Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! is a collection of essays by a variety of writers, publishers and scientists in defence of reading in the age of distraction, specifically of reading the printed book in an age where everything is turning digital.
These essays were really inspiring and changed the way I thought about reading, whether through scientific discoveries or logical arguments. There are a few essays which I found truly outstanding. Tim Parks does a brilliant job of critiquing the way we are taught to think about books since our schooldays. We learn to read for acquisition of knowledge rather than for pleasure, reading just so we can say we have read a certain author, whereas if we stop and think, we can become critical readers, enchanted by a book whilst also understanding its messages.
Nicholas Carr’s essay explores the effect that reading has on the brain, and made me completely reconsider reading: “we don’t just respond to fiction […] or receive it […] or appreciate it […] or seek its correct interpretation. We create our own version of the piece of fiction, our own dream, our own enchantment” (156). His essay explores the way that literature measurably affects our brains and our personalities, but changes people in different ways because each person responds differently to a story.
Carr argues convincingly against ‘enhanced’ digital books. In his opinion, multimedia distractions are fundamentally opposed to the calm that is needed for immersive reading. Books are thought of as passive, only just being made ‘interactive’ with digital editions, but he argues that books have always been interactive, as readers’ brain patterns mimic the action in the story as they read: “[research psychologists at Washington University in St Louis] found […] that ‘readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative’” (157).
Jeanette Winterson reminds us that reading is relatively new: “mass literacy doesn’t really start until the mid-nineteenth century, and we have had an uneasy relationship with reading ever since. […] We had a strong oral tradition in the north of England, and people often forget that not being able to read or not reading, even fifty years ago, let alone a hundred years ago, was very different from not reading now” (147-148).
Overall, while a couple of the essays really grabbed me, I felt that this book was preaching to the converted. Although it had a colourful and eye-catching cover, and a commanding title, I doubt whether anybody who does not already hold reading to be in some way sacred would pick it up anyway. As somebody who loves reading, I found some interesting points, but I still feel that people who never pick up a book would feel no more inclined to pick up this one.
Related article: Psychologists Discover How People Subconsciously Become Their Favorite Fictional Characters. MedicalDaily.com, May 14, 2012.
Barzillai, Mirit; Carmen Callil; Nicholas Carr; Jane Davis; Mark Haddon; Blake Morrison; Tim Parks; Michael Rosen; Zadie Smith; Jeanette Winterson; Dr Maryanne Wolf. Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! London: Random House, 2011.