Friday, February 1, 2019

Books versus Reading!

A lot of--certainly well-read--people are up in arms against digital media.  They praise paper books to the skies.  They deride non-paper media.  They consider themselves a cut above the rest for having read books; they measure their worth by the size of their own (paper) book collection, and praise great and famous men whose (paper) libraries filled out enormous cathedral-sized rooms.  (In the past, not in these days of digitized cathedrals.*)

Well, OK; I myself cannot remember reading more than, say, a few hundred books.  Most bibliophiles would snort, saying that they have read many more books than that, though they would be hard pressed to recall their titles, or even the contents, of these fabulous books.

You would gather, by the paragraphs above--which have the makings of starting off a diatribe--that I didn't think much of paper books.  This is not the case.  I'm just against the idea of thinking of paper books as the only game in town; I'm not for digital books exclusively.

I think that those who are passionately fond of paper books are largely those not educated in a technical field; their collections are probably weighted towards books that dispense wisdom, that contain literature and poetry and memoirs, for those of a contemplative disposition.  That's fine.  But it irks me when people express admiration to books nicely bound in leather, over against books that are cheaply bound, because they're necessary books for someone in a technical field, and those books would not be affordable if they were to be leather bound.  So, unconsciously, these people are expressing their class biases.  I don't hold it against them (at least not very much), because the veneration of books is characteristic of a classical education, which society is realizing is expensive, not least because of its price in timber.  The recent, misguided emphasis on Scientific, Engineering, Technical and Mathematical (STEM) education is an overreaction to historic preference of citizens to study subjects "for gentlemen", which did not include the STEM fields.  After a few years, one hopes, those (technical) fields will take their rightful place alongside other subjects, and not ahead of them.

The important thing is to be able to read and write, and read and write well, not just like some of the more notorious graduates of the University of Pennsylvania.  (Evidently, a requirement for being President in the future is the ability to Tweet effectively and accurately.)

If the physical medium were to be taken out of the discussion, the point is well taken that being widely read, is certainly an important skill in navigating these confusing times.  It is a great disadvantage in trying to understand, for instance, issues of immigration, or of closing down the government (recall poor Wilbur Ross, trying to--either understand the positions of citizens who live a hand-to-mouth existence, or trying to think of diplomatic ways of advising them!) or responding to violence and chaos abroad.  (Of course, it would help even more if certain heads of state could read, and yet more if the US were to stop helping to destabilize their fragile economies.)

I think the situation in Venezuela deserves a paragraph.  They had a corrupt head of state, who mismanaged the economy; then the election that seemed necessary at that moment was not called.  (The existing administration has power over whether an election is called, so it appears that they though they could stay in power indefinitely by not calling elections ever again.)  The most popular politician in the country declared himself Prime Minister (or president, I'm not sure).  At this point, Donald Trump's administration chose to recognize this un-elected politician as the legitimate national leader of Venezuela.  In my humble opinion, this was a serious misstep.  And, to make matters worse, a number of foreign governments followed, recognizing this other gentleman.  Think, if this had happened here.  If China, and Russia, and Britain and Australia had recognized Hillary Clinton as President, instead of Trump.  Not even Hillary Clinton would have appreciated the gesture.

One of the important benefits of reading is its ability to enhance our capacity to think like someone else; to put ourselves in the place of others in our imaginations.  This is not exactly empathy; it is not about feelings, necessarily.  It is about seeing another point of view.  Going back to the Venezuela example (which I had not planned): if by some chance, Mr. Juan Guiado's new government were to become--temporarily--legitimized, it will have to live with the accusation that it was set up by the USA, and therefore beholden to it (which is a great burden); and that stigma could eventually end it's life, possibly in a bloody uprising.  Mike Pence is reported as saying that this is no time for dialogue, but that it is time for the Maduro regime to end.  Washington should not be deciding whether such a time has come, and certainly Pence should not be doing so.

Anyway: in any time, having read widely in one's youth stands one in good stead.  Another thing we hear too little about is that travel too broadens the mind.  But it is all too common for one's tourist experiences to wash off of one, like water off the back of a duck.  It is reading that prepares one to take full advantage of one's travel!


*This is an attempt at a joke, of course; digital cathedrals are not expected to get here before 2020.

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