Reading is hard

Published on 2024-02-24

I like reading, ostensibly. I like the idea of it. But I don't do it very often these days.

Maybe it's just that I grew up in an age where video games were cheaper than water, or where everyone wants to get to the punchline in fourteen seconds or less, or or or... There's a million ways to dump on the media today in an effort to idealize the media of the past.

In my grand efforts towards ridding myself of the Bad Things to live the Good Life, I've gone back and forth on whether or not things like "reading" are better or worse than the forms of media I grew up with. Is reading the book better than the really engaging video essay someone shared on YouTube about it? Are video games more or less "intellectually stimulating" than books? Or even movies? Does it matter?

Video games can be really good as texts. I think I've already talked about The Beginner's Guide by Davey Wreden et al. That was, hands down, my favourite story of all time until the last year or so. The Stanley Parable, also by Davey Wreden and some other guy whose name I forget, has got some pretty interesting themes, and does some really interesting things with narrative development. Undertale influenced a lot of what I think about self-referentiality in narrative. Needless to say, there is a characterization of video games that makes them out to be a sort of textual sludge. And like, yes, you absolutely can make textual sludge in the medium, but you don't have to.

The problem I think I keep running into is that when I actually muster the energy to sit down and read a god damn book, I always choose books that are interesting, but not really engaging. Like, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," the last book I finished, is a really interesting book, but I didn't feel drawn into it in the same way I do with other texts. The book I'm reading right now, "If on a winter's night a traveler" by Italo Calvino, which I'm re-reading, is probably my favourite book of all time. And still, I don't find it extremely engaging. It's interesting, and I'm invested in the story, but you get the sense that it's not meant to be extremely engaging. If you've read it you probably know what I mean; I don't think it's a stretch to say parts of the book are disengaging by design. It's value doesn't come from how engaging it is.

I've known people who've purportedly read over a hundred books over the course of a year. Importantly, the books these people read do in fact tend to be engaging. Things like, the Game of Thrones series, or Stephen King. Interesting and engaging books. There's nothing wrong with that; this isn't meant to be a jab at people who write compelling books or something, but I think how engaging those books are by design is a factor worth considering when talking about how "readable" they are.

So, if "reading more" is a meaningful and valuable goal to pursue, it'd make a lot more sense to invest your time in books that are both interesting and engaging. It's quite rare that I sit down and read a book that's seriously engaging, but when I do, I often do find that I finish it within a few days. Like, I read "Parable of the Sower" by Octavia Butler last year and I found that I had a hard time putting it down. It's rare that I actually find a book that has that effect on me, and it's probably because someone had to really convince me to read something like the Parable of the Sower. Usually, when I seek out books by my own volition, they're usually things like "Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia" by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: really interesting, really not that engaging. I never made it past the first twenty pages of that one, but I did try.

It seems like the thing that makes movies, video games, TV shows, and things of that nature feel more sludge-like in the minds of so many people is that they are inherently more engaging. It seems to take less energy, less active engagement, to become invested in them. They seem to pull you along, whereas with books, you have to push your way through (people who read lots of seriously engaging books would probably disagree with me on that, understandably). If that's true, seeking out more engaging books almost feels like cheating. There are movies and video games that trade engagement for interest. "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," Charlie Kaufman's film adaptation of Iain Reid's book by the same name, is extremely interesting and deeply unengaging. Similarly, Yume Nikki by Kikiyama is among the most interesting games I've ever played, and I always feel like I have to force myself to play it when I do.

In short, there's a lot of different factors that go into what makes a particular text valuable. I don't think it's meaningful to discriminate media based on how "naturally" engaging or interesting they are. What matters, if any of this matters, is finding something you can seriously, actively invest yourself in.

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