Are Books Worth It?

Published: 2020-07-09
Tagged: essay thoughts education

Just thinking this question upsets me. My jaw clenches and brow furrows. Could I speak these words in the company of a friend? Or on a lonely mountain top? The force of my emotions tells me it's important to ask it.

So.

Are books worth it?

Books are expensive. Their price isn't counted in dollars but in hours. In 2020 you can reply to an email, order takeout, and pay a bill over a single bathroom break at work. So many articles, comments, and tweets can be read in the time it takes to finish a single novel. Wait, why not watch a youtube video instead? It'll tell you everything you need to know in 10 minutes (or less!) of quick transitions and quicker jokes. Thanks to ranking algorithms, we don't have to think too much about selecting which content to consume–it'll seek us out. And even if it's unsatisfying, there's still plenty of time left for another video. How can books even compete with content?

"Content." What is it? If somebody asked, "Hey, can you pass me that content?", what would you imagine? I see nothing. "Content" is so vague, it can stand in for anything, but for the purpose of this comparison, it's anything that can be transmitted through a "content delivery platform." People paint paintings and sing songs, but "content creators" "produce" content. It reminds me of commodities like pork bellies or bushels of wheat. Freelance writers and machine learning algorithms manufacture it according to guidelines that were created to maximize attention-per-click. Resisting consumers are treated to an extra helping of gifs or catching quotes. Imagine a gray goo dispensed by faceless accountants by pill, injection, or suppository. That's content. Doesn't sound very appetizing, does it?

Books are the opposite of content. Reading is like a journey into the foreign land of another's mind. Everything is different and bizarre because a book is an expression of an author's unique experience. It's like catching up with an old friend. Imagine talking late into the warm summer night. As the sky darkens and the air becomes cool and moist, you hear about all the new things in their life. There's time enough to go over everything. There are questions, laughs, tears, and many long silences. That's how it feels to read a good book. Isn't it curious that a stranger, often dead, can bond with a reader like that? For me, authors like Tolkien, Nabokov, Le Guin, and Pratchett feel like old friends. Without any trickery or persuasion, their words keep influencing my life. How did they do it?

Writing a book takes way more time than reading one. An author has to master translating our messy reality into neat paragraphs. They have to collect enough ideas to build a story. Once they have a draft, they have to spend a few months revising and editing it until it's ready for publishing. That's a whole 'nother set of obstacles. The chances for a big payoff are tiny. There's no health insurance and no paid time off. Why would anyone write a book then? It's only a guess, but maybe it's because they want to share something they care deeply about? And what better way to share something than by putting down ink on paper? Books can travel across the earth with ease. What's more, they can last for decades and allow future, unborn readers to enjoy them. They're kind of a shared, read-only consciousness of our whole species.

It all comes down to time. There's never enough of it and we can't get more. Content, like fast food, will get you through the day. But a few hours with a good book will leave a lasting mark. Like a home-cooked meal, the love and care invested in a book create something greater than the sum of ingredients and heat.

There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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