Reading has always seemed to have an aura of intellect and culture around it. Parents and educators fear for the development of children who to prefer watch TV or play video games rather than read. New acquaintances look impressed when they meet someone who says they read of their own accord. And readers themselves sometimes look down on non-readers. A societal consensus maintains that reading is a better way to spend free time than just about anything else. However, if we look closely, we can see that this assumption is not necessarily self-evident.
Interestingly, reading is typically contrasted with “useless” activities or activities where people do not seem to produce anything. Watching TV and playing video games are obvious culprits for “wastes of time.” However, I have even seen one reader speak with contempt of adults who color. Such adults “aren’t doing anything.” The implied contrast is that readers are doing something. But what?
The placing of reading on a pedestal might be said to date back at least to the Victorian era, when Matthew Arnold published in 1869 his Culture and Anarchy. Culture, especially literature, was supposed to save Victorian society from vulgarity and moral degeneracy. By reading and engaging with ideas, an individual could improve themselves and thus improve their society. Arnold’s ideas continue to influence our thoughts on reading today as defenders of literature argue that it can make individuals into better critical thinkers and more empathetic people.
Such arguments, however, assume that readers are always reading actively, that they are engaging with texts, thinking about them, searching for their strengths and weaknesses, considering where they agree with texts and where they diverge from texts. In reality, we cannot know that any given reader is doing this when reading. A person who watches TV mindlessly could also read a book mindlessly. (And, of course, a person who reads actively could also watch TV actively.) The act of reading is not inherently beneficial; it is how one reads that makes reading potentially worthwhile.
Assuming that reading automatically grants individuals culture and improves their intellect is misleading. It makes reading into an act of magic that requires little effort from the reader. But unless readers are reading actively, their hobby is not necessarily more beneficial than any other hobby.