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Personal Essay

When We’ve Stopped Reading

(Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

By sheer accident, one man in this stupefied future learns how to read.”

Imagine if mankind forgot how to read. This is the premise of Walter Tevis’s superb 1980 dystopian novel Mockingbird. Centuries have passed, and the populations of the world now lead lives entirely reliant on automation. At first, machines provided basic labor, but, gradually, they became the doctors, then the police, then the teachers, then the judges, then even the government itself. This left people free to pursue individualist pleasures. Everyone lives on drugs—the person who stops taking drugs is considered mad. Memorization is considered vulgar; one should live in the present. The motto of society becomes “Forget it, Relax.” Traditional social institutions like the family are first abandoned, then stigmatized, then outlawed. Private life is championed above all else. People no longer understand the lives of others (“privacy invasion,” or asking personal questions, is made illegal). Just be yourself, they are told.

By sheer accident, one man in this stupefied future learns how to read. Paul Bentley was searching in the archives for old pornographic films as part of the “Classics” course he teaches at a university, when he accidentally comes across “ancient” educational films teaching young children basic literacy. He dedicates his time to studying them, but he must do so in secret; the teaching of reading, after all, is an illegal activity. However, no one can study a subject without wishing intensely to share the knowledge gained, and so eventually he teaches one other person, a young woman with whom he develops a secret romance (which is, alas, also a crime). He ends up being “detected” by a robot and sent to prison. He experiences profound suffering throughout the rest of the book—but also much joy. One could say that had he not learnt to read, his life would have been much more comfortable. However, Bentley clearly prefers his new life to his previous state of artificial bliss. Reading had changed him entirely, for he had discovered an internal life. He now had stories and histories and ideas, which would forever resound within him. This was a deeper comfort than drugs, television, or any other sensory pleasure.

Mockingbird, perhaps uniquely, shows us what “the end of history” might look like.

Before his arrest there is an overwhelming moment when Bentley, having before only been able to find the occasional book, comes across a room full of thousands of books:

I stood there not knowing what to do or say. I was feeling something that was like what some of the films had made me feel—a sense that I was in the presence of great waves of feeling that had once been felt by people who were now dead and who understood things that I did not.”

Later, he cannot sleep, and so he decides to travel by bus through the New York night and simply watch the city, with unprecedented curiosity:

“I watched out its windows as it went winding the long way between the bungalows and empty lots of Manhattan. I looked at the lights in the buildings where some people still sat watching their television. New York is very peaceful, and especially at night, but I thought of all those people, those lives, watching television, and I kept thinking, They know nothing of the past, not of their own past, nor of anyone else’s past.”

Novels set in the future are—in truth—history books. They are not history books in the sense that they attempt to recreate the past; rather, it is that they imagine a view of history from a particular point in the future. Mockingbird, perhaps uniquely, shows us what “the end of history” might look like. Having forgotten how to read, people have no significant knowledge about what came before. In every aspect of their lives, they only look forward, never reflecting. When Bentley learns to read, he becomes aware that things have not always been as they are now; it is not merely that the cosmetic layer of society changed (its styles and manners) but, rather, the entire mentality. He realizes that the past has much to teach us that is good; that material progress and intellectual and moral decline can occur together; and that the world mankind thought it would most prefer is, in fact, less rich and meaningful. He realizes that, with this knowledge, he cannot continue as he had. As such, he must become a different person, with a different future. 

I expect many readers will have had (or perhaps still have) elderly relatives who lived through the Second World War. If so, you may well have heard, especially when young, stories from that time which remain imprinted in your memory. I can vividly recall my grandmother describing how, when a plane dropped a bomb in her town, a postman immediately began rescuing people from the debris. It was not until a short while later that he realized he too had been injured in the blast; his foot was almost severed from his leg. I recall sitting in the back of the car and listening to my grandfather, who served in the Royal Air Force and who always seemed unquestionably conservative. He was telling me how, when the war ended in 1945, he and his comrades were enamored with Communism and thought it was the obvious future for the United Kingdom. That was one of the first times I had a sense of one of the most disastrous secondary effects of that war, seldom fully appreciated: that it was also a victory for the Soviets. Such stories often change you, in ways however small. And these are but mere anecdotes when compared to books, where often whole lifetimes are examined—not just of people but of beliefs and customs; families and communities; cities and empires. 

I did not read books until I was 18. I remember being pestered by a friend who was the most enthusiastic reader I had ever met; he tried and failed to get me to read several classics. Yet upon reaching adulthood, he stopped reading and spent all of his time playing video games, whereas I stopped playing video games and began to read. I pity those adults who never picked up the habit and, thus, the kinds of lives they must live. Unless one is peculiarly literary, few coming back from a long day of work have the motivation to read Graham Greene, let alone Samuel Richardson. They will never know what Samuel Johnson expressed so beautifully, how:

“Books have always a secret influence on the understanding; we cannot at pleasure obliterate ideas: he that reads books of science, though without any fixed desire of improvement, will grow more knowing; he that entertains himself with moral or religious treatises, will imperceptibly advance in goodness; the ideas which are often offered to the mind, will at last find a lucky moment when it is disposed to receive them.”

Reading changed me, I am sure. I began to appreciate the lives of others in a way I never did before. I saw gradations, flaws, nuance, real feelings. I stopped believing that I was in any way special and saw the suffering common to all. I saw, in old books, societies that were more interesting and intelligent than our own. I felt an intimate connection with people I had never met, whose existences long predated my own. I have often had that uncanny feeling of having conversations with the dead. On numerous occasions, I have walked home at night and been sure I could feel the company of long-dead authors whom I have read over and over again. I find their example lives within me and gives me strength and joy whenever I need it. Indeed, I began to learn how to imagine—what a gloriously useful thing it is to possess an imagination! I could imagine the past: it, thus, became something to which I was connected. Before, history was a subject trapped within thin and dreary school textbooks; now, it is present everywhere in my life. 

I had held the view common to nearly all in my generation that the faraway past—that is, before the so-called Enlightenment—was unimaginably backwards and cruel and miserable. I had believed that the current age is the most advanced there has ever been and that further progress is ultimately assured (a kind of atheistic providence). Those seemingly anachronistic institutions and customs that have lasted into the present, such as the monarchy or marriage or the requirement for barristers to wear wigs, I regarded not as a blessed inheritance from one generation to the next but as relics to be superseded by modern inventions. Most believe this because they have never been curious enough to wonder why such things exist; and if they did contemplate such a question, they would not know how to investigate it, for they seldom read books, and especially not old ones.

In old books, one finds a history unlike that which is commonly learnt. The stories of empire become less a moral allegory about, say, racism or liberation, and more an incomprehensibly huge and confusing endeavor, where there is much good and evil among all those involved, and about which it is difficult to be dogmatic. Once you have read what people in the past actually thought (and not what later authors thought they thought), you can often find yourself sympathizing with those you expected always to dislike. You might also become suspicious of those you thought were on your side. The narratives about the world (and the past) that one naturally develops will become less certain and more complicated. You will read about radical socialists who were also very conservative Christians or reactionary Tories who were champions of the poor. You may have your patriotism upset by reading about the past conduct of your country and the dubious ideas of its most significant leaders. You may find yourself sympathizing with the various losing sides of your country’s history. Then again, you may instinctively feel you are a sentimental Jacobite or Roundhead or Gladstonian Liberal and, then, find yourself disabused of such feelings. Such are the joys and difficulties of reading old books.

Greatness itself seems to be declining.

But, alas, not merely has the ability to read books declined; the desire has too. There was a short-lived period in the history of Britain, perhaps reaching its height during the Edwardian era, when reading was a widespread aspiration. This was a genuinely profound and good development, progress in the best sense, and we live in its twilight. Today, the lower and middle classes no longer aspire upwards. Instead, we live in an inverted age, where it is the upper classes who wish to be like the lower classes in the latter’s cultural interests. There are, now, no composers as great as Haydn or Messiaen, no writers as great as Dr. Johnson or Borges (and if there were, there would likely be no market or patrons to support them). Greatness itself seems to be declining. The egalitarian spirit of our age has dragged everyone down. In Mockingbird, the belief that everyone must be individualist and self-expressive has led to conformity and incuriousness and mediocrity. I see much of this paradoxical and dreary homogeneity in our own society.

So we are less literate than we once were. Those who argue against this say that what we read has changed; if anything, we read more: on computers and smartphones. However, it matters how we come to acquire knowledge. All of us look to others in order to form our own opinions. It is better that we do this through serious reading than through modern technological conveniences, where impatient scrolling through emotive Twitter feeds seems to decide many opinions. Books provide knowledge that is more complete than in any other form. They present a lengthy and thorough combination of facts, ideas, narratives, passions, fashions, and styles. They tell you both what people thought and, moreover, how they thought. One will find different ways of arguing, of writing, of speaking, of behaving. There will be fundamental principles and prejudices (in the neutral Burkean sense of “prejudgements”) that are foreign to most modern people. All of these things are often lost, however, when these authors and their works are summarized by others. In the original books, one sees the fullness of a person’s thought, as well as the context of his being. Ask yourself, how well are others able to articulate what you believe? This problem only increases with time: It is more difficult to capture and describe the world of my grandfather than of my fathers, and so on. Old books give us a well-preserved portrait of the past more complete than anything else. They are among our greatest inheritances.

Technological advances promise a library more expansive than any 18th century scholar could have imagined. Yet, these developments have resulted in a much shallower well of knowledge among the general population. Technological devices may give us access to an unprecedented amount, but they alter our desires such that we are less likely to peruse great works. Intellectual curiosity is replaced by sensory addiction. We give into laziness, distraction, and vice much more easily. As in Mockingbird, we created robots that have begun to rule the way we live, all the while thinking that the robots are servants who enable us to live improved lives.

We often have a hard time, especially when studying a subject, in seeing the immediate utility of reading a whole book. Why wander round an entire woods when you could just take the path straight through? Our time is limited, so we often resort to secondary literature that explains other books in a succinct (and selective) manner. Yet it is much more enjoyable and useful to read Saint Augustine or Friedrich Engels than it is to read books “introducing” you to Augustine or Engels. One great benefit of doing so is that you will find not merely what you did not expect but, also, what you did not want to find. (For, unfortunately, so much research involves finding little but what one wants to find.) This is one of the chief advantages of reading original books in their entirety. So much is lost when knowledge is edited and recycled over time and then reinterpreted through various analytical and ideological traditions. 

In Mockingbird, society lives on recycled information. It has been recycled so many times that society no longer knows where this knowledge comes from, and it would have no way of recreating it if it needed to. This is why it is always important to study the earliest sources; otherwise, the essence of an idea is soon lost. There is one person left who knows how to repair things, and he is a robot. But not even he can read. The knowledge he possesses is entirely mechanical: that is, “how” to do things—not “why”. In Mockingbird, people long ago stopped teaching the “why” and eventually stopped teaching the “how” too, until there is just one robot left with a small bit of residual education. Everyone else lives in a state of complete ignorance, assuming the things they enjoy will continue to be, and that the present and the future are all that matter.

Books can change everything, and so, too, can their absence. As Bentley reflects near the end of Mockingbird:

“Driving along the rutted, ancient green highways as I am now, with the ocean on my right and the empty fields on my left under the bright springtime sun, I feel free and strong. If I were not a reader of books I could not feel this way. Whatever may happen to me, thank God that I can read, that I have truly touched the minds of other men.”.

Matthew Wardour is a writer in England.

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