The Value of Reading in the Modern Age

If there’s one thing I love to have an opinion on, it’s literature. I’ve read a lot of books over the years, but unfortunately, that isn’t common anymore. With the world flying towards a digital age, books have been left behind in a sense. Don’t misunderstand, books will always be available, but their age of dominance ended a long time ago.

That being said, humor me a bit. Let’s imagine a perfect world where everyone actually wants to read, but they don’t know where to start. If I got to choose one book for every person in the entire world to read, what would it be? Once we have a starting point, we’ll be able to uncover the intrinsic value of reading along the way.

The book I would want everyone to read would be “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. This isn’t my favorite book by any means (that honor goes to “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller), but I do consider it the greatest American novel ever written in terms of impact. As I do with many books, I’ve read this one several times. Each time I am astounded by how tightly it’s written.

The lessons learned from it are timeless. It challenges us to be accepting of others that are different, even if it’s not the popular opinion. It shows what becomes of childhood innocence when exposed to the harsh realities of that time period. Most importantly, it teaches us that the world isn’t fair. No matter how hard you fight, there are some battles you just can’t win. What’s important is staying true to your beliefs in the face of adversity.

Even with that glowing review, I’m heavily underselling the value of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I truly think there’s something in there for everyone. No matter who you are, what genres you prefer or where you come from, this book can impact your life.

To get some different opinions, I talked with three people about their book recommendation and what the value of reading is from their perspective.

Antonio Battista
Antonio Battista is a senior English education major attending Duquesne University. I wanted the perspective of someone who wants to use reading in the classroom, while also being a person who enjoys reading himself. To start off, he said the book he would have everyone read is his personal favorite: “Catcher in the Rye.”

“I legitimately think every young person should read it, and it’s my dream text to teach in a high school setting,” he said.

Specifically, he appreciates the main character Holden for what he represents for students at that age.

“Holden embodies the anxieties and fears that pretty much everyone faces when they are at a transitional point in their lives, but the important part is that he doesn’t handle that stress well,” Battista said. “It is somewhat obvious that Holden is overwhelmed, and I think his character allows for students to feel as though their own feelings are valid while simultaneously recognizing that the ways in which he copes (drinking, smoking and trying to have sex) are not healthy.”

To interject for a brief moment, I completely agree with Battista here. Personally, I think Holden is the best written character I’ve ever seen. Your enjoyment of the book relies entirely on if you can tolerate him or not, which was a bold choice on J.D. Salinger’s part. However, that devotion to the character is exactly what makes the book so special. Holden transcends the idea of a character and becomes the closest thing I’ve seen to a real person within a fictional book.

Battista went on to explain how reading makes people utilize their brains differently than visual media. He said that books require the reader to use their imagination to create the picture, while video does that for you. Though, he stressed that this distinction does not make one inherently more valuable than the other; the two are just different.

Interestingly enough, he also touched on how reading and its perception have changed for the newer, more visual-centric generations.

“Older generations are accustomed to a slower life, but for my generation and younger, we were born in the age of the cellphone and social media. It’s a crucial part of our daily lives and identities,” Battista said. “Even I get bored and distracted when I read, and I’m an English major and enjoy literature more than most. I’m not entirely sure of the long term ramifications of this, but it is clear that cultural currency no longer lies in text, but in video and music.”

This prompted a question: If video and music truly do make up the new cultural currency, what is the point of investing in reading anymore?

“Reading is decreasing, but it will never fully go away, and people should be able to decipher a text and come to an understanding of what is being said. They should be able to differentiate fact from fiction and make informed decisions,” Battista said.

Additionally, he sees literature as a way to build empathy for one another; an important concept in today’s culture.

“Kids need to see themselves in art, that will help them grow in self-confidence and build their desire to read and write more on their own,” Battista said.

I completely agree with his point here because I have had an empathy-building experience through literature myself. In “The Lord of the Rings,” there is a character named Gollum. He is a wretched creature whose only purpose in life is to carry the one ring. While he does end up helping Frodo and Sam for part of their journey, he mostly remains an antagonistic force throughout the books. Bilbo, Frodo and Sam all have the chance to kill Gollum, but none of them do because they have compassion. At the end, Gollum steals the ring back from Frodo and falls into Mount Doom. So, in a roundabout way, mercy and empathy is what saved Middle-earth. That realization truly left a major impact on my worldview moving forward.

Arthur W. Hunt III
Arthur Hunt is a published author of two books detailing the struggles of Christianity and the written word in the modern age. In fact, his book “The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World” is being used in my Practicum class this semester. Additionally, he was a professor of communication at Geneva College and University of Tennessee. Naturally, I figured he would have some opinions to share on this topic.

To start off, the book he recommended everyone to read is the Bible. He even went a step further and recommended “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis as his second choice. I have heard great things about “Mere Christianity,” but I haven’t had the chance to read it for myself yet.

He went on to explain what value he sees in reading as opposed to other forms of media.

“As Neil Postman says in his book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death,’ a deeply literate culture produces a typographical mind, which is ‘a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response,’” Hunt said. “The skills are necessary for any culture that relies upon democratic institutions.”

Unfortunately, those skills he mentioned are becoming more uncommon as less people read. Hunt sees this shift as a “looming danger” for the future generations.

“It blunts the possible richness that they could have by reading good literature. Generally, deep literacy allows one to perceive and function effectively in society,” he said.

Something I was curious about was his opinion on the newer forms of reading that have been introduced over the past decade or so. Audiobooks and reading electronically are new ways to read, but are they as legitimate in his eyes?

“They are legitimate, but less rich,” Hunt said. “To use Nicolas Carr’s analogy, the difference between jet skiing on the surface of knowledge and scuba diving into the depths of knowledge.”

I am not sure if I entirely agree with him here. While audiobooks and reading online have never worked for me, I know that they absolutely do for some people. For example, my roommate listens to an audiobook and follows along with a physical copy. While it may seem unnecessary to some, he claims that it keeps him more focused on his task. The question then becomes which is more important: how something is read or what is retained from it? Are both equally valuable? The answer will definitely vary for some people, and I don’t think one is necessarily right or wrong.

Hunt used a metaphor that I really connected with. He said that reading allows you to see the world in “vivid color.” I cannot describe it better than that. Not every book is going to change your life, but to add to his metaphor, I think every book adds to the color spectrum in a way. Even if you read a book you do not like, at least you read it. You can think critically about the book, then formulate an argument against it. If you happen to like a book, then it made your life a little brighter for that time. Unfortunately, it seems like there is a growing majority of people that choose to live in black and white.

Hope Miller
Hope Miller is a student pursuing a masters of art in professional writing degree at Carnegie Mellon University. She is also an alumna of Waynesburg University.

Miller, like Hunt, gave me two recommendations for one book everyone should read; however, both books have very different roles.

“The first book is Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible,’” she said. “It is one of my favorite plays, and I think that the themes have not lost their value with time. It is also not overly complicated and the plot keeps your attention.”

While the first book is more of a recommendation for leisure reading, the second one is a recommendation for those that want to improve their writing skills.

“If you want to improve writing, ‘Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace’ by Joseph Williams is a great read,” Miller said. “We are currently using it in a class I am taking, and it has opened my eyes to the little things that can give my writing an edge. The little things are what have made me think the hardest, and I will say, it has infected my brain to the point that I can’t write anything without overanalyzing it for clarity and cohesion.”

As someone who loves writing, I have already added this book to my list of future things to read. Books that are solely devoted to teaching concepts without any kind of story tend to bore me, but this one does sound interesting.

Now, up to this point, I have been presenting literature as inherently good. Or, at the very least, superior to other forms of media. However, Miller disagrees with that stance.

“I do not think that reading is the gold standard of communication,” she said. “The strategies for effective communication should influence the audience regardless of the method of communication. Reading or books or text should not be seen as the only respectable way to gain information.”

As much as I hate reading that statement, I cannot bring myself to disagree with it. Literature is just one way of conveying a message. If other methods work better for different situations, why bother with the written word? For example, if I’m trying to construct something, I don’t want to read a manual that is exclusively words. I would vastly prefer to use a manual with a lot of pictures or a simple YouTube video. I suppose it just depends on what information you happen to be looking for at any given time.

She went on to explain how she believes young people aren’t reading less, they’re just reading differently. She said that while young people may not read books as much, they’re consuming a lot of social media posts and messages which require a separate set of skills.

“Those pieces of text are far smaller and require faster interpretation,” Miller said.

She believes that schools need to teach books that are easily applicable to students’ lives.

“Students need to be taught why reading and interpreting books that are almost 100 years old is meaningful and how that can be applied to the communication climate they are living in,” Miller said.

I agree with her point there. It’s already a herculean effort to get some students to read, so they should be given books that won’t waste their time with outdated values or advice. That being said, what qualifies as outdated enough to not be used will vary from instructor to instructor. Like seemingly everything involving the current state of literature, there’s no blanket statement to fix everything.

If there’s one thing I learned by talking to all three people, it’s that literature means something different to everyone. Reading is a deeply personal experience that can leave a lasting impact on those who do it.

I’ve never seen the value of reading as what you get at the end. You can easily cheat and skip right to the last page (which I hope you didn’t do for this article). I see the true value of reading as the experience you get along the way as you journey through the pages of something new.