packaging entertainment in the form of smartphones, apps, gaming consoles and what not. It’s dangerous because mass media are a social catalyst, more a medium for mass conditioning, and we have to be careful about what ideas we convey. But things are perfect for the (small and large) tech-corporations who have only one goal: to create more consumers and to reinforce the culture of consumerism.

    But things were different in the beginning, when pioneers such as Douglas Engelbart thought about computing as a means to improve the human condition. And there is so much you *could* do with a computer if we think about it as a medium: Non-linear writing, Interactive Fiction, Finding and sharing connections between writings.

    I think computers would be a great way to help the less literate, and fluent, as well as the literally apt people to express themselves; you might call it computer-aided/supported writing. But the problem is: the industry does not care. And this is where we have to step in.

    • Thank you for sharing this. I perfectly agree. It is very, very painful to create, mostly because what you end up with is often a pale imitation of what existed inside your head. And you’re right: all we can do is control what we can control, which is ourselves, and create the best Art that we can.

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