Reading and…Stockholm Syndrome?

by: Andrew S

May 21, 2011

I have something to admit, dear readers. I am one of those people who Don’t Read. You know these people. These are the people who, on Facebook (and on MySpace in the past), fill up their favorite books sections with simple words like “Don’t read LOL”.

Favorite Books Section

I like to think that I’m a little bit better than those people. After all, reading takes up most of my day. In fact, if you were to look at my actual Facebook information, you would find that my TV shows section is barren, and my movies section has one lonely only (Inception) that I’m not quite sure I would say is my “favorite”.

The Lifecycle of Software ObjectsMy Books section, on the other hand, actually has a few books (Invisible Man, The Good Earth) that I 1) actually read during middle or high school (any actual reading done during this time period is a triumph) and 2) wasn’t totally disengaged from, other books (Brave New World, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Hyperion Cantos), that I read “on my own” and liked well enough to read “on my own,” other books still (The Unvarnished New Testament, Freakonomics, The World is Flat) that probably don’t count because they aren’t (or at least, their authors didn’t plan them to be) fiction, and finally, my favorite in the entire world (The Lifecycle of Software Objects) that doesn’t count because it is maybe not a full-sized novel.

OK, so maybe I have a very precarious definition of reading. I think that would be fair. It seems that others do too. As Nicholas Carr quotes in his “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, when studies study online research habits, they are clear to note the difference between reading “in the traditional sense” and reading in the modern Google Age stupid way:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

The Guardian posted similarly about  a National Endowment for the Arts study:

Comparable non-events appear when you look at prose literacy levels in the adult population: in 1992, 43% of Americans read at an intermediate level; by 2003 the number was slightly higher at 44%. “Proficient” readers dropped slightly, from 15% to 13%. In other words, the distribution is basically unchanged – despite the vast influx of non-native English speakers into the US population during this period.

All of which raises an interesting question: if people are reading less, why haven’t scores dropped more dramatically? The answer gets to the most significant sleight of hand of the NEA study: its studies are heavily biased towards words on a printed page.

Odds are that you are reading these words on a computer monitor. Are you not exercising the same cognitive muscles because these words are made out of pixels and not little splotches of ink? According to the NEA you’re not, because in almost every study it cites, screen-based reading is excluded from the data. This is a preposterous omission, because of course the single most dramatic change in media habits over the past decade is the huge spike in internet activity.

Yes, we are reading in smaller bites on the screen, often switching back and forth between applications as we do it. A recent study by the British Library of onscreen research activities found that “new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ … ”

And of course we are writing more, and writing in public for strangers: novel readers may have declined by 10%, but the number of bloggers has gone from zero to 25 million. Simply excising screen-based reading from the study altogether is like doing a literacy survey circa 1500 and only counting the amount of time people spent reading scrolls.

Anyway, I’m not even sure if this is my soapbox for today. That soapbox, of course, would be the argument that we are simply moving from linear to networked thought, as Scott Karp suggested.

Instead, let’s simply concede that “reading,” for the purposes of this article, refers to reading in long-form…and in particular: novels. So reading non-fiction doesn’t count, and reading articles like this one here doesn’t count either.

So, I return to my premise:

I am one of those people who Don’t Read.

Now, to be sure, this still isn’t quite accurate. I do read…I’m going through A Song of Ice and Fire again (instead of watching the new HBO series). And this time, maybe I’ll get to reading A Feast for Crows?

But I still recognize a deep dark secret that I don’t really feel much pressure to keep to myself. I just don’t like reading all that much. I read in spite of the fact that the action is a filter between me and content.

Of all the essays I read in AP English back in high school, in the many practice tests we took, the one that truly resonated with me was a selection from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:

The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good…this writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing; it will take half an hour to pick up a writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and louds and softs.

Reading that in my senior year of high school — two months before graduation — felt like a cruel, yet strangely satisfying inside joke. That everyone (including CollegeBoard) knew this huge flaw of reading that I had known all along but didn’t want to admit it while they were trying to get us to read the “classics” and become informed readers and whatnot.

I am still skeptical of those who “read for fun.” Who are “absorbed” into books. I sometimes feel far more like Mark OConnell:

In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room.

Of course, I only discovered that article from a MetaFilter Discussion (gotta loved the networked internet thinking that is dumbing us down.) And here, I found those mythical people all over again: people who read because they like reading. Moreover, these people were appalled by those who treated reading as a crucible.

One interesting thought that came at several points in the discussion was that perhaps, even if the actual reading may not be enjoyable (for some people), people should do it anyway. As a kind of growing experience. Because even if one doesn’t like the story on page 1 (or page 601), maybe there is something gained from the experiencing of it.

So, I’m Andrew S., and I don’t like to read. How about you?

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27 Responses to Reading and…Stockholm Syndrome?

  1. shenpa warrior on May 21, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    What a relief. :)

    I don’t like to read either. At least, not in any spurt longer than a few minutes… actually, that’s one thing I LOVE about all the digital reading devices. Waiting in line, I can pull out my phone and read. Bored in class (or in Vernal) I can read from the same book on the laptop, and then do the same at home on the iPad… on which I can also play Angry Birds for a minute in between my three-minute reading stints.

    Most of what I read is non-fiction and related to my career, so the goal is overlearning. That takes very frequent, short spurts, reading over something again and again, highlighting, creating summaries, etc. I think at some point I forgot how to read fiction. The last fiction book I really invested in reading was “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, which I stayed up until 3 in the morning to finish. That is rare though.

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  2. Stephen Marsh on May 21, 2011 at 7:40 AM

    I would consider reading articles like this “reading.” Joyce — if reading tripe like that is “reading” then fewer people should read.

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  3. Elaine on May 21, 2011 at 10:01 AM

    I love to read. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

    And, you know, I’m fine with it if you don’t like to read. My issue is with the people who have given me a hard time all my life because I do like to read, and treat me like I’m some kind of freak because I do read, and enjoy doing it.

    I suspect, actually, that a lot of people who don’t like to read got that way because of some of the crap they had to read in school just because it was “classic”, you know, those books that are supposed to be good for you. Because, truthfully, a lot of those are really boring. As much as I love to read, I don’t read much so-called literary fiction and classics. I read genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries mostly) and a lot of non-fiction, because those are what interest me. I think if people would read what they find interesting and forget about what they “should” be reading, a lot more people would hate reading less.

    But, that’s just my opinion.

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  4. shenpa warrior on May 21, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    I actually liked a lot of those books we had to read in HS. I like the “idea” of reading as well. I’m just so impatient!

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  5. kuri on May 21, 2011 at 11:28 AM

    I love to read. I’ve read 50 to 100 books every year (except on my mission) since I was 6 years old. (I’m 49 now.)

    What I don’t get is people who watch three or four hours of TV every night. Talk about boring.

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  6. Andrew S on May 21, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    re 1:

    shenpa warrior,

    If I’m reading while doing something else (even while standing in line), then I probably won’t be processing whatever I’m reading well. I at least have to sit down. (So, a line with chairs, maybe?)

    re 2:


    I can jump on board with that.

    re 3:


    Yeah, I don’t see why people would give someone a hard time because they like to read. It seems to me that if someone has a preferred hobby, then that doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) degrade anyone else’s.

    Sometimes, I wonder if the required reading lists in school were more flexible and open, whether that would lead to a lot more people enjoying reading, or whether having very strict constraints can make *any* book read under those constraints into a chore.

    I mean, I have read some books since school on my own time…and they are definitely better reads. (Then again, maybe the second time’s the charm, since I’m not going into things completely blind.)

    re 4:

    I like the “idea” of reading as well. It’s just…words-on-page. Execution…

    re 5:


    The thing about TV, I think, is that it doesn’t involve a lot of effort. TV is an easy trance. *Even when the show is bad and boring*. But since I don’t have a TV for most parts of the year (and even when I do, I either don’t turn it on or don’t remember to pay attention to whatever is on), I guess I don’t fall into its wiles.

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  7. FireTag on May 21, 2011 at 1:44 PM

    Hmmm. Now I don’t know if I like to read or not. I’ve always got my nose in a book (eye sight permitting) or a computer screen, but I do really like to skip to the end of the story and imagine where it goes from there. So maybe what I really like to do is write — and reading is to writing what cooking is to eating.

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  8. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 21, 2011 at 2:37 PM

    I have to admit I still read a lot. Of course 90% of what I do at work is reading and writing, but I read for pleasure.

    One side effect is I rarely watch even an hour of television in a week. ;)

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  9. shenpa warrior on May 21, 2011 at 3:09 PM

    I’m jealous of Kuri. That is awesome.

    Watching TV alone is REALLY boring for me. I can’t sit through anything. I watch a lot with my wife though, or while doing the dishes, or homework (ESPECIALLY while writing papers, but then what’s on TV has to be something that can fade into the background, like watching the same ESPNEWS episode over and over again).

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  10. Dan on May 21, 2011 at 3:40 PM

    I love a good book and will plow through to the end. Last year I read the full Les Miserables and was mesmerized by the ideas and questions Hugo’s writing brought to my mind. Truly, one of the best books ever written. (the 1400 page version of course). I’m glad I read a lot back in my early years, because I love going back every now and then to the worlds I created in my mind from the stories others thought up in their minds. I love revisiting Robert Jordan (and look forward to that series finally FINALLY! ending). I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. A most fascinating read. He wrote a fantastic biography of John Rockefeller called Titan. So yeah, I love reading books. And as one who loves technology and the cool gadgets, I cannot get myself to read books past a few pages electronically. Just not even close to the same. Give me a book.

    (and ironically, in my playlist, The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” just came on) :)

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  11. FireTag on May 21, 2011 at 3:58 PM


    Since Robert Jordan already died and the franchise has passed to another author, it will NEVER be finished in your lifetime. Sort of like waiting for the Washington Capitals to win the Stanley Cup.

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  12. Dan on May 21, 2011 at 4:08 PM


    I’m quite certain Brandon Sanderson wants to finish the Wheel of Time. He just began his own Decalogy!

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  13. allquieton on May 21, 2011 at 4:21 PM

    Okay–why doesn’t nonfiction count as reading? I can see ruling out articles or how-to books, but what about history, biography/memoirs, science, philosophy?

    I spent years reading novels, but now mostly read tons of history and science. Just fascinates me more. And truth is stranger than fiction.

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  14. Andrew S on May 21, 2011 at 4:49 PM

    re 7:


    I love writing. I just fear that I will never be that great at it since I’m not as well-read. For blogging, it doesn’t matter, but for my soon-to-be-written fantasy-and-or-sci-fi magnum opus?

    re 13:


    I don’t know why; it just seems like when someone asks, “What books did you read?” and you start mentioning philosophical treatises, people look funny. At least, that’s what’s happened for me. Maybe I just hang out with bad people?

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  15. Stephen Marsh on May 21, 2011 at 8:32 PM

    Brandon Sanderson is doing an excellent job of tightening the series up too.

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  16. Emily on May 21, 2011 at 9:04 PM

    Audiobooks. Do they count? If I listened ALMOST all of Ulysses as an audiobook, do I get any credit?

    I made it through all of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on audio. While it was arguably deserving of much critical acclaim, I should get credit for how excruciatingly painful much of it was to listen to (a PERFECT example of Stockholm syndrome if ever there were). It was like watching a twelve-hour extended version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” (for the kids in the audience, that film was a classic portrayal of a married couple plunging into the dark depths of emotional cruelty, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.)

    I like to read but I much prefer to be read to. I spend a lot of time in my vehicle and it seems an excellent use of that space.

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  17. shenpa warrior on May 21, 2011 at 9:13 PM

    LOVE audiobooks. I had never thought of those as someone reading TO me. I like that. In that case, I love to (be) read (to).

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  18. Andrew S on May 21, 2011 at 9:40 PM

    re 16:


    I would like them to. Hearing is a lot better than reading for me.

    Unfortunately, when I’m hearing, I have to be 100% into it. I am terrible at multitasking and it REALLY shows when I’m listening to a podcast or music while trying to do something else.

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  19. Stephen Marsh on May 22, 2011 at 12:03 PM

    I’ve been reading young adult novels again, as my youngest daughter starts on a different wave of them than my oldest did. I read along to keep a feeling for what they are reading.

    Interesting stuff, all in all, sometimes.

    For some things I wrote, a very long time ago, for a mixed audience (a 12 year old daughter for the writing, some guys in their 50s and 60s for the settings) you can read:

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  20. hawkgrrrl on May 22, 2011 at 6:13 PM

    I like reading, but I also like to power scan non-fiction and the internet. I just love to devour information. I was quoting some archane book at a retreat once, and one of the people running the retreat said I talked about obscure things I’ve read the way some people talk about football. The person challenged me not to read anything for six months. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Life is too short. What if I need that six months of reading to further unlock its mysteries?

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  21. prometheus on May 22, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    I am an avid reader, and have been from a young age. (Although in fairness, I do have dry spells where I can’t seem to muster the effort to start anything.) In fact, my punishment as a child was never to be sent to my room, but to be sent outside. The horrors! :)

    My tastes generally run to children’s books and speculative fiction. When I get on a roll, I can polish off several hundred pages a day pretty easily, sometimes more for really compelling stuff (although that tends to leave me with a headache for the next few days).

    In short reading is a huge part of my life, and the fictional worlds I have visited, in some respects, are as real as the daily life I find myself in. I have learned and grown as a person because of the books I have read. Characters I have only met in books have ended up being role models for me. Different philosophies, different ways of thinking, different politics, history, all have been introduced to me through fiction.

    That being said, I totally get that one man’s hobby is another’s torture. Working out at the gym? Totally not my thing. :D

    I think it is key to not only recognize our differing tastes, but to *celebrate* them. I think that too often in our culture, we use differences to exclude and alienate rather than as cause for celebration. I know I fall prey to this kind of tribalism more than I wish I did.

    I also think there is some real meat on the bones of linear versus networked thought and the transition we are currently undergoing.

    Great post, Andrew!

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  22. jmb275 on May 23, 2011 at 8:25 AM

    I think I fall pretty much in line with Andrew S and shenpa warrior. It’s frustrating to me because I spend most of each day reading. But most of it is textbooks, and journal and conference articles. I especially hate reading technical writing (sorta strange I’m making a career of it). What that means is that I read a paper, then read it again, then realize I still missed part of the mathematics so I sometimes read parts of it again. Drives me crazy as sometimes I go home feeling like I haven’t done anything.

    I wish I had more time to read fiction. I don’t watch a lot of TV (well, not generally, but right now I’m on a “Dexter” kick).

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  23. mh on May 23, 2011 at 11:50 AM

    I hated reading in high school, because they made me read boring books. I generally did well in english class, except for tests on the books we were supposed to read. shakespeare was a foreign language to me, and I hated it. I did like mark twain, and I read a john steinbeck novel, but after that I pretty much hated reading.

    now that I can choose to read, I read a lot on mormon and religious history. I did read dan brown, so he is the only fiction writer I like (but notice it is religious fiction.)

    many of the ‘classics’ are boring.

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  24. Dan on May 23, 2011 at 2:28 PM


    Did you ever read The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers?

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  25. MH on May 23, 2011 at 10:00 PM

    Monte Cristo–yes, 3 Musketeers–no.

    I’m sure I will offend people who like the classics, but here goes anyway. In high school, I got through Monte Cristo as far as when he got thrown into the ocean in a body bag and escaped. I really didn’t like his attitude of vengeance (though it was understandable.) It would have been a better if he was more like the priest in Les Miserables (didn’t read that book, but saw the movie.) When I saw the Monte Cristo movie, I didn’t like it again. I’m not a fan of Monte Cristo at all.

    I just really don’t like fiction very much. I’m more of a fan of true life. I hated the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and even the Harry Potter books and/or movies. Give me science, history, or religion, and I’m much happier. True stories are much better, IMO.

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  26. Emily on May 25, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    MH #25 – Which versions of history and religion are you happier with? (Sorry, couldn’t help myself there). :)

    The best fiction reflects truths of life – as the Bishop of Digne in Les Miserables exemplified mercy and Javert exemplified justice – though for the record I started reading it and got only about as far as the first chapter. In The Road, mentioned by Adam F, the Man and Boy (father and son) characters are put into an environment that is so bleak and devoid of comfort that it seems a bit contrived – but the point of that is to ask the question whether a single human bond of love is reason enough to live and struggle to survive when there is absolutely no other reason. In that way it’s one of the truest stories you could ever read.

    All that said – I intend no criticism or disrespect of your reading preferences – I never read nor was interested in Monte Cristo or the Three Musketeers, and haven’t cracked open a single Harry Potter, for whatever that’s worth. I deeply appreciate anyone with a thirst for knowledge, regardless of whether the source(s) stem from historical fact, or fiction. I guess I have a much easier time trusting fiction, though. It doesn’t come with any expectation that I should take it literally.

    [If you really want to blow your mind on the issue of whether any recorded history is actually what happened, watch (or re-watch, if you’ve seen it) the movie “Rashomon” (Akiro Kurosawa). Four eyewitnesses to a crime have four different, conflicting versions of what happened, and it’s really impossible to tell if any of them are lying or just telling it like they saw it. It is fiction, yes, but “SCARY ACCURATE!” as they say on Facebook…]

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  27. […] whatever text I’m reading. I now understand what everyone who love reading gets out of it. This wasn’t the case even three months ago, of […]

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