Is Reading a Waste of Time?

Digging around in the archives of my old online journal... I found this entry from June 28, 2002. When I put it out in public – a lot of people had a strong opinion on this question – nobody thought that reading was a waste of time.  Despite this public consensus,  I still haven’t answered the question to my own satisfaction.

For example, despite the fact I’m a third of the way through a Hemingway novel, I haven’t had the time to pick up my Kindle in the last three days.

Nick reading Harry Potter.

Nick reading Harry Potter. Is this the first one?


There’s a kind of comfort in returning at the end of the day to the same people and watching them enter their lives more deeply.

—-Tobias Wolfe, on the novel

I came across this quote… about novels. After reading and thinking about it I realized how true it was.

For the last few months I’ve been reading collections of short stories or slim novellas, exclusively. Time has been very short. Plus, I’m working on a handful of stories myself – trying to get them ready to send off – and wanted to read the form and keep my mind and pen open to the myriad possibilities.

I felt the urge to bite into something more substantial, so I scanned my case of recently purchased, but unread, tomes and pulled out The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. I’m not interested in the media hoo-ha concerning this book and the author’s relationship with Oprah Winfry. I read some glowing reviews, though, so I thought it might be worth the read.

I’m maybe two-thirds through and the book is good. It started better than it is right now – Franzen seems to be repeating themes and situations, plus the center section feels a little padded – but it is well-written, with compelling characters. You can’t ask for much more.

What has taken me off guard is how much I’m enjoying reading the book. I catch myself looking forward to getting home, getting my stuff done, spending some time with Nick and Lee, getting in my daily writing, then settling down with the book (if I’m not too exhausted to stay awake). It feels like a deserved reward at the end of a long day.

It feels like a second life. I never thought about how the characters in a full-blown novel come, over the time it takes to get through the book, to occupy your imagination, your life of the mind. They become imaginary friends, shadow family members – unreal characters that, because they exist only within your own personal gray matter, share an odd intimacy with you.

The best thing is that, because they are only shadows of text and imagination, they are harmless. This second family can be as colorful as they want to be without causing problems in the real world. The more outrageous, dysfunctional, and insane, the better.

You can have flawed, unfaithful, even evil friends and relatives – with all the amusement that entails – but without them showing up at all hours to call in an old favor and demand you hide them from the police/mob/irate former lovers.

I used to buy books based on bulk. I’d dig through the used bookstores looking for massive tomes at low prices – sort of a cost per page value basis. I guess I was thinking about how much enjoyment – maximizing the time would I get from each book.

Over the years, I moved away from this philosophy of reading as my life became busier and busier and my time on earth becomes shorter and shorter.

I know a lot of successful people, type “A” personalities that are always rushing around getting things done, making lots of money, or fighting back the entropy that constantly attacks their living spaces. Most of them don’t read much. They view reading as a useless, frivolous, and wasteful activity.

Is reading a waste of time? It doesn’t accomplish anything. I consider watching television a waste of time (though I do watch too much, of course) – how is reading any different? How about going to films? Is that a waste? How is that different than TV?

If reading is a waste of time why do we work so hard to get our kids to do it? Fret so much when they would rather play with their friends – interact with real people rather than stick their solitary nose in a book?

Is reading a waste of time?

Are fish sticks considered seafood?

5 responses to “Is Reading a Waste of Time?

  1. Pingback: What I learned this week, March 23, 2012 | Bill Chance

  2. Pingback: Great Big Books | Bill Chance

  3. There are very few opportunities in life to rub shoulders with the people who are truly the best and the brightest that humanity has produced. The CEOs of the most prestigious companies that subsequently manage to collapse their company through gross financial mismanagement are often portrayed as the best and the brightest before the fact, but are soon revealed to be some upper class moron that was given the reins by virtue of their birth and not much else. And nonetheless, they control a lot of people’s paychecks.

    Politicians are often quite good at misquoting and reinterpreting statements made by founding fathers of the country and experts to serve their own misguided agenda. Sometimes it’s useful to go back and read some of what Jefferson and Hamilton wrote, sometimes it’s useful to read the historical context to learn what really happened. To go back and read some of the works of Hans Christian Anderson, or Mark Twain, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. All of this can give you context regarding the human condition that, for political reasons, they won’t teach you in school.

    You can learn what frustrated Einstein, and what exactly was it that possessed Benjamin Franklin to fly a kite in a lightning storm? How often did Tesla nearly electrocute himself? You can learn about political opportunism, like what happened after Reichstag burnt down in 1933? What does that event have in common with more recent events in history? Are the two somehow related?

    Anyways, reading let’s you learn some interesting information that you wouldn’t learn otherwise, through TV or the internet or most anything else.

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