Paradoxically, reading is simultaneously one of the biggest obstacles to my writing while also being an absolute requirement for it.
Given a choice between these activities, I will choose reading nine times out of ten. Reading is my default setting. It seems to operate on my mind in the same way that mental states like meditation and dreaming are purported to work. When you're meditating, the aim is to let thoughts flow through your mind, to not hold onto them and just watch them go by. When I'm engrossed a good book, the thoughts flow by this way; I'm in the moment within the story. Both dreaming and meditation are supposed to be "resets" for your mind, a way to clear out all the garbage we hold onto and perhaps become anxious and depressed about. Reading takes you outside of yourself, invests you in situations and problems that are not your own for a while.
If I don't read for a couple of days, I start to become irritable in a similar way that I do if I haven't had enough sleep or exercise recently. If I don't have a book in my bag or beside my bed with a bookmark keeping my place, I don't feel grounded. And carrying home a big stack of books from the library gives me the same sense of satisfaction as getting lots of good things to eat at the grocery store; it's the sense that my larder is full, and I can count on being nourished for the near future.
And that's the crux of it: reading is the nourishment that allows me to write. You have to fill the cup before you can drink from it.
It absolutely astonishes me how little most people read. I suppose since it's so integral to my life, I can't imagine that it isn't that way for everyone. It's easy to blame the Internet; even with that satisfying stack of books piled next to my bed, I often find myself enticed into scrolling through nonsense articles on my phone rather than getting engrossed a book. That goes on until a vague sense of irritation begins and I realize that I'm not doing what I want to do and that what I'm doing is an inferior experience; it's like I'm filling up on Nerds while a big, juicy steak grows cold beside me.
I'm not saying that everything that one can read on the Internet is empty, sugary garbage. I'm just saying that most of it is, and it seems to be proliferating. If 'you are what you eat,' then as a writer you are what you read. Many people who write on the Internet read on the Internet. And I would argue that the format itself, the speed at which it can be tossed off—largely unconsidered and typically unedited—contributes to not only the decline of quality of thought, but to a destruction of peace of mind.
Neil Postman wrote about this in Amusing Ourselves To Death in 1985. He talked about how 'form excludes content,' the concept that different kinds of media can only sustain certain levels of ideas. He referred mostly to TV and to the fact that television news was becoming 'entertainment.' This was long before the current juggernaut of the 24-hour news cycle, the pervasiveness of unearned celebrity in the form of reality television, and the Internet's inundation of content for content's sake, but is prescient about the consequences of the early indicators that, through a dilution of discourse, we might be heading in that direction. In the Introduction to the book, he writes about the possibility that when it came to dystopian views of our future, we feared the wrong thing:
"We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right."
If you look at the current state of writing, or, 'content development' as it is now termed by the marketers, you can see that Postman and Huxley were right. We are drowning in a sea of irrelevance, in the form of memes and 'listicles,' thoughtless opinion pieces and incendiary tweets that are attention-seeking rather than thought-provoking, that are aimed at generating 'traffic' and 'likes' rather than mature discourse or insightful reflection. I can't think of better words to describe the consequences of people's constant checking of Facebook than 'reduced to passivity and egoism.'
The articles I read on the Internet, even when they purport to be think-pieces about important subjects like politics or science, are often so disappointingly pointless. They are not well thought out or organized, or containing anything but regurgitated soundbytes and buzzwords that can be re-linked back to other articles that say essentially the same (no)thing as per SEO best practices. They do not refine anyone's thoughts or enhance anyone's lives. If anything, they increase the division of our attention and promote anxiety; it cultivates the feeling that you're missing out, and how can you possibly click on all of the branching links to get the full picture and context of the discussion? You can't. Because there isn't any context, and there isn't really a discussion. Readers of this type of 'content' are not filled with knowledge or even—though they more are highly prized in our society compared to knowledge or the ability to reason—facts. They only thing people seem to be filled with is outrage, which the comments section provides an arena to thoughtlessly vent, thereby fomenting further outrage in others.
We've become a society of people who are so addicted to attention and stimulation that we are all talking at once. No one is listening to each other, or even, it seems, to themselves.
I don't believe that all books are better than all writing on the Internet. Frankly, it seems like most of the books coming out these days are either memoirs of reality stars, which are essentially ghost-written prequels to their TV shows and tabloid stories, or compilations of popular Tumblrs. And in the world of 'serious' nonfiction, there is certainly a fair share of the same fanatic, gushy dreck that you can find for free online. Fiction, too, is a playground for market-driven, formulaic books from writers who have somehow convinced themselves that they are reaching some sort of po-mo transcendence by subverting the art of storytelling through technology and new media, but who, like everyone else, have merely placed another offering on the altar of the cult of Look At Me.
However, there is something in the form of a book that requires a deeper commitment to denying distraction. It requires attention and memory retention and focus. It requires the reader to approach the author's ideas as something to be digested and weighed against his own perceptions and understanding of the world, rather than approaching them as clickbait or a product to be consumed and then flaunted—I mean 'shared'—with one's social media circle.
Reading books makes one a better thinker, and being a better thinker can make one a better writer, one that is more considerate of priorities. Reading good writers also improves one's writing. The community of 'content creators' online needs to take a step back and consider what they are writing, and whether it is contributing anything—not to the conversation, as in, idle chatter, but to discourse, as in meaningful discussion of things that actually matter. They also need to consider what they are reading, to commit to nourishing themselves with quality stories and ideas. It will inspire us all to become better writers.