Books Aren’t Search Engines

I’ve gotten some interesting criticisms of my recent series of blog posts on the importance of reading challenging and problematic literature. The most common is along these lines: “you can get information that is just as good from non-problematic sources, so why not just do that?”

This usually comes up in the context of reading Jordan Peterson and other figures (of whom, I repeat, I am not a fan.) Some of his advice is good, but it is also fairly generic, so why get it from him when you could get it from a perfectly acceptable source elsewhere?

While I understand this sentiment and even think it is appropriate in certain situations (if you are trans, reading a transphobe can be triggering and unhealthy) I think it is also a radical misunderstanding of the nature of books.

This criticism seems to view the printed page as the analog version of the search engine. This makes sense to me: I think we tend to interpret all media through the lens of the predominate medium. Authors are therefore nothing more than repositories of information, and you can easily trade one out for another if you find one distasteful. Reading books becomes about acquiring information, rather than the formation of a soul.

I think this is an enormously impoverished view of reading. For centuries, humanity has read because it is a full-being exercise that challenges, instructs, transports, destroys, and builds. The act of reading is less about acquiring information, and more about building the cathedral of the self.

An inevitable part of building the self through reading is to read books that confront us with the ambiguity of human nature or that challenge and frighten us. Of course, everyone has to determine what level of discomfort is right for them — I don’t delve into the work on reparative therapy, for example, because I’ve already experienced it and would just find it traumatizing. But inevitably, in the pursuit of wisdom, we must confront discomfort and cognitive dissonance. I contend that books are the safest way to build the soul while remaining out of physical harm. I am, at all times, in control: I can put the book down whenever I want, no matter how challenging it might be.

Interestingly, unless I’m working through a manual of some kind, I can’t think of a single book I’ve read merely for information. If I wanted information, I’d use google. Instead, I read a book for the experience of reading it, and the practice of being a reader.

Thinking of books as the paper version of a search engine reduces it to the most inconsequential, if still helpful, benefit. Books — even books that we disagree with — are so much more.

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