You Are What You Read

you are what you read

Some people say you are what you eat. They may be right. But I stand with those who say “you are what you read.” For those of us who belong to “The Republic of Letters,” reading is not merely an idle pastimes, a way to occupy ourselves while waiting for something to do. Rather, it is one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives, a “positive addiction” that correlates with “optimal human experience,” a cognitive state known to psychologists as “flow.” For some people writing is like that too. When we are reading…and writing, we go to a spacious and open place where consciousness and intelligence are free to move about like the Queen on the chess board in all directions. Indeed, it is as if we are playing three-dimensional chess where the Queen is free to move about on multiple levels of chess boards rather than play on only one.

“You are what you read!” Yesterday I was roaming about at Barnes and Noble, wandering among the many colorful stacks of books and periodicals on a wide range of subjects. It occurred to me that I enjoy reading books and periodicals that are drawn from just about every section of the bookstore, some more than others. My stack of books at home marked “to be read” include an eclectic mix on such topics as heath and nutrition; the intellectual history of western civilization; the language of metaphor; the role of culture in shaping human nature; imagination, creativity and the arts; the lives of the great composers and poets; ecumenical theology and global spirituality; and of course novels, short stories,  poems and essays and literary criticism. The truth is that none of us has enough time to read more than a fraction of those books that would reward our time and attention. And there are so many other worthwhile things that we want to do with our lives beside read.

Again I say “you are what you read!” If you read narrowly in one field, whether philosophy or fly-fishing, literature or sports trivia, art of auto mechanics, science or business administration, “you are what you read.”

If you read widely in all directions, following your instincts for what  fascinates you, that habit of broad reading will influence your intelligence and sensibility. Those of us who are “literacy omnivores” enjoy sampling the cuisine of many genre, even while we find that we come back again and again to certain cuisines that never lose interest for us. Part of the fun of conversing with other persons who belong to the Republic of Letters is discovering what delectible foods on the literacy menu have given them greatest sustenance and delight.

But what about those who do not read substantial books, either because they have never learned to read, or because their busy lives give them no time or energy to read, or because reading has never become a source of knowledge, inspiration, enchantment and delight for them? Of course those of us who experience reading as “a way of life” think they are missing out on something vitally important. But in a way we understand how this decline in serious reading has happened in our technological digital age. Before the advent of radio, TV, movies, DVDs, video games, Facebook and Twitter, people read books.  Even many of those with little or no formal education read books. Possessing a good library of well-worn books was considered a sign of culture and civility. All that has been swept away today. I dare say that for most Americans today watching TV, renting videos, seeing movies on Netflix, and playing video games have largely replaced the reading of books, especially books of literary quality and intellectual substance.

So if “you are what you read,” and millions of Americans are no longer reading, or reading only at a very rudimentary level and as a superficial pastime rather than as a source of enlightenment, what does that mean? What does it mean that millions of Americans are starving their minds of the nutrition that comes through the reading of good books, or are feeding their minds only on junk-food? What does it mean that millions are allowing the mass-media news and entertainment society to dish up its version of “reality” for them, and to shut down the higher faculties of critical thinking and cultural discernment that comes with reading? How is this not a “leveling of the masses?” Perhaps dystopias like Ray Bradbury‘s Farenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are not that far off in the future. For some that future has already arrived. “The book people” are still out there, but many have ditched their wall-to-wall flat screen interactive “smart TVs” (an oxymoron). They are venturing out on their own into the wilderness to find others who have discovered that “you are what you read.”

Matthew Arnold was a brilliant English literary critic and social reformer.  Believed that modern societies have a choice between Culture and Anarchy. He was surely right. But perhaps he did not see, as Huxley and Bradbury did so keenly, that it is possible to use advertising and retail, technology and entertainment as “soma” — a powerful drug that stupefies the masses so that they “love their servitude.” The new Digital Age has great potential for good among those who know how to use it for personal growth and cultural enrichment, and it has great potential for harm among those who have lost the ability to read books, think independently, explore widely, express themselves clearly, and discern the dark times in which they live.

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