Are non-readers permitted to feel smart?
As a fat child, I’d quietly surrendered to what seemed inevitable: that I’d never be the athletic or the strong kid. Cute maybe, but never a handsome lad. The only person I could become to keep my head high, was the smart kid. And smart kids read a lot of books, don’t they?
My parents are intelligent, so I figured I had some genetic privilege. They’re both doctors, and I grew up in a house with a small library of large medical books. I liked being around those books, as if this proximity allowed me to passively soak up whatever knowledge they had to offer. Sometimes, I’d borrow an old tome of microbiology and keep it on my study table just to pretend that I read stuff far beyond my age.
Eventually, I had to start pretending harder. Harry Potter was one of the first books I recall actually finishing ‘for pleasure’. More pleasurable though was the huge stack of Archie comics stashed away in the bottom cabinet of my study desk. That counts as ‘reading’, doesn’t it? I was certainly standing somewhere on that scholarly escalator, slowly building up my stamina, working towards actually reading that ginormous microbiology book.
In time, I did. I got myself into medical college, surrounded by equally ginormous books that I could not afford to leave on my study desk unread. I was drowning in medical text that left me exhausted and depressed, but not because of all the reading, I told myself. Nobody said medicine’s easy.
Yet medical textbooks weren’t the only sort of reading material that bored me. The only time I seriously consider reading a book is when I’m traveling; stuck in an aircraft or a train, for example, without wifi. That’s when I pick up a book, nearly always non-fiction. Non-fiction because what’s the point of reading if you’re not learning something? No, learning the identity of the Half Blood Prince doesn’t count.
This is particularly odd, considering that I love writing fiction. I enjoy telling stories with complex plots and imaginative characters. I wrote my first fantasy novel at the age of 15, which I never had the courage to publish. I completed my second novel at 24, which I did try to get published, only to face endless rejections. I couldn’t get myself to write stories the way most book readers apparently want them.
I was reminded of the truism that to write well, one must read a lot. I now own a large library of fiction books, which I can’t get myself to read. ‘Forty Rules of Love’ abandoned after forty pages. A Hundred Years of Solitude? I wish I could say I got through a hundred pages.
I don’t feel like reading books anymore. I want to read short stories and online articles. I want to watch films and documentaries.
My disinterest in books turned to resentment in time. Book readers tend to annoy me. “The movie isn’t as good as the book”. No, it’s often better than the book. Why should the filmmaker be considered a lesser artist than an author? A film is not a moon to the book’s sun. It adds new dimensions of creativity to the story, of which the writer cannot conceive.
Of course, I tried not to say that out loud, out of fear for the educated literary elite recoiling too hard and dropping their monocles into their tall champagne glasses. How could I consider myself among the educated while openly confessing my disdain for book reading? In a circle of smart friends comparing the number of books they’ve read like cities they’ve conquered, how could I admit the unspeakable truth without feeling intellectually inferior? I feel I can still express myself competently through writing, even though it’s not written in pretentious long-form; the sort that’s obsessed with how something’s being said, rather than what’s being said.
Aren’t we past this? Knowledge flows to us through more than just books. It comes to us through any form of written material not compiled into a book of two hundred pages or more. It comes to us through films, documentaries, and lectures. It comes to us through conversation. If a book is the incontrovertible symbol of knowledge, can a dyslexic person ever be allowed to feel smart?
I’m glad that many people enjoy reading books. I cannot imagine how this necessarily makes them smarter than the general population. And I see no reason why people why anyone should be made to feel unintelligent for reading slow and being able to finish a book.
There’s more to art than literary art. And there’s more to knowledge than that which comes from a dusty old tome.