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Reading in the Digital Age

Writer Joseph Epstein argues compellingly on behalf of the novel.

How has the Internet affected the way we read? How many people in your life read novels and serious works of nonfiction on a regular basis? Even for avid readers, the online world is a constant and appetizing distraction. News clips, fiery journalism, and endless reels of photos, memes, and videos are at the average American’s easy disposal 24/7. Is reading deeply, then, outdated? Or even worse: is it even possible anymore?

True, these are not easy times to advocate for the reading life, but books still sell despite the primacy of Internet reading, and perhaps now more than ever, our digitalized brains need good novels.

Why the Novel?

Joseph Epstein, an essayist and longtime professor at Northwestern University, wrote a book this year in defense of the novel, calling it the supreme literary art form. That’s high praise! I went to a creative writing program (which Epstein, ironically, thinks can sometimes do more harm than good) where poetry seemed to claim that title, but Epstein makes a compelling case for poetry’s nebulous sibling. He writes in his long essay The Novel, Who Needs It? that we need the novel because this particular form, at its best, is “the book of life.” What medium has more freedom and capacity to deal with morality, desire, conflict, adventure, intrigue, and mystery than the novel? In addition, what else can come even remotely close to exploring the inner lives of characters? Epstein writes,

What the novel does better than any other form is allow its readers to investigate the inner, or secret, life of its characters. Often this life is not entirely known to the characters themselves, but it is known to the novelist, or had better be if the novel is to succeed. Nor is it going too far to say that we often come to know characters in novels better than we do friends or even family. The novel is the genre of intimacy (p. 55).

-Joseph Epstein, The Novel, Who Needs it?

Novels give us insight into the minds and lives of human beings and can enrich our experiences of the real world. They can also be riveting and entertaining. If a novelist seeks to moralize before entertaining, even the moral quality of the novel will suffer. The morality of a good novel should emerge from the fabric of the choices, thoughts, and relationships of the characters. This is what Mind Matters contributor Wesley J. Smith and the world-renowned novelist Dean Koontz discussed just last year on Smith’s Humanize podcast. In the classic words of the ancient thinker Horace, art should both delight and instruct.

To Phone or Not to Phone

The problem is, however, that we’re profoundly distracted. We’re losing our ability to sit quietly in a room and read for long periods of time. At least, I know I am. Before I got a smartphone, I could read for hours and not once worry about what I was missing out in the digital jungle. Not so, anymore. I have to turn the phone off and put it in another room to get any meaningful reading done. Epstein goes on later in the essay to write,

The Internet, something about the very nature of the pixels in which its words and numbers appear, both encourages skimming and slights careful reading. Who, after all, would prefer to read a poem or a short story online rather than on the page? Reading online, one tends to be less interested in all those details and small but important touches that make for interesting writing.

Reading isn’t instantly gratifying the way these dopamine-inducing technologies are, but the rewards are worth it. Psychologist Jett Stone has researched the benefits of reading and writes in Psychology Today,

Perhaps reading fiction belongs in the everyday self-care lineup alongside fostering deeper adult friendships, fitness, nutritionpsychotherapy, or meditation—especially for men looking to prioritize their emotional health. While Renaissance men eagerly read fiction, modern men seem less interested in this pursuit.

-Jett Stone, Why Reading Fiction Is Essential for Men Today | Psychology Today

There are probably no simple solutions to the lack of fiction reading (besides simply promoting it) but it’s important to recall its benefits and do what we can to reinvigorate the place of the novel in our society. Our digital, lonely, tribalized worlds might just be better off for it. And nothing beats reading a story like War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov or The Lord of the Rings. If you’re not a reader, I dare you to crack open Tolkien’s masterpiece. You may never look back into the abyss of the Internet ever again.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

Reading in the Digital Age