Why we read

Most contemplative writing is an attempt at self exploration. It might not be posed as such or many a times even intended as such but that is pretty much the truth of it. As anyone who has ever attempted to write fiction will know, the fantastical lives that weave are just manifestations of our own psyche. Thus in every piece of non scientific writing there is the intelligible reflection of the self. So while writing might be therapeutic and in some cases essential for the writer, what joys does the final product hold for the reader? Fiction has the potential for entertainment and thus an explicable allure but what about the other kinds of literature which populates shelves in airport bookstores?

Given the era of self publishing and internet enabled writing the number of published works out there for consumption is the highest it has ever been in human civilization. Does writing of this sort follow standard economic production functions? What role does demand have to play in the considerations of those who generate supply? Surely a writer lives and dies in the hope of generating demand by first supplying a worthy work? Given the constraints of time, conflicting demands on attention and a slow growth rate in literacy, the consumer market for your average literary work is surely not unlimited. Also the prices of books and content are hardly proportional to their quality. In fact price is an inverse function of popularity, a metric which has a debatable relationship with quality. While many authors shall invariably pander to what is current and interest worthy, others might not find such subjects inclusive of their own selves. The very best of authors that the world has seen have been those who have shaped the status quo instead of joining it.

But the initial question still remains ignored in my ever meandering manner of writing. Why do people read stuff like this? Opinionated, non-factual strings of words stemming from the ego of a stranger with the audacity to presume some higher wisdom? One explanation, the more palatable one, is that they do so to gather some form of a second opinion on the broader questions in life. It might also be a mechanism for gauging the consensus on a topic, for what is published has often met the approval of a couple of people in order to get there. The process of publishing and authoring in the traditional form still retains some form of polling for popularity in order to ensure commercial success. So by buying a work on a specific topic, even though it expresses only opinions, you get the opportunity to hear those of a few, if not many. The alternative which is more frightening but perhaps closer to the truth must also be considered. One in which the consumption of the written word of others is done not for corroboration or comparison with the thoughts of oneself. But for the filling of the void which results from having none of your own.

Much of what we have to think and say stems from some initial seed of unoriginal thought. The avid thinker and reader would generally find his or her ideas subjected to constant molding, the shape determined in some sense by independent thought. However there is the risk of the lazy consumer being tied to a single author’s opinion due to a lack of literary adventurism. More alarming is the kind of content eater who resigns his dietary decisions to the populous making little conscious effort of his own. The decisions to consume and inculcate are driven then by forces independent of the content and dependent on its public reception. With over indulgence in social media and in an atmosphere ripe with the desire for constant approval, this risk runs high. Reading opinions is like having conversations with other people who you are not likely to meet face to face. Whenever I read any work I find myself mouthing a response to the idea expressed either in agreement or not. I rationalize why the author must think what he does if I disagree with him or silently admire my own thoughts for being in tandem with a generally well appreciated mind.

Sadly I too suffer from the curse of populism over content. I seldom find myself crawling the web for quality blogs and resort to the reading of only that which has elevated itself through the ranks of social media. While such a method is not uncommon or even of concern to most, to me while being second nature it is not overly pleasant. Wilde’s dictum of ‘Everything popular being wrong’ lurks in my mind constantly. I even spurn that which is good but has the misfortune of being popular. In conclusion perhaps the choice of reading is driven by how you perceive the author, as greater, lesser, equal or just different from you. It is after all a question of who you would listen to if they chose to spoke, luckily perhaps they don’t get to choose who they speak to.


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