In Defense of Books

Over the past few months, I have been doing a lot of thinking about reading—particularly about reading books. This was brought to my attention again last week when I interviewed Dr. Ben Carson for a series of video broadcasts on the topic of leadership, which I did for the Chick-fil-A Leadercast.

A Young Boy Reading Outside - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/NickS, Image #2013115

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/NickS

Dr. Carson was raised in extreme poverty by a single mother. As a grade school student, he experienced difficulty academically, eventually falling to the bottom of his class. His mother, who was working two to three jobs, became alarmed. She did not want her sons to drop out of school, believing that education was the only way they would escape a life of poverty.

She began to notice that the wealthy families she worked for watched little television. Instead, they spent their time reading books. As a result, she sold her television and insisted her sons read two library books a week, writing a book report on each one. She would then review the reports, make marks on them, and assign two more books. Several years later, to his surprise, Dr. Carson discovered that his mother couldn’t even read.

In the interview, Dr. Carson said to me, “Everything changed when I began to read. I started to see myself as a smart person who could learn anything. The whole world opened up to me.”

Indeed it did.

He graduated from Yale with a degree in psychology and then went on to medical school at the University of Michigan. He completed an internship in general surgery and a residency in neurological surgery at Johns Hopkins.

Today, Dr. Carson is Professor of Neurosurgery, Oncology, Plastic Surgery, and Pediatrics
at Johns Hopkins. He has authored over 100 neurosurgical publications, along with three best-selling books, and has been awarded 38 honorary doctorate degrees and dozens of national merit citations, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

These would be impressive accomplishments for anyone, but especially so because of his background. And this all happened, according to Dr. Carson, because his mother insisted that he read books.

Despite what many pundits are saying today, reading is not dead, nor are books. Certainly, big changes are underway, especially in the way books are delivered to readers. But reading itself is alive if not altogether well. It is not going away. At least, not any time soon.

I don’t say this as a hopeless Luddite, trying to preserve my own economic interest. At Thomas Nelson, we have embraced digital books. We have led our industry segment in terms of digital delivery. In fact, I personally now consume most of my books in digital form.

But this doesn’t change my commitment to or belief in the value of books. However, in using this term, “books,” I mean something very specific. I am not referring exclusively to ink printed on paper and bound between two covers—that’s simply a delivery mechanism.

Instead, I am referring to long-form, text-based content, regardless of how it is delivered to its audience. A book might be a printed book, a digital book, or even an audio book. Regardless, it is still a book. And, I still believe in the power of books to transform individuals, communities, and, indeed, entire civilizations.

As much as I may enjoy magazine articles, blogs, television broadcasts, and movies, I can’t make the same claim about them. By and large, I don’t believe they have the same kind of transformative impact. Granted, there might be an exception here and there, but the kind of transformation I am talking about requires a more sustained argument—or story. This is precisely what books are designed to deliver.

And, no, they don’t need to be enhanced with multimedia bells and whistles to make them compelling. While this may be useful in certain types of reference works, I don’t think good writing needs it. Great writing definitely doesn’t require it.

This is precisely where I believe book publishers sell short their primary audience. Serious readers—the kind who read several books a month—pride themselves in their ability to follow extended arguments and enroll their imagination in the reading experience.

Most serious readers I know see these other elements as distractions or fluff, primarily designed to seduce non-readers into doing something they would otherwise not do—read a book. While I am all for expanding the market and bringing more non-readers into the fold, I don’t believe we do that by adding multimedia elements to most books.

In fact, I think by doing so, we might actually be sowing the seeds of our own demise. And here I am not speaking just of book publishers; I believe something more important is at stake.

If we can’t engage people in extended conversations that require serious reflection, debate, or story-telling, then our civilization will simply revolve around entertainment. Worse, as Neil Postman noted more than two decades ago, amusement will become the ultimate value against which everything else is measured (see Amusing Ourselves to Death).

I believe the best way to combat this trend is to write and publish the very best books we can. I am not willing to throw in the towel and cave to the latest fad. I do believe our delivery methods can and will change. But I still believe there is great value in long-form, text-based content.

Postscript: By the way, Joel J. Miller, one of our VPs at Thomas Nelson made a similar argument on his blog a few days ago.

Question: Do you agree or disagree?
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  • http://www.aloe-vera.org David H.

    The reading of books, actually printed on paper, for general information and leisure is becoming a lost art. I'm all for e-technology, but there's just something about a good book.

    - David

  • http://www.scottvandam.com Scott Van Dam

    Great Post Michael! I have to agree that books are one of the few communication vehicles that simply allow me to learn, think, contemplate and unwind. As a Manager of a software business I am constantly disrupted by noise, whether it is emails, text messages, twitter feeds, blogs to read. One of the few ways that I can do my serious thinking is when I have a good book in my hands. Distractions turned off (Just me, my book and my own thoughts and reflections) Nothing could be better!

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  • http://www.actioninternational.org/stewart Brian Stewart

    Speaking of books, Thomas Nelson author Donald Miller did a blog post mentioning a Thomas Nelson book "Living the Life You Were Meant to Live."

    He included a link to that book's page on Amazon.com but the book is out of print and only used copies are available, starting at $39! No digital book available.

    I would have bought that book, on Miller's recommendation. Perhaps other readers of his blog would have done so as well. There must be *some* way to guarantee that Thomas Nelson titles are readily available and affordable, even out of print titles.

    In a doucmentary for Coca-Cola, I heard their Director of Sales for Africa say that their goal is to keep Coke "within an arm's reach of desire." I encourage Thomas Nelson to adopt that and make sure that when I want to buy a book they have published I can do it easily and affordably.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/christianne118 Christianne

    Your argument in this post reminds me of an article I read last year about the currency of books — that they engage the imagination and require focus in a way not much else in the world does these days. Great read, which you can access here.

    I, too, think the ability to focus and sustain attention to a long-form story or idea is essential to the life of a civilization. If we cannot do that anymore, we will become a short-sighted people, unable to hold the weight of world-sized matters … and then we will find ourselves intensely vulnerable. I haven't studied history as much as I ought to have, but I can't help but wonder if this is what happened to the fall of the Roman Empire.

    More than the socio-political perspective you've offered here, I take from this post the simple invitation to read again. I don't read as many books these days as I used to, and I used to devour them pell-mell. I can feel the lack of them in my life. I can feel the lack of them in my soul. Thanks, Michael, for the reminder this gave to me of how much I love to engage the long form.

  • http://www.watchingthegame.typepad.com/ jlj

    You are spot on. Books are critical. I worry for our kids and their lack of exposure to the written word, especially in sustained narrative forms. In this age of rapid-fire communication, texts, tweets, g-chats, and seemingly short attention spans, I've found that young people are nonetheless hungry for stories. They still want to be exposed to language that is skillfully crafted into compelling, humorous, poignant narratives. Deep down, human beings crave the written and spoken word – the idea that is thoughtfully developed, the problem that is carefully explained. I like to think that good old-fashioned storytelling, true eloquence, and persuasive writing will never become obsolete. Such qualities are essential to our well being, maybe even our survival.

    Nothing quite compares to the tactile feel of a well-bound book, but delivery method isn't really the issue here. I think we're talking about story, narrative, art, and the medium of words. We're talking about our fundamental need to articulate what's going on within us and around us. We're talking about intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual yearning. It's our obligation as leaders, writers, and parents to nurture these important needs and longings, not just in ourselves but in our children too.

  • http://www.watchingthegame.typepad.com/ jlj

    You are spot on. Books are critical. I worry for our kids and their lack of exposure to the written word, especially in sustained narrative forms. In this age of rapid-fire communication, texts, tweets, g-chats, and seemingly short attention spans, I've found that young people are nonetheless hungry for stories. They still want to be exposed to language that is skillfully crafted into compelling, humorous, poignant narratives. Deep down, human beings crave the written and spoken word – the idea that is thoughtfully developed, the problem that is carefully explained. I like to think that good old-fashioned storytelling, true eloquence, and persuasive writing will never become obsolete. Such qualities are essential to our well being, maybe even our survival.

  • http://whatbillthinks.com Bill Bean

    I'm a book lover (and ex-bookseller). Love the feel, smell, etc… However, just got a new Sony Reader for my birthday. I'm going to give the digital thing a try. Since I'm very tactile I don't think I'll give up physical books, regardless, but it could curtail some of my buying habits.

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  • Yetunde

    I agree with this thoughtful post. Dr. Carson's Mom understood the importance of being well read. It's heartbreaking to think of all the young kids that don't have a wise mentor to pull them off of social media and balance their steady stream of entertainment with the great books. Reading the great books expanded my horizons and exposed me to ideas I had never encountered before. We need to make sure people have access to the tools they need to increase their literacy. Increased literacy is good for the individual's welfare and is good for society. I think public education originated with Christians who wanted to educate the masses so they could read the Bible, the Book of books. Of course, it takes more time and energy to read a whole book instead of a previously digested summary or soundbite from a media outlet. But in the long run, it's the informed individuals who will see through the bias,propaganda, and indoctrination that others parrot and willl be able to think for themselves about the issues of the day.
    Blessings to you

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  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/vikpowell Victor Powell

    Yes, yes, and yes. The reasons why I write is because I wish to do for others as done for me through reading great stories by good writers that motivated me and taught me how to dream.

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  • Kathleenktrt

    What a wondeful article! It supports everythinig I have alwasy believed about reading and books in general. Growing up in an poor, abusive household, reading became the only thing that gave me hope. I could go somewhere else, be someone else. Ironically, my parents were big readers and while it hadn’t helped them career-wise, it was something they both felt was important. Maybe if they hadn’t both been poor, brought up in ignorance and addicts reading would have guided me toward a sussessful career.  But it saved me, nonetheless. My siblings who weren’t readers have led chatic, purposeless lives of addiction, relationship drama and poverty.

    I don’t make much money, and I scramble to pay bills. But I write, make art and read. My life has purpose-for me-and I know if I couldn’t read, couldn’t get my hands on a book, I would feel the same emptiness my siblings feel but haven’t identified.

  • Kathleenktrt

    OOPS. Here’s my comment with corrections. My response was interrupted by my cat jumping on the keyboard and off the comment went without corrections. Sigh.

    What a wonderful article! It supports everything I have always believed about reading and books in general. Growing up in an poor, abusive household, reading became the only thing that gave me hope. I could go somewhere else, be someone else. Ironically, my parents were big readers and while it hadn’t helped them career-wise, it was something they both felt was important. Maybe if they hadn’t both been poor, brought up in ignorance and addicts reading would have guided me toward a sussessful career. But it saved me, nonetheless. My siblings who weren’t readers have led chatic, purposeless lives of addiction, relationship drama and poverty.
    I don’t make much money, and I scramble to pay bills. But I write, make art and read. My life has purpose-for me-and I know if I couldn’t read, couldn’t get my hands on a book, I would feel the same emptiness my siblings feel but haven’t identified.