I’ve noticed throughout my adult life, and especially over the last few years, a sort of braggy immodesty when it comes to literature. Allusions to and discussions about reading in social media can often be boiled down to “look, I’m reading a book!”, the implication being that there is something inherently pure and virtuous about using the novel as your escapist vehicle, as opposed to the dirty television or the sordid internet. This is self-serving folly, and I hope to put it into perspective with a few observations.
When you look at it from a historical perspective, reading hasn’t always been perceived as an innately virtuous use of leisure time. As a matter of fact, until fairly recently the literary escapist was viewed by the societies of yesteryears much as the video game junkies of today were. One who spent his time lost in books instead of, say, plowing the field or learning to fight, or learning a trade, was a time-waster. Enthusiasts of fiction lacked ambition, they walked around with their heads in the clouds. Men who read too much were lacking in masculinity, and women who read too much had ideas above their station.
The argument I’d like to make is that the societal perception of the book-reader has shifted only relative to the newer methods of escapism we have been presented with. In the face of the television, the loud, brightly-colored box that pumped entertainment down your throat, the book suddenly seemed a lot more elegant. After a generation of parents watched their children gaze slack-jawed at a screen for hours on end for the first time in human history, a new vice was identified. As the TV zombie became something to discourage and avoid, the book-reader first fell by the wayside of the societal criticism machine, and in time nostalgia and the aforementioned relative elegance would transform it into the most noble leisure activity imaginable.
What’s interesting to me is speculating on where this will take us in the future. With the advent of the Internet, as wireless routers become household fixtures, will we see a generation longing for the communal experience of sitting on a couch and enjoying a single piece of mindless entertainment together? These sentiments are already popping up on the fringes of our common conversation. “When I was a kid, we used to sit and watch a movie together.” When I was in high school, my family used to watch Seinfeld every night. It was familiar and nice, and we all laughed at the same jokes at the same time.
The internet, and its new most prolific and ubiquitous vehicle, the smartphone (no spell check on the one-word smartphone, for the record) have taken this to a new extreme. Entertainment is now personal. The cell phone screen is big enough for one pair of eyes at a time, and if you want to share something you have plenty of internal tools to do so, in the mediums supported by said phone. With social media taking the cake as the most unproductive and catastrophically common extreme waste of time in the history of mankind, will societies of the future one day yearn for a time where we accessed Facebook on our browser and checked it for an hour every night, instead of continually throughout the day? Will the societies of the future reminisce fondly on a time when we enjoyed the rustic and common experience of holding a phone in our hands, instead of the damn brain-computer you see everyone zonking out on, on those rare occasions you turn yours off and look at your cohorts with your eyeballs? Is there an end to the relativism, a point where we draw the line and turn it all off? Time will tell. In the meantime, I just spent a half hour WRITING. With my own fingers, too. Beat that.