In Defense of the Intellectual Reader

Perhaps the reason we now cringe at lengthy content and elevated language is because we have so little left to give. We give and give our energy to a vacuous, modern world. Saturated by images, consumerism, techno-crap, and the abundance of mediocrity, via Facebook Reels, TikTok, and text alerts, we need a mental break if or when we climb out of the black hole of random thoughts. Emotional appeals are shared to no one in the room.  Political discourse is a minefield of headlines, jokes, and ignorance. Anxiety bleeds out to the masses.

Thus, we turn away from lengthy articles, and the challenges of the more complex content. These require far too much focus and silent reflection. Even for pleasure, we decline reading literature with nuanced and obvious depth, arguing that we are weary of all the weight. If content is not summed up in twelve words, or thirty seconds, we are onto another thought. We can no longer be bothered with entire words. If there are words too rare for instant comprehension, we roll our eyes with intolerance, and label the writer a snob, grandiose and out of touch. False humility becomes our justified resistance to a higher ground. We stopped appreciating that rare words speak to rare thoughts. 

In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell warns us against the horrors of content collapse, where we jump to profound and often hostile conclusions based on snippets of information. We read captions and titles, and if it is compelling, with all the gritty violence or divisive chatter, we stick around a bit. We dummy down until we are tiny ants under a crushing apathetic boot, scattered in chaos, and rendered helpless. Then hopeless. Then extinguished.

I see this happening all around me. Then I see it happening to me as well. Calamity becomes tepid, unless it is out my own front door.

This is why I will persevere in the realms of the lofty libraries, digesting the books too heavy for my comfort. I read those works that make me dizzy with intensive thought, those books that require me to google terms and allusions until I partially understand. Those are the books I seek. 

Not always. But often. More often than most, I have noticed. And it does not need to be current or political, because I am already pummeled with that more immediate shit show.

Sure, it takes time for my aging brain to adjust to the elevated language. Usually a few hours of awkward, uphill reading produces a more flexible mind, an ability to then flow and capture more meaning with some ease and pleasure.

Middlemarch. Beowolf, and not the movie. Anything Sontag.  Clockwork Orange. Campbell. Capote. Atlas Shrugged. Shakespeare, of course. Chaucer too. Ancient texts with esoteric symbols, like The Egyptian Book of the Dead and The Bahir.

Speaking of religious lit, and just as an example, many people today find The Four Agreements and The Power of Now epically awe-inspired, but how radically simple they are in comparison to our historical options. We have turned away from the layers and layers of depth, and proclaim simplistic and basic humanity, the eternal mysteries snuffed to such a degree that only surface spirituality is now considered staggering information. I guess it is a good place to start, but let’s not walk around thinking it is anywhere near the final word. I am not a Christian, but at least I have read the entire Holy Bible.  For the sake of my own dignity. For the sake of choices I make for myself here in America. There are reams of wisdom in that book. The patriarchal dogma is far more political than spiritual. The stories themselves, sacred and divine.

We reject the entire ocean but delight in a murky puddle, and then we call it good.

When it comes to daily reading, I will continue to seek those books and articles which are uncomfortable, and just a bit beyond my current domain. I bother less with what everyone is saying, and more with what no one is saying anymore. As I persist in this ritual stretch, I remain tethered to original thought, artistic language, etymology, and the gorgeous story of us. My wisdom expands.

Please stop underestimating our intellectual capacity. At least stop underestimating your own. Treasure the beauty of a poetic and dignified form and commit a little time to it each day. Reach out to me. Share your thoughts on the scholarly and studious tomes, please, before I grow any more isolated. I worry there are so few of us left.

2 comments on “In Defense of the Intellectual Reader

Robin says:

I’m with you on this, as you know! And I can tell you a couple of my kids (Nathan in particular) are taking on this challenge as well! It helps to have someone you can read with and talk to about the complex, deeper content you are consuming. I’m not ready to tackle Moby Dick yet, though!

That’s fantastic! Thanks for this support Robin. Ps. I never read Moby Dick! So much left to do…

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