Experience offers proof on every hand that vigorous mental life may be but one side of a personality, of which the other is moral barbarism.
— George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft
It is one thing in practice not to read books, or not to read them as much as one might wish. But it is something else entirely to despise the act in principle. Identifying as someone who categorically rejects books suggests a much larger deficiency of character. As Ye once riffed (prophetically) during a live performance, “I get my quotes from movies because I don’t read, or from, like, go figure, real life or something. Like, live real life; talk to real people; get information; ask people questions; and it was something about, ‘You either die a superhero or you live to become the villain.’” As clever as that sounds, receiving all of your information from the SBF ideal of six-paragraph blog posts, or from the movies and random conversations that Ye prefers, is as foolish as identifying as someone who chooses to eat only fast food.
Many books should not have been published, and writing one is an excruciating process full of failure. But when a book succeeds, even partially, it represents a level of concentration and refinement—a mastery of subject and style strengthened through patience and clarified in revision—that cannot be equaled. Writing a book is an extraordinarily disproportionate act: What can be consumed in a matter of hours takes years to bring to fruition. That is its virtue. And the rare patience a book still demands of a reader—those precious slow hours of deep focus—is also a virtue.
I would defend the practice of reading simply because it is, so to speak, my home. As Michael Oakeshott put it, “What is esteemed is the present; and it is esteemed not on account of its connections with a remote antiquity, nor because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity.” I have always been a reader and always will be, and as such, the aggressively illiterate types that Williams talks about are beneath my contempt — although, I would add, I didn’t need to know that Kanye West, Sam Bankman-Fried, and Sean McElwee hated books to gauge their lack of character; that should have been obvious to anyone beforehand. All that said, though, I have no desire to proselytize on behalf of the “virtue” of concentration and refinement, let alone witness to the heathens. I know many people who will cheerfully inform you that they haven’t read a book since high school, and yet they are still good people in all the ways that matter. Conversely, I would just point to any number of authors and academics as proof that a lifetime’s immersion in literature doesn’t necessarily do anything to develop character or general intelligence. By all means, spend your time reading. Just don’t fall prey to the conceit (that particularly seems to afflict writers for the Atlantic) that you’re “progressing” in any way by doing it.