We read too much, wrote Herman Hesse 1911 in his essay ‘About reading’*. German writer Hesse meant the kind of reading people do to forget themselves and their daily life. People just read everything they see. Hesse compared this to visiting a drug-store and tasting everything they have. But instead of this act of self-poisoning, Hesse advices us to read and select those works that make us intellectually healthy and strong. Never this advice seemed more valid than today. Let us read (1) less and (2) more deliberately. This is the short Manifesto for Reading instead of info-processing.
Our age is over-abundant in knowledge, communication and information. We definitely read too much. We are filled with information. I was grateful to German journalist Lu Yen Roloff who once pointed this out to me in a very clear statement. We did a reading course and she stated in 2011, in her e-mail in which she admitted not having the time and patience to read the – non-easy – Thomas More’s ‘Utopia‘ (year 1516): ‘Reading to me feels like work after a long day of information processing.‘
Now something interesting happens when we bridge the 100 years and confront Hesse with Roloff. While Roloff emphasizes her impatience to read long dialogues, especially in periods in which one is short of time, Hesse blames the quality of reading. According to Hesse you should read any kind of writing: ‘as if you are taking a deep breath.’ You should expect something, it should give you strength. And, says Hesse, if you don’t consider yourself ‘mentally ill, you should not at all enjoy yourselves, but you will have to concentrate, everywhere and always, anywhere you are and in what you do or think or experience, you will have to be there with all the power of your self.’*
If we would take a deep breath everytime we would read something, we would definitely hyperventilate. So what if we are overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge around us? If we are already filled with information processing? Can we then still be powerful readers? Or have we become – quote of Thoreau in Walden (1854) – ‘the tools of our tools‘? Have we become info-processors ourselves?
Let us turn back to the question why we read in the first place. In school my children were handed out a sticker with ‘Lesen gefährdet die Dummheit.’ Translated: ‘Reading endangers stupidity’. At first I thought this was too tough, too moralistic. Also because it was printed the same way as the ‘Nicotin is a deadly …kills you …’ on the cigaretteboxes. But I came to appreciate it. Because it fits so well with Herman Hesse’s comparison to the drug store. In fact, ‘reading endangers stupidity’ is a prescriptive recipe to strive for mental, or intellectual, health. Or to formulate this in a simple form: reading prevents you from becoming stupid. This is pretty old stuff: it is the Enlightenment Ideal. But how to avoid an overdosis? How to deal with Enlightenment 2.0 and 3.0?
To be honest about my own intentions: I present this manifesto with an explicit moral goal, which is that I would like to save people from becoming hollow, so they can be filled with nonsense. ‘You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.’ said O’Brien to Winston in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. I agree with Orwell. I don’t want us to be filled by accidental, circumstantial information.
Large parts of the internet have become dominated by commercial information. I cannot read Facebook without an overload of commercialized information, which subconsciously infects my brain. The intention of large amounts of information is to make us continuously absorb self- & selling-representations. This makes us hollow. As first-generation Silicon Valley visionary Jaron Lanier warned on Edge.org and in ‘You are not a gadget’: we are producing a lot of collective nonsense on the web with a tendency towards becoming ‘cybernetic totalists’.
I once read about a London bookstore where you could get a literature recipe. The recipe was a response to your personal situation. Excellent idea. If I would prescribe books, I would probably know what to recommend. But first I have to write down my two recommendations: Let us read (1) less and (2) more deliberately. This is the short Manifesto for Reading instead of info-processing. Thanks for reading!
I am grateful to Herman Hesse, Lu Yen Roloff, Henry David Thoreau, the author of ‘Lesen gefährdet die Dummheit’, George Orwell, Jaron Lanier and this London bookshop.
*my translation from the Dutch translation.