In Defense of Reading

Jeff expounds on a subject that he avoided in high school…

A few years back when The Wall Street Journal redesigned using color and added the Weekend Journal and Personal Journal, a colleague of mine thought it was going the way of USA Today. Personally, I thought the design was attractive and layout inviting. My concern was with the content and the length of the written work. That concern has only grown since.

In the past fifteen years, news and information has been beaten, shrunk, diced, and sliced into bite-sized easily digestible trifle. The masses accept headlines and “top ten lists” like they are gospel without a proper assessment of facts, logic, and argument. Nor do they examine the source. Once author credibility was sacrosanct but sadly is no longer.

Most have forgotten that learning and discovery are meant to be arduous. The journey is the destination. If you are handed the answers what have you possibly learned? William Henry in his brilliant rant, In Defense of Elitism, wrote, stack-of-magazines“Today, even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”

I know that for some people reading is a chore best avoided. To these folks, I can only encourage the effort because I believe it is worth it. Reading is meant to be challenge. Anything that presents difficulty often returns incredible rewards. And besides, skimming short works online and in print impact one’s intellectual growth or so experts say. These social scientists advocate slowing one’s reading down and reading longer works more often.

Thankfully, I love a beautiful turn of phrase. I admire a narrative that places one in that moment. I crave an argument compellingly delivered. I respect the complex being made simple but not so simple as to rob it of intricacy. I appreciate learning new words, turning them over in my head and sounding them out on my tongue.

So I have been pleased to discover people and organizations that have recognized that reading needs its protectors and proponents. A few have cleverly re-committed to sharing longer reads thus fighting back against the troubling trend of ‘dumbing down’ the very practice of reading.

Narratively is such an organization and was named one of TIME‘s “50 Best Websites of 2013”. It “is a platform devoted photo-mainto original, in-depth and untold stories about New York and, increasingly, other cities.” The site intends “to slow down the news cycle. We don’t care about the breaking news or the next big headline; we’re devoted exclusively to sharing a city’s untold stories—the rich, intricate narratives that get at the heart of what a place is all about.”

Then there is Longreads, it “posts links to new stories every day — they include long-form journalism, magazine stories from your favorite publications (The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic), short stories, interview transcripts, and even historical documents.”

Longreads is an amazing repository and aggregation of wide-ranging topics. They share the length of each feature in both words and reading time. Rebecca Harrison’s piece from New York Magazine titled, I Tried Gwyneth Paltrow’s Diet, clocks in at 9 minutes or 2339 words. Or there is The Luckiest Village in the World by Michael Paterniti published in GQ that is 26 minutes or 6701 words. Surely everyone can find 9 or 26 minutes in their day to read something of length.

I continue to be a passionate fan of The Atlantic and The Economist. Both remain committed to long form journalism. They eschew simplification and credit their readers with content that truly explores and respects a topic.

So please read. Read slow and read long. Read on various subjects. Take yourself outside your comfort zone because I believe what we choose not to read tells more about ourselves than most of us would like shared. Finally, take heed of what John Locke said centuries ago, “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.”

By the way, this is 684 words or 2 minutes long for those of you wondering.

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