The Illusion of Reading
I was reading my usual three newspapers this morning and noted what I thought initially was an intentionally humorous article in The Guardian (see the link at the bottom) regarding the new trend of people using fake books or facades of books on shelves as backdrops for video conferencing, or for decoration in their homes or offices in the way realtors or set decorators stage a room that is not real. Surely not I thought.
When I was a young boy during the 60s, in my Catholic grade school, I developed a love for reading. My parents had kick-started started me by gifting me with books from the Hardy Boy series on every occasion; birthdays, Christmas, and every other occasion appropriate, unlike my classmates who received bicycles or Roy Roger or Daniel Boone outfits. To add to my initial misery, during that time I was gifted with a sizable collection of musty books with yellowed pages, belonging to a deceased relative and which included nearly all the classics one might think of. There was A Tale of Two Cities, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tom Sawyer, White Fang, Robinson Crusoe, and dozens of others. And I read every one of them.
Eventually, I developed an interest in biographies about people like Teddy Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and others too numerous to count. So I began to establish a sense of people whom I admired. President John F. Kennedy and the heroic story of PT 109 were one. And I learned that every morning he would read three newspapers front to back. But I also found he had developed the ability to quickly scan material, and then retain the salient portions or facts that were important to him. I determined I wanted to learn how to do the same.
In one classroom, (we only had four in the entire school) there was a shelf that held all the materials for the SRA Reading Lab, including workbooks that contained reading exercises that then tested comprehension and retention with questions regarding what I had read, no matter the difficulty or technical nature of the subject matter. By the time I was in 8th grade, I was reading at a college senior level.
My love for reading continued throughout my education and into adult life and the disparate career that followed. As I careened from industry to industry, driven by a mix of curiosity and opportunity, from health care to business consulting in a kaleidoscope of SIC codes, I credited my ability to quickly master the intricacies of each to the foundational reading comprehension I established as a child. Reading didn't just enhance my literacy, doing so enhanced, not just advanced, my career.
Now semi-retired, my home office is decorated with memorabilia from my life's work and experiences. But it is also crammed with shelves full of books, and stacks of books in every corner, many very old and valuable, on a variety of subjects. Although I traversed a brief period of tablet reading, and have a mastery of computing, I inevitably returned to my books. And now I have published one of my own, and have two others that are works in progress.
And so, I think it is a sad commentary to see that these days some feel a need to create the facade of a library for a Zoom video background or to impress visitors to their home or office. I can promise that if you see me on video, or a still shot in my office, I promise the books in the background are not just real, they've been read, likely more than once.
Carl Sagan once wrote,"A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time—proof that humans can work magic."