I come today, in the midst of the holiday-dulled news cycle, simply in praise of reading.
The ceaseless and almost gleeful speculations on the demise of the printed word in the electronic age are often countered with the reflection that the format -- books and newsprint -- may fade away, but the function -- the actual reading -- will always thrive. People need information and they inherently love to hear and tell stories, the argument goes, so whether the object is history, contemporary life, essays or fiction, serious or superficial, there will always be a need.
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In my heart of hearts, I don't know if that's true. I want it to be, but I know and see too many people today who seem quite comfortable with an intellectual life constructed on the detritus of 140-character coded hieroglyphs and four-minute videos. I am at once torn with longing for the days when we considered a 30-minute television newscast too shallow and surprised at how well-informed, articulate and engaged many of these same people are.
So, who am I to judge? I know only this: that my own life would be infinitely poorer if I did not have newspapers and books and poems to read -- to touch and to listen to and to pore over, to contemplate and laugh at and fall asleep to, to feed to my pulsing heart and feeble spirit and grateful imagination.
I am not afraid of the twitterverse, and -- while striving to resist dwelling on the observation that its root word is twit -- I am not shy about exploring or exploiting the fractured universe of electronic information and entertainment. I recognize the advantages in our brave new world. But I am not remotely prepared to discard the advantages of the old. It, too, has an abundance of beauteous and goodly creatures.
I confess that I am woefully behind on some of the cultural touchpoints of our era. I've yet to see a single episode of either "Breaking Bad" or "Homeland," and I'm not sure when I'll get to "12 Years a Slave" or the "Wolf of Wall Street," much as I want to and know that they and many other titles from the literature of contemporary television and film are likely as riveting, thought-provoking and timeless as much that I will find in print. But there's something about reading that leaves me feeling more than compensated.
Not that my reading is any more up-to-date than my movie going, even if it is substantially more plentiful. I finished 2012 reading Douglas Adams' "Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul" (1988) for the fourth time and began 2013 with at least the fourth reading of his "Mostly Harmless" (1992). Yes, I suppose they're dated, but both are on my all-time favorites list, and each time I read them, I'm impressed with what great movies they would make and yet how much of Adams' delightful wit and wordplay would be lost in the process.
I could have easily just jumped on Google to find all manner of interesting historical facts to increase my knowledge of history, but I can't imagine any way I could have gathered as much insight or been so stimulated as I was reading biographies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Cleopatra. I saw Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" last year, but as transcendent and insightful as it was, it was a mere flickering candle to the bright floodlights of Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," which I re-read in the spring. I'm not sure that "The Secret History of the Mongol Daughters" or "How the Irish Saved Civilization" could even be brought to the screen as PBS specials, and, though I'm sure both Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind" and Josh Bazell's "Beat the Reaper" would make fine movies, the experience could never substitute for the delicious pleasure of interacting directly with the mind of the author through the reading.
Ultimately, any discussion of this sort from a newspaper column must return to some defense or declaration in the conflict between print and electronics, but I'll save that for another time. It's kind of a tired debate by now, anyway.
The world may one day be getting all of its information and entertainment in cutely arranged zeros and ones, consuming them like kibble and with a German shepherd's haste. But I won't. I love to read, and I can't wait to jump into the stack of books under which my already unsteady nightstand is newly creaking from the holidays, not to mention those surging in their ones and zeros on the Kindle. All after I finish the daily newspapers, of course.
• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.