On Not Reading Books

I like to assume, in all of my bookish hubris, that the reading of books is an excellent use of our free time. But in the interest of open-mindedness, let’s consider: what if we don’t read books?* What then?

The question reminded me of a New Yorker piece from a couple of years ago (“The Year in Not Reading”), with some Schopenhauer musings thrown in for good measure —

schopenhauer on reading books

“Perhaps there’s consolation to be had in Schopenhauer’s remark that “buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents …

I like browsing for books; I like the sense of endless possibility, the promise of freedom, of new life that seems so close at hand. There’s also something sad about browsing, though — a tugging awareness that what you’re doing is a waste of time, that your work is still all ahead of you.”

I also find the act of browsing books very pleasurable. The endless possibility of choosing to read a book (or not) is stimulating and makes me want to take up permanent residence at Powell’s Books — if anything, I feel the sadness of browsing tends to center on the Books We Could Have Read But Didn’t.

But so much for cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the simplest solution is to choose no books at all? I rather liked this post over at The Bygone Bureau (“In the Land of the Non-Reader”). It’s a healthy exercise to revisit our assumptions about reading, and why we do it. Far better to question than mindlessly assume we know what’s good for us —


“I must have some free time. Perhaps the “I don’t have time to read” line is just a cover. A way that people excuse themselves from the uncomfortable truth that they do, in fact, have time but that they would rather do something other than read with that time (such as pretending to be a wood-elf). We exalt reading as “good” like exercise and vegetables and so we are always making excuses as to why we avoid it.

I knew that I had taken up residence in the swamp of the non-reader. Here is what life is like in that swamp:

  1. The world is flat. Not in the sense of a level economic playing field (an idea I once read about, when I read). No, the world is flat because I see no depth. I make no associations. Life unfolds as a rather dull soap opera with bathroom breaks.
  2. I can no longer reason and cannot be trusted to make a decision. My brain is distracted by second-hand sensations. When the slightest complexity arises in my life, I crave the screen world — the simple goal of building a house in Minecraft or the easily dis-entangled one-hour conundrums that beset the Voyager crew.
  3. I can no longer relax. My Skyrim character now has a longer to-do list than my red-flagged Outlook task-list at work. My days at work and home consist of quests and side-quests leading to more quests and side-quests. I have lost the main narrative.
  4. I am empty, but not in a monkish way. I am just kind of dumb. Also, without the pleasing empathy that comes from engaging with new ideas, places, and characters, I am afraid of foreigners and easily manipulated by politicians and advertisements.
  5. I have the attention span of cocaine-addled four-year old. My mind is an ’80s Scorsese montage on fast-forward. It’s all sound and fury signifying — are you kidding me? Star Wars in 3D? WTF?”

I don’t really know about Skyrim is, but the “I am empty” was an apt way of putting it. For some reason, it made me think of John Milton’s “On His Blindness”.

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* I thought it was important to make the distinction of “reading books.” After all, even we choose not to read and engage in all sorts of non-bookish activities like video games or internet browsing, we are all still reading in some shape or form.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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